Housing keeps getting tighter all the time
by Jen Jackson
It is only a matter of time before our living situation goes up in smoke. We are living illegally. We haven't harmed anyone, or stolen or lied. Rather, we live in a travel trailer. And that has become a crime.
Headlines in the Moab, Utah, newspaper were recently abuzz with news of the eviction of area residents from their unconventional homes because of land-use code violations. Grand County codes prohibit the use of RVs, buses and yurts as permanent residences. This is true across much of the West, but code enforcement has been lax in Moab until recent years. Now, however, change is afoot.
I believe our 27-foot bit of silver-plated paradise is no threat to anyone. We are connected to a septic system and enjoy the use of electricity. There is no water on our land, so, like many across the rural West, we haul it from town. In the summer, our vegetable garden feeds us, and in the winter, a small woodstove warms us. Our situation is as sanitary and safe as any home in a subdivision.The two dozen people who were recently evicted from Moab's Kane Springs area were also self-contained and harmless. Some employed solar panels for electricity. Many used portable toilet systems -- the "groovers" that river-runners employ -- to contain their waste. But in order to comply with county regulations, the landowners would have to convert their acreage to a campground facility, change its tax status, build roads and install bathroom facilities within 200 feet of each campsite. Such upgrades were beyond the elderly landowners' means.
This was just the latest in a cascade of evictions and migrations through a town where affordable options are dwindling. Some residents moved to Kane Springs after being forced from Powerhouse Lane in 2006. Powerhouse was a mobile home community of 23 residents who were blocked from purchasing the land holding their homes because of lawsuits filed by a neighboring landowner. Add this to the list of closed campgrounds and mobile home parks in the last decade, and options for mobile and motor home dwellers are becoming increasingly scarce.
Moab has been a tourist destination for nearly 20 years; 47 percent of the locals, however, work service industry jobs that earn, on average, under $15,000 annually. Meanwhile, the average listing price for a home, according to a real estate website listing 155 properties here, is over $350,000. Do the math: Few of us can afford to buy a house. What is affordable is unconventional, yet increasingly, locals are denied such options because mobile homes are considered eyesores that hurt both tourism and real estate -- the industries that have come to define our community.
This is not an isolated story. Across the West, small towns of great beauty are growing ... and changing. On a recent drive through southern Utah's sparsely populated Wayne County, I couldn't help but notice a camper trailer obviously set up as a permanent home -- replete with wooden awning and water tank -- on the side of the highway. Actually, it's been there for years, but I've never paid it much mind until now. How long until it's deemed an eyesore? And how long ago was it that similar homes graced the edges of Aspen, Telluride or Durango? It seems that when zoning gets serious, local people get forced out.
Last winter, Archuleta County, Colo., home of Pagosa Springs, sent its planner out on the road to discuss land-use codes with Pagosa's outlying subdivisions. One stop was at Aspen Springs, an independent-minded "suburb." For years, people there have been living on their land in RVs, contrary to code, and for years, nobody cared. The residents' message to the county planner? We are happy without your regulations, thank you. But how long before the mores of an increasingly posh Pagosa Springs dictate a land-use code crackdown?
The recently evicted residents of Moab's Kane Springs could have moved to a nearby campground. However, our newspaper reported that the owner was unwilling to accept old buses because he "wants to keep it attractive to tourists."
I've lived and worked here for years. My partner owns a business. We are familiar faces. We are members of this community. A small group here is lobbying for change in affordable housing awareness as well as policy, but sometimes it feels like we're climbing a mountain while pulling our Streamline trailer behind us.
Jen Jackson writes in Moab, Utah.© High Country News