Officials say Moab needs political will — not just solutions

For Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus, all of the suggestions that Moab has needed on how to make housing more affordable have been made for the past 20 years. In other words, the solutions are known, and many have proven track records elsewhere.

“What we need now is the political will to make tough decisions moving forward, and we need to recognize housing as one of our most critical needs,” she said.

Community reinvestment agencies — a communal funding mechanism that raises project-specific funds without increasing taxes — is one of those many suggestions. It is currently being pursued, according to officials.

Accessory dwelling units are another. Officials say the rules currently in place allow homeowners to build them, and the next step is to give people incentives to do so.

But core to housing affordability is zoning reform. That means changing low-density residential areas to high-density residential areas. Research shows these reforms have the greatest impact on housing affordability. They are also among the most controversial.

“It’s the hardest thing you do as an elected official,” said Grand County Commission Chair Mary McGann. “One of the hardest things is zoning and land use because the people don’t like change, and that’s what happens when you start changing zoning.”

According to four elected officials interviewed by The Times-Independent, Moab lacks the focus and leadership required to implement the suggestions on housing affordability Moab has heard for the past 20 years.

But why? What are elected officials paying attention to instead?

Many other urgent problems

“I think, collectively, we feel like we just put out a lot of fires,” said Tawny Knuteson-Boyd, Moab’s mayor pro tempore and a member of the city council.

Niehaus had another metaphor for the same idea. “I think that we’re in the ambulance.”

Niehaus said that long-term planning and even relatively modest funding proposals on housing affordability can seem ludicrous to the city because of its lack of revenues.

To the idea of the city participating in a community reinvestment agency, Niehaus said such an ask would be like, “on day three of a five-day river trip, looking at the group you’re on the river with and saying, ‘You know what? Tonight, let’s have prime rib.’

“Nobody packed prime rib,” she went on. “We don’t have prime rib. We don’t have a way to carry prime rib. We don’t have a way to cook it. That’s ridiculous. How can we even talk about prime rib right now?”

The roles of nonprofit and for-profit homebuilders

The city government might be in an urgent state without the funds it needs to give adequate attention to Moab’s housing needs, but it is not alone in the journey.

Nonprofit and for-profit homebuilders are also on the beat, and Niehaus said the city should be deferring to them anyway. As the founder of nonprofit homebuilder Community Rebuilds, she said she would know.

“Having been an affordable housing developer prior to being an elected official, that role has been very clear to me — that you don’t look to government to build affordable housing,” Niehaus said. “You look to work with government to build affordable housing.”

And as defining a role as local nonprofits play in Moab’s civic life, nonprofit developers cannot build all the housing the community needs. “That’s not realistic,” said Knuteson-Boyd to the idea.

“I don’t see that as being viable,” Woytek said of the same.

“We can’t ask our affordable housing organizations to shoulder the burden of all housing needed,” Niehaus said. “What is more fair is to actually say — with gratitude — ‘thank you’ to them, and let’s step up our game.”

“Stepping up our game,” Niehaus said, means “lifting up” builders interested moderate-income housing.

“We don’t have enough of any kind of housing, but let’s not throw the low-income housing developers under the bus for not having enough housing affordability in our valley,” Niehaus said. “They’ve been working really hard.”

Woytek said that “certain projects of the scale that we need,” in terms of the sheer number of housing units, would likely require the private sector to be involved. But private developers need projects to turn a profit, and the tender in which they deal is housing density.

A vegetable for Moab to eat: High-density housing

“Density is currency,” Niehaus said. Higher-density housing is more economical for homebuilders — and less costly for homebuyers and renters. “I have always been a proponent of a higher allowable density than we currently have,” she continued.

The problem, Niehaus said, is that “upzoning,” which in this case is the act of allowing higher density developments, “is not popular.”

For Knuteson-Boyd, who has a vote on the city council (unlike Niehaus), upzoning is complicated.

“On its face, I don’t think it’s a bad idea just to upzone parts of the city to R3 [the high-density housing zone],” Knuteson-Boyd said. “But, I think you have to be careful where you put it, what it backs onto, the road it fronts on — but you can’t put established neighborhoods in a bubble and make sure that nothing ever encroaches on or above.”

She used Mountain View as case study, pointing to it as an example of a neighborhood where accessory dwelling units are somewhat common. Though ADUs are generally popular in Moab, Knuteson-Boyd said they can still upset others in the neighborhood.

“Somebody’s unhappy that that ADU is there,” she said. “Somebody’s unhappy it’s that close to their property line.”

Opportunity for focus at the county

For McGann, any lack of efforts on housing in the county in recent years is primarily attributable to staffing changes.

McGann said noncompetitive salaries for key positions overseeing housing policy made it hard to retain good staff working on the issue. Additionally, other topics, like the county’s form of government, also “took our eyes off the ball.”

Although residents and some elected officials might at times voice opposition to high-density housing or ADUs, that’s not the case with all of them.

“I’m waiting to be activated, in a way,” Woytek said. “I’m waiting to be told this policy needs to be changed, this funding source is available, we need to research this tool some more.”

To the question of who he needed to tell him, he said “literally anyone. It doesn’t have to be anyone with a title.” He said the discussion needs to be solutions-oriented. “I think we all know what the problems are.”

Woytek said he was also open to feedback that he needs to take initiative — “to get out there and stick my nose into it a little bit more.”

Opportunity for leadership at the city

To the question of whether she saw the political leadership necessary to prioritize upzoning and higher densities in the city, Knuteson-Boyd said, “not right now.”

“I think councils oftentimes get the angry emails and the angry calls that ‘you’re ruining our town,’ and the mean comments on social media,” Knuteson-Boyd said.

The response, she said, tends to be “to the constituents rather than to the needs of the community.” In other words, the squeakiest wheels have gotten the grease. Efforts that would serve the community as a whole have gone neglected in favor of responses to specific critics.

Niehaus said that the lack of service to the community at large on housing issues has not been for a lack of trying — at least, not on her part. She said she has “worked hard with staff to put things in front of the city council” that would promote housing affordability.

“Those five members,” Niehaus said, “hold a whole lot of power in how this valley is developed. And, it’s an election year.”