Luxury resorts add pressure to the affordable housing crisis in Moab
Moab has long been a favorite getaway spot for Utahns to enjoy a quiet desert landscape, but if you’ve visited over the last couple of years, you may have noticed something different. These days, Moab is anything but quiet.
While millions of tourists from all over the world pour into the area, the Moab community has been dealing with the consequences of an overwhelmed tourist infrastructure.
One of the most significant consequences is an unprecedented housing crisis. While visitors to Moab restaurants, shops, and hotels cause a massive surge in employee demand, housing for those employees is nowhere to be found.
Alex Borichevsky, local restaurant owner and Moab resident, explains that while his two restaurants are severely understaffed, customers have been more demanding than ever. The employees he’s able to find are constantly struggling to find an affordable place to live. “I would say about 15-20 percent of my employees are either vanlife-ing or camping,” he says.
The affordable housing crisis in Moab has made it nearly impossible for many local businesses to find employees. The number of unfilled jobs keeps rising, but no one can move to the area to fill the positions because there’s nowhere to live. This has caused many in the Moab community to speak out against the continued construction of new tourist accommodations, which is driving more visitors to the area and more job openings because there isn’t enough human capital to fill those new positions.
“Despite the fact there’s been a moratorium for the last several years, we’ve continued to see new hotels being built,” says Sam Van Wetter, Grand County Field Organizer at Rural Utah Project. “Last summer, something like three hotels opened within the span of a couple months.”
“Watching these new developments come in, most of us are struck with the question of how they will hire these new employees and where those new employees will live,” Van Wetter says.
Borichevsky thinks the shortage of workers is a direct result of the housing crisis. And while the major resorts and hotels also struggle to find employees, many can outcompete local businesses by offering higher starting wages, allowing employees to keep up with skyrocketing housing prices.
“Housing has always been a little bit of an issue, but ever since Covid hit, rents for my employees have pretty much doubled,” Borichevsky continues. “As an employer, if I want to try and keep people around, I have to constantly raise my wages—sometimes multiple times a year—just to keep up with the next business over that’s trying to get the same employees. Starting wages are going up faster than I can give raises to my employees.”
Laura Borchesvky, a Moab local and sister-in-law to Alex Borchevsky, spoke about how the resorts increase the cost of living, exacerbating the housing crisis in the town.
“The cost of food here is ridiculous right now. It is very hard for people to afford food as it is,” she says. “And the more and more we have luxury resorts coming into play like this, the higher groceries, gas, and other things are going to go up. So it does have a very tangible impact on folks and continues to push a lot of us into a place where it is hard to afford housing even as it becomes available.”
Some Moab residents have expressed concern that the massive surge of tourists has been driven by the state of Utah’s desire to collect the tax revenue these visitors bring in. “The reason there’s so much uproar now is because the state has failed to help one of the counties that they depend on the most for tourism dollars,” Laura Borchesvky explains.
Van Wetter reiterates the concern that there is a disconnect between the struggling condition of the Moab community and the government decisions that determine tourist infrastructure and policy.
”These gateway towns are beholden to a state government that insists they try to make as much money as possible off of our public lands,” Van Wetter states. “Over and over again, our policies locally are being determined by people who do not live and here and do not have to live with the effect of those laws. “
According to Laura Borichevsky, new housing isn’t being built quickly enough to keep up with the demand for workers driven by the tourism boom.
“There’ve been plans on the books for projects that haven’t come to fruition nearly as fast as people were saying they were going to,” she says. “I think it hasn’t been prioritized as much as bringing tourists to Moab. And that’s where the big problem lies, is that everyone put tourism over people’s ability to live here.”
While the Moab community struggles under the weight of the housing crisis and labor shortage, some residents believe developers of luxury resorts and hotels like Lionsback should be doing more to help the community.
“I wish the big money could stop and think about the town that they’re overrunning and actually just try to help us out a little bit,” Alex Borchevsky says.
The best thing these businesses can do for the community, Laura Borchevsky says, isn’t to only provide employee housing and pay their workers well. “I think they should be providing other housing too because the state of Utah isn’t going to be helping us anytime soon. Larger businesses and people who have the financial capacity and care about this area need to be taking matters into their own hands.”
And it isn’t about gatekeeping our public lands, Van Wetter says. “We’re all here for a lot of the same reasons. We love to spend time in the desert, and we love to get out of town into these special places, but we are also approaching a breaking point in terms of how to make it sustainably accessible.”
Whether developers of luxury resorts contribute to the affordable housing supply or local and state governments provide aid to keep this beautiful community accessible, it’s clear a solution is needed to address the lack of housing and ease the pressure on Moab’s struggling workforce.