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Last Resorts: How Tourism In Western Towns Is Driving An Affordable Housing Crisis

Renee Bright / KUER

MOAB — After a recent 12-hour nursing shift at the local hospital, Ryan Huels took stock of his tidy home just south of this high desert town.

There’s a flat screen TV hanging in front of a plush leather couch. Stretched canvas prints of Delicate Arch and Mesa Arch — the iconic rock formations that draw millions of visitors every year to this adventure playground — hang on the walls. But none of this belongs to him. 

“The only thing that’s mine is the desk, some of the plants, the books,” Huels, 24, said. “But not the bookshelf.” 

The rest belongs to his employer, Moab Regional Hospital, which has temporarily leased him this duplex in a quiet neighborhood for $625 a month. That’s a steal here where roughly 5,000 people live year-round and the going rental rate for a home like his is between $900 and $1200 a month. 

It’s also a short-term fix to what is becoming a growing problem for the area’s workers and employers alike: a lack of housing. 

Photo of home.
Credit Claire Jones / KUER
Ryan Huels' duplex is one of five units owned by Moab Regional Hospital. The unit next to him is home to another hospital employee.

Without it, the recent University of Utah grad would be like many people moving to town — struggling to find something affordable. And the hospital might still be looking to fill yet another open position. 

But the tourists visiting nearby Canyonlands and Arches national parks — the driver of the local economy — would still be arriving, and increasingly changing the housing landscape here. 

To address the issue, the hospital has bought up four properties, and is considering buying another. 

“We have people that want to move here. They have the job. And there’s nowhere to live,” said Katherine Sullivan, the human resources director at Moab Regional Hospital. 

More than 50% of local residents spend a third or more of their income on rent, according to data from Headwaters Economics. That number is significantly higher than other tourist and recreation towns that the study examined. In many of these places across the West, government officials and year-round residents are going to extreme measures to attract new employees and keep the community intact. 

Like other destinations, Moab is facing an identity crisis: does it cater to the tourists and the wealthy or does it try to salvage its funky vibe that lured desert rats, thrill seekers, artists and immigrants here?

Photo of park entrance.
Credit Claire Jones / KUER
Cars lined up to the entrance gate at Arches National Park. The park is a mile from the city of Moab.

Mining Bust, Tourism Boom ... Housing Bust?

It’s hard for some long-time residents to say no to tourism and its steady flow of money. 

For decades, Moab has weathered the extremes of a boom-bust economy, evolving from a mining town to an adventure mecca. The last bust for Moab came in the 1980’s when uranium production slowed down. Windows were boarded up. Houses sat vacant. 

“We don’t want to go back there,” said Councilwoman Tawny Boyd said. “I think people that recall the bust have cautioned us not to be too aggressive in putting the brakes on [tourism.]” 

In the 1990s, Moab drew in outdoor enthusiasts. Climbers, bikers, hikers and rafters trickled in to take advantage of a vast red rock landscape. Visitation grew steadily to the area over the following decade, according to the National Park Service.

But a new surge in tourism, driven by a combination of low gas prices, a strong U.S. economy and a successful national ad campaign by the Utah Office of Tourism, has led to a 50% increase in visitors to the Moab area since 2013. 

With that increase came a demand for more overnight rentals — hotels, Airbnb, bed-and-breakfasts and short-term condo rentals. It’s also led to a 5% increase in second homes purchased each year, according to the Grand County Recorder's Office. 

Photo of sign.
Credit Claire Jones / KUER
Behind the sign welcoming visitors to Moab sits the Fairfield Inn and Suites, a 64 room hotel owned by Marriott.

Part of the housing problem is that there isn’t much land to develop here. Moab is a remote desert town flanked by red rock canyons and surrounded by public lands. Overall in Grand County, only 4.3% of land is privately owned, according to Headwaters Economics

But Councilwoman Boyd said the available housing shortage isn’t a new problem. During a mining boom in the 1960s when her father-in-law was mayor, the town struggled with affordable housing.

Still, for newer residents, she said she understands that tourism is overwhelming when it comes to everything — from lines at the grocery store to traffic to housing. The answer, however, is to manage tourism instead of slowing it.

Boyd said management is not only the responsibility of the city, but officials have taken some steps. Along with banning all overnight rentals in residential zones, the city purchased a trailer park in town, with plans to build 80 units considered affordable housing. Officials also set a moratorium on new overnight rental development until August. 

But to her, there isn’t a silver bullet solution. 

“If it were easy, it would’ve been fixed,” she said. 

Fixes From Within

The lack of affordable housing affects more than the seasonal workers living in their vans or the hospital employees. The Moab Police Department is also facing labor shortages. Like the hospital, the department is also trying to come up with creative ways to recruit and retain new officers. 

For Police Chief Brett Edge, that means acting like a real estate agent. On a recent Tuesday in June, Edge drove his truck onto a winding street above town. He pointed to a row of large houses, some of which could use a fresh coat of paint. 

“They’re nice houses but you don’t look at them and go ‘that’s a half a million dollar house.’ But they are,” he said.

This home tour was a peek into the interview process for prospective employees. Since he became chief in April, he’s given this tour once. The tactic was introduced by his predecessor Jim Winder, who left the force earlier this year because even he couldn’t find housing to meet the needs of his family — and their two horses. 

The police force is budgeted to have 18 officers, but is currently down four. Edge wants to make sure prospects understand the housing situation before committing to a job with the department. 

“There’s this vision of what it’s like,” Edge said, adding that actually living in Moab is different than that perception. “We want to open their eyes to what living in Moab is really like,” said Edge.

Vision vs. Reality

Photo of downtown Moab.
Credit Claire Jones / KUER
Hotel signs line the main drag through downtown Moab.

That “vision” is what visitors see when they come to Moab: Outdoor access. Small town feel. Close community. These are the characteristics Huels was looking for when he began applying to jobs, and Moab checked most of those boxes. 

But he got a taste of reality when he first started looking for a place online in March, as the busy season was starting. There was literally no available housing — not a studio or single-bedroom apartment showed up in his searches.

Listings pop up here and there, but they don’t last long. Now that he’s more established in town, he’s optimistic that he’ll find something soon.

“You have to act fast,” Huels said. 

This story was produced in collaboration with the Moab Sun News and KZMU in Moab. Coming tomorrow in our second installment on the affordable housing crunch in Western resort towns, a Utah town facing a growing problem.

Correction 10:03 a.m. MDT, 7/1/19: A previous version of this story misspelled Councilwoman Tawny Boyd's first name.

Claire used to work as an outdoor education teacher — living in the middle of the woods for six months of the year and then filling in the rest with odd jobs. When she first moved to Utah in 2016 for a winter season, it was the first place she could envision staying for more than 6 months. Podcasts and radio filled in the hours moving in between states. In fact, Claire loved working seasonally and podcasts so much, that she began making her own podcast about seasonal life. She then decided to apply for an internship with RadioWest. When she stepped into the station, it was the second time she could see herself in Utah for more than 6 months. Now Claire works as a production assistant and a weekend host. She’s excited to stay for a while.
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