Kanab, Utah is caught between a housing crunch and a tourist boom
Lacey Ganther constantly scans Facebook classified pages for the small southern Utah community of Kanab. She’s looking for somewhere — anywhere to live. For the past few months, she and her husband and kids have made due in another family member’s workshop.
“It's kind of chaotic to have all six of us there,” she said. “My oldest daughter, she's 16 and she absolutely hates it because just having three siblings, a mom and a dad all in one room, that's just not ideal. … If it wasn't for my family, I would have been homeless back in July.”
Utah is seeing record housing prices for homeowners and renters alike. In small, tourist-driven economies like Kanab’s, the people behind businesses catering to visitors can’t find anywhere to live. The city of nearly 5,000 sits between the region's biggest National Parks and is often the last stop on the way to Lake Powell. A record number of people have visited the area in recent years.
Ganther is the executive housekeeper at the Holiday Inn Express in town but fills in other jobs when needed. She grew up in Kanab and moved back with her family in 2020. They were able to snatch up a rental but only for a year. Once the lease was up, the landlord decided not to renew it.
“The necessities are like a roof over their head, food in their bellies and clothes on their backs, right? And if I can't do that first thing for [my kids], it just is like, what am I even doing?” Ganther said. “It makes me feel like a failure.”
Ganther isn’t the only one that’s struggled to find a place. For the past year and a half, Jasmin Regan has traveled over an hour from Hurricane to work in Kanab. The single mother said she enjoyed the scenic ride, but the commute took a toll financially on her.
“I am very fortunate in the fact that I'm able to work from home three days a week,” Regan said. “But of course, with everything else happening, it costs me about $400 a month to just commute two days a week. … It is taxing when you look at the bigger picture, money is still tight.”
She remembered paying $750 for a rental in 2017 in Kanab and during her current housing search, most of what she saw was double that. Just last week she was able to find a rental in town and she said she’s lucky to have found a “rare” place for $1,150.
The lack of housing weighs on businesses too. There are unfilled positions almost everywhere — hotels, restaurants, the local veterinary clinic and the city government. Business owners say they’ve hired people who eventually turned down jobs because they couldn’t find anywhere to live.
This squeeze comes as more people are visiting Kanab and Kane County than ever before. From 2017 to 2020, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute found tourists have spent over $100 million each year in Kane County. Totals for 2021 aren’t available yet, but most people agree last year was one of the busiest so far.
Rosa Escobar, owner of a local restaurant in town, said the increase in visitors is pushing businesses past their limits.
“We have done so much promotion for Kane County. ‘Come and visit Kane County, come and visit’ — which is good for business, I’m not complaining,” she said. “But then where are they going to stay? Where are they going to eat?”
Escobar’s Mexican Restaurant opened 25 years ago, and this year is the first time she’s struggled to find and retain staff. That’s left her and her husband working 17 hour days.
“Right now, my husband is doing the job of three people,” she said. “He already came in and prepared this morning. He's doing dishes right now. Then he kind of goes and takes a little break and then he starts cutting meat or making salsa.”
Those struggling with housing say tourist homes or short-term rentals are eating away at housing availability. They understand that property owners want to cash in on tourism, but they also wish the city could do more to help with affordable housing.
Joe Decker, the soon-to-be-departing Kanab City manager, agreed regulating short-term rentals may be one way the city could help residents.
“Previous councils have decided that they didn't want to take a super strict approach with short-term rentals,” he said. “Their thought was always, the market will correct itself.”
The new administration, he said, might be willing to reconsider that approach. Nearby Washington County has banned all non-owner-occupied rentals in unincorporated parts of the county. To deal with housing affordability and availability, Springdale has a moratorium on new short-term rentals as a newly-formed task force decides how to regulate them.
Municipalities across Utah though are limited in their ability to enforce rules on short-term rentals. In 2017, the state Legislature approved HB 253, which states municipalities can’t stop anyone from listing their property on sites like Airbnb and VRBO.
The Kane County tourism office said there are around 200 short-term rentals with business licenses in Kanab, but there could be another hundred operating illegally. It’s roughly the same estimates for the unincorporated parts of the county.
Beyond regulation, Decker sees the role of government as setting ordinances to encourage development. But it can be hard to attract them to a place like Kanab since it’s smaller and more expensive to build. Places like St. George are more likely to attract multi-family developments, he said.
Right now there is one apartment complex going in at the south end of town, but it won’t solve their problems.
“With the amount of jobs, the amount of people who want to move in Kanab and everything, I honestly think you could probably build 150 apartments and then still fill them up,” Decker said.
Meanwhile, employers are trying to figure out worker housing on their own. The local bakery has an apartment unit they use to help employees. Best Friends Animal Society, the largest employer in the county, currently has 10 RV spots for temporary worker housing. Francis Battista, a co-founder of the organization and chairman of the Board of Directors, said they’re also looking at building 12 duplexes to help people who come to work at the sanctuary.
There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, Battista said, given that the organization has focused on the problem of staff housing.
“As opposed to simply hoping that things get better, [we’re] taking matters into our own hands, we have to figure this out,” he said.
The staff at Escobar’s restaurant mainly consists of family right now, and she has turned to either buying places for them to live or just having them stay with her.
“The rents are so high so they cannot afford it,” she said. “How many houses am I going to keep buying in order for me to have employees working for me?”
And as Ganther continues her search for a place to live, she’s worried about what the housing crisis will mean for the community she loves. She sees hiring signs everywhere. Some places ask for patience because they’re so short-staffed, and the busy season is just starting to pick up.
“If Kanab is going to function and not turn into a ghost town we need these people here so we can keep these places running for our tourists who bring in the money to Kanab,” she said.
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