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Moab’s New Mayor Brings Experience -And More Women - To Area’s Housing Crisis

It’s a sunny Saturday morning in Moab, and in two new homes on Locust Lane, the city's mayor leads a large crowd in a conga line, spurred by Moab’s Fiery Furnace Marching Band. Among the dancers is Jason Provonost, the lead builder and teacher for an innovative housing program called Community Rebuilds.

“Today we’re doing our floor stomp event," he said. "We’ve actually invited members of the community to participate in the compaction of our adobe floor.”

“But it does seem a little bit miraculous process. Kind of crazy to take 17 people who have never built anything before, and have them build three homes in five months. But we just did it, and we’re doing it again, so…”

Community Rebuilds, has created new ways to create housing that are being replicated as far away as Colorado and the Hopi Nation in Arizona. The founder and still director is Moab’s new mayor, Emily Niehaus.

“If you’re building with dirt, certainly it’s dirt cheap," Niehaus said. "I want to build the cheapest house on the block. You know, a straw bale, earth and plaster home could be that cheap, affordable house that’s so needed in Moab.”

Niehaus says being a caseworker made her aware of the low income housing crunch, and she became a loan officer to learn how to finance housing. Then she had to deal with Utah’s building codes and licensing laws.

“The building department was saying, you can’t have a bunch of volunteers, you’ve got to have a license, and they were saying things to me like, straw bale construction, you can’t just be stacking straw, you have to be code compliant,” she said.

In the end Niehaus got significant concessions from Moab building officials on things like building with straw and dirt, and using volunteer labor. Then she came up with deed restrictions, unheard of in rural Utah, to keep the housing affordable.

“Housing is a basic need: food, water, shelter, air, those are our basic needs," she said. "And when we talk about shelter as a basic need, versus shelter as an asset, we begin to really see why it’s complicated. Is the problem in the banking industry? No. Is there a problem in the overall economy? No. I think the problem is that we have really relied on housing as an asset as opposed to a basic need."

“My name is Marianthe Bickett, and I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio. I’ve always been really interested in self-sufficiency and community sufficiency and relearning the skills that have kind of filtered out of at least my generation, wanting to know methods for those things that are less harmful to the earth."

“My name is Carey Alcott and I’m from Houston, Texas. I went to school for architecture, and the program I was in really lacked the hands on construction side of building. I also was drawn to the natural building element.

"What we want to have is gender balance. And so sometimes that means six male, six female and two or four other (laughs) neutral."

"We’re locking 50 percent of our workforce, the women, out of construction. We’re at a tipping point. We need builders. We need more homes. Utah is facing a housing crisis, and one big barrier is the lack of arms swinging hammers. We’ve got to create accessibility."

“It was a huge reason why I wanted to do this program," Bickett said. "Generally in construction there are much fewer women and there are a lot of challenges working with male bosses.

“Having never done a lot with power tools or mechanical stuff, to like, delve into it, didn’t feel comfortable," Alcott said, "but it’s been seamless here in terms of how easy and simple they make it, and the fact that there are female staff and female administration, it all feels very comfortable in that way.”

As mayor, Niehaus wants to see developers start helping create worker housing.

“Do we want to have the hotel industry and larger business industry part of our housing solution as a requirement for their build?" she said. "A lot of people are saying, 'Yeah, it’s time,' you know. They’re creating jobs and their employees are going to need housing.”

Originally from Wyoming, Jon Kovash has practiced journalism throughout the intermountain west. He was editor of the student paper at Denver’s Metropolitan College and an early editor at the Aspen Daily News. He served as KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced Thin Air, an award-winning regional radio news magazine that ran on 20 community stations in the Four Corners states. In Utah his reports have been featured on KUER/SLC and KZMU/Moab. Kovash is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette and plays alto sax in “Moab’s largest garage band."