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RV camping to support workforce housing?: Council considers solutions to Moab’s critical employee housing shortage

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  • 5 min to read

Lines stretch double their typical length, wait times have increased and short staffing seems to have become the norm at a number of local businesses and even government entities in Moab. Jobs have been offered only to be declined due to Moab’s critical shortage of affordable housing for employees, which the Moab City Council met to discuss at a pre-council workshop before their regular meeting on Tuesday.

Two resort communities in Colorado have passed temporary camping ordinances to bandaid their critical lack of affordable employee housing. Similar to Moab, “We’re Hiring” signs have hung fruitlessly on local businesses’ doors while potential workers struggle to find a place to live.

On July 7, the Town of Crested Butte, Colo. declared an affordable housing emergency. In response, the town council has allowed local workers to tent camp or park their mobile homes in residentially zoned private property until Oct. 15. All tents and mobile homes must adhere to safety guidelines, site plans and other standards after applying for a temporary camping permit.

The Ouray City Council passed a similar emergency ordinance allowing temporary recreational vehicle camping on private property for the local workforce. The ordinance states that as “the nation opens to business as usual and recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism is increasing but service industry employees are not reentering the workforce as expected.”

Ouray workers can apply for a temporary camping permit to park their RVs on private property until Nov. 19. Eligible RVs must have access to the Ouray’s water tap and a supply of electricity. No tent camping for local workers is allowed on private property in Ouray.

Moab may soon follow suit. City Planner Nora Shepard presented a number of potential housing solutions with an eye on the employees who keep the city running.

“There is no quick and easy fix to address employee housing in Moab,” Shepard said. “A lot of these are not quick fixes at all and will take time, energy and controversy.”

One impediment for affordable housing in the area has to do with Moab’s zoning laws. The R-3 zone is designated for high density residential development in the central part of the city, which includes one-household, two-household, three-household and four-household dwellings as well as apartment buildings and other related community facilities. Commercial and industrial uses are prohibited in R-3 zones.

Though the city would like to see increased high density housing in R-3 zones, many developers favor a more lucrative option: building luxury second homes.

In the same vein, existing trailer parks and employee housing blocks are feeling pressure to redevelop into high-end townhomes for secondary residences.

“That’s a trend that’s really disturbing,” said Shepard. “While that may not be great housing, losing those will be more of a backlog for affordable housing.”

Land costs in the Moab area are only increasing, and most business owners cannot afford to provide their employees housing themselves.

Another barrier is the City of Moab’s general lack of financial resources to create affordable housing opportunities.

The Colorado city of Vail launched Vail InDEED, a deed restriction purchase program that is often cited as a model for protecting residential housing.

“I’m not saying that’s totally off the table, but they’re buying deed-restrictions for around $200,000,” Shepard said. “We don’t have that kind of money.”

Walnut Lane project hits construction snags

Moab City does have one affordable housing project in the works: Walnut Lane. The three-acre lot was purchased in October of 2018 for $1.8 million, and the city plans to build 80 modern apartment units, townhomes and duplexes.

However, the city has run into construction snafus, legal challenges and maintenance issues, all while needing to provide for the residents currently on the property, dimming optimism for the project. City staff met with representatives from Zions Bank in October 2020 to propose a 15-year bond for $8.5 million to complete construction on Walnut Lane. Currently, potential builder default due to building material prices has stalled the project. [See city council notes -ed]

“We do have some money, most of which is going to Walnut Lane,” Shepard said on Tuesday. “That was really big and gutsy, and as we all know, it’s not an easy project. We’re running into all the same issues that everybody else is having with construction costs.”

Councilmembers referenced Walnut Lane several times on Tuesday. Shepard floated the idea of collaborating with the business community to contribute to the Walnut Lane project through a kind of housing fund, or funding the project with American Rescue Plan dollars. “I don’t want to let Walnut Lane fall by the wayside,” said Councilmember Tawny Knuteson-Boyd.

Tiny homes, ADUs and other options

One of city staff’s proposed suggestions to increase affordable housing opportunities was by changing accessory dwelling unit requirements. ADUs are detached residential structures on the same property as a single-family residence. The city’s planning commission has already begun working on potential amendments to ADU requirements, such as setbacks and height restrictions.

“I’m excited about trying to reduce setbacks in ADUs to make it easier for homeowners to allow housing for the local workforce,” said Karen Guzman-Newton. “But I think they have to be for local residents, not overnight accomodations.”

Councilmembers also discussed the possibility of building a tiny home village in Moab, allowing employee housing buildings to reach four stories, permitting bunkhouses and dormitories in certain zones, amending parking requirements and using RVs as temporary emergency housing, like in the Colorado municipalities.

The council reached a consensus that allowing affordable housing structures to reach four stories would be “the most offensive to our community,” in the mayor’s words. However, though bunkhouses are permitted in all zones that single-family residences are allowed in, the mayor suggested creating code specifics for dormitories — such as potentially allowing them to be built four stories tall. There are no four-story buildings in Moab City or Grand County.

“I really would like to see a hybrid of a couple of these suggestions,” said Mayor Emily Niehaus. “We could have a long-term RV park to rent spots by the month as opposed to by the night, which would allow for a breadth of different typologies, whether it’s a tiny home, RV or camper.”

The council will consider allowing RV camping on private property on a temporary basis, potentially from April to November, as a stopgap for Moab’s emergency housing and employee shortage.

“It seems that we have a short term emergency,” said Councilmember Kalen Jones. “As it’s temporary, we can see how it goes and try to take some of the pressure off in the short term while some of the pending inventory in the county gets built out.”

Knuteson-Boyd raised concerns about individuals abusing an emergency camping ordinance, and stressed the need for outlining specific problems and solutions in a potential ordinance.

“I know there are people who will try to put six tents in their backyard if we don’t put some boundaries on that quickly,” she said.

Councilmember Rani Derasary feared that allowing temporary camping on private property in Moab would create a “second or third class of workers.” She also brought up the need for enforcement — potentially a manager or contact person for residential property owners.

“I’d be more comfortable with it happening on commercial or outfitter properties than residential,” Derasary continued. “I think it’s worth trying, but I also feel like we have to be careful that it doesn’t become a slippery slope to thinking that all our problems are solved and we now have cheap housing for people.”

Council members agreed that there is a possibility for luxury second homes and affordable employee housing to coexist to maximize Moab’s potential and existing community.

“Change is inevitable, and I totally get that. Moab may turn into more of a second home kind of place than it is today,” said Shepard. “But I certainly don’t want to do anything to hasten that, because that changes our community character totally. We want to allow second homes and employee housing in equal measures.”

In next steps, city staff will consider the council’s feedback on their ideas, summarize the most promising projects and create an accompanying timeline.

“You don’t have a community anymore if you don’t house the people who make this a community and who serve the people who come here,” said Derasary. “I’m interested in pushing the envelope on what tools are available to us legally to prioritize primary residents to get housing.”