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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Moab Creates Rent Assistance Fund For Residents Facing "Crippling" Bills After Tourism Shutdown

A decorative road sign welcomes visitors to Moab.
Kate Groetzinger
The Southeast Utah Health Department issued a health order restricting tourism in Grand County on March 17, effectively closing Moab's economy. The order is set to expire May 1.

COVID-19 has hit workers in Moab especially hard, since many are unemployed in the winter and go back to work in the spring. 

According to data from the Department of Workforce Services, around 800 workers filed for unemployment in Grand County from March 15 to April 4. That’s a higher percentage of workers who filed for benefits than any other county in the state.

And it doesn’t account for undocumented workers who live in Moab, according to Rhiana Medina. Medina runs the Moab Valley Multicultural Center, which helps low-income residents, and she said she’s afraid many of them won’t be able to recover when the economy starts back up. 

“If you had to defer your rent, and you deferred that month’s utilities, and you had a car payment and a cell phone bill — altogether, it’s going to be crippling,” Medina said. 

She surveyed clients at the Multicultural Center — most of whom work in the seasonal service industry in Moab where average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is around $1,300 a month — and found that her clients have deferred nearly $20,000 in rent collectively since Moab shut down due to COVID-19 in early March. To help them, the center has partnered with the city, county, and local housing authority to raise money for a housing relief fund. 

The fund was initially suggested by a Moab resident who asked to remain anonymous, according to Dave Bierschied, a realtor who has helped organize COVID-19 assistance efforts in Moab and is now helping raise money for the fund. 

“The guy called me a few weeks ago and said, ‘I’m comfortable. If the government starts sending $1,000 checks to everyone, I don’t need it,’” Bierschied said. 

He called Medina and asked if she’d like to be involved in setting up the fund. From there, they brought in the City of Moab, Grand County and the Housing Authority of South Eastern Utah to form a board to oversee the distribution of funds. 

“The reality of it is we’re all in this together,” Bierschied said. “And there are people with resources that want to help.” 

Right now, the board’s goal is to raise $50,000. But Kaitlin Myers, who works on affordable housing for the City of Moab and is on the board, said that might not be enough. 

“I think there’s an even greater need than $50,000,” she said. “But I think that’s a realistic first benchmark.” 

The board will start accepting applications on Monday from those who need assistance. And Medina, who is also on the board, said they will prioritize applications from people who are undocumented or otherwise not eligible for federal assistance or unemployment assistance, as well as families and single mothers.

“I already have a list of about 40 households I will tell to apply when this opens up,” she said. 

The fund has raised $5,450since it launched on April 22.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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