Blog: Utah’s Seasonal Employee Housing Conundrum

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Blog: Utah’s Seasonal Employee Housing Conundrum

By: Jennifer Leaver

Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect an institutional position of the Gardner Institute. We hope the opinions shared contribute to the marketplace of ideas and help people as they formulate their own INFORMED DECISIONS™.

Across the West, resort and recreation towns are no strangers to employee housing availability and affordability problems—but are these problems worsening?

As a seasonal employee in Moab in the early ‘90s, it was challenging for me to find summer rentals, but it was possible. During my three tourist seasons in Moab, I rented tiny apartments or private rooms. Never exactly ideal, but definitely doable.

Fast forward to 2021. This summer my son moved to Moab to work as a river guide. He soon learned that rentals for employees are either nonexistent or astronomically expensive. Fortunately, his employer provided staff housing in the form of a storage container equipped with wooden bed platforms and a rooftop swamp cooler. The guides that opted out of storage container life, camped in their cars 20–30 minutes outside of town. When visiting Moab this summer, I learned that some business owners purchase houses for their employees, while some homeowners rent out their driveways to seasonal workers in need of a legal spot to park their campervans.

As Utah travel and tourism increase, so does the leisure and hospitality job demand. Utah’s tourism counties, including Garfield, Grand, Kane, Summit, and Washington, have experienced healthy increases in accommodation and restaurant jobs over the past 10 years. In fact, Summit County has added close to an average of 300 hospitality jobs every year since 2010 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Change in Hotel & Restaurant Jobs, 2010–2019

Note: 2019 is used because of the unusual effects of the pandemic in 2020.
Includes private full- and part-time wage and salary jobs; does not include the self-employed.

Source: Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute analysis of Utah Department of Workforce Services data


Because the number of leisure and hospitality jobs can increase 50%–150% from off-season to tourist season, meeting the ever-changing job demand requires a combination of local and nonlocal workers; and these employees need housing.

Skyrocketing housing costs in Utah and across the West have left much of the housing market unaffordable for many. Housing availability is another issue. The conversion of long-term employee rentals into short-term visitor rentals has intensified the employee housing crisis (see Figure 2). When a property owner can make a typical month’s rent in a matter of days by renting to tourists, there is little incentive to rent longer-term to the leisure and hospitality workforce.

Figure 2: Number of New Short-Term Rentals, July 2021 vs. July 2019

Note: 2019 is used because of the unusual effects of the pandemic in 2020.
Due to seasonality, the month of January is used for the Summit County comparison.

Source: Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute analysis of Transparent data


Unfortunately, if seasonal workers cannot secure housing, hospitality businesses could face severe understaffing and eventual closure. For perspective, in 2019 the food and lodging industry in these five counties paid $482.8 million in wages and generated $46.1 million in restaurant and lodging tax revenue (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Restaurant Tax and Transient Room Tax Revenue, 2019

Note: 2019 is used because of the unusual effects of the pandemic in 2020.

Source: Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute analysis of Utah State Tax Commission data


Recently, Western resort and recreation towns have begun addressing the employee housing conundrum. Park City has mandated affordable housing development and has reduced land-use restrictions and costs for developers willing to build affordable housing units; Jackson has utilized minimum density requirements and waived density caps for developers; and Vail has enacted deed restrictions that benefit locals in addition to purchasing homes for resale to city employees at subsidized rates. If private-public partnerships are indeed one of the premier approaches to addressing the current housing crisis, private business owners must be willing to meet local government at the table—and the sooner the better.

Jennifer Leaver is the senior tourism analyst at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

2021-09-08T10:56:28+00:00September 8th, 2021|Blog, Practice Areas, Travel and Tourism, Utah Economy|