Service businesses in St. George are struggling to fill vacancies because employees can’t find rental properties
St George • Two months after taking a job as a chef at a St. George restaurant, Sean McAllister is still struggling to find affordable housing and is beginning to lose hope.
That means McAllister, who lives with an aunt in Mesquite, has to make the 78-mile round trip through the Virgin River Gorge to and from work every day, except occasionally when he’s on the couch in downtown St. George can sleep at his girlfriend’s apartment.
“Often when I get home from work, I’m too tired to drive back to Mesquite,” he said. “Some nights I drive off a dirt road and sleep in my car. If I hadn’t loved my girlfriend so much, I probably would have quit my job by now and treated myself to one of the casinos at home. If I don’t find an apartment soon, I’ll have to do it.”
Shalako Vissar is also pessimistic about his chances of gaining a foothold in the district. Since arriving in St. George a month ago, he’s been working the graveyard shift as a storekeeper at a local grocery store and day-shifts for another company that collects pollen from trees. His goal is to find a place where his wife, who is staying with a relative, can come to him.
But although he finds work, he cannot find an apartment that he can afford. So Vissar is staying at the homeless shelter and planning to return to Montrose, Colorado.
“All I could find here are rooms for rent that you have to share with two to four people,” he said. “It’s not going to work for a couple with a disabled dog.”
It’s difficult for working professionals to find affordable rental housing in the St. George area, but it’s even harder for the service workers who run the shops, restaurants, and other businesses whose hourly wages don’t cover the cost of housing.
According to Rentometer, a data system that many real estate agents subscribe to for rental information, the average price for a one-bedroom apartment in Washington County is $1,260. Two-bedroom rentals are about $1,700, three-bedroom rentals are $2,100, and four-bedroom rentals average nearly $2,600.
Unfortunately, according to a May 2022 report by Atwood Innovations Plaza, workers in the county make an average of $14.19 an hour. The maximum a worker of that amount can spend on rent without exceeding 30% of their income is about $738 per month.
Hire when your employees can’t afford a living
Not only is this a problem for employees, it also poses a dilemma for employers who are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit or retain talent for their companies.
Chris Connors, owner of Farmstead Bakery and Kairos restaurants in downtown St. George, said the county’s lack of affordable housing has made it increasingly difficult for him to persuade top chefs in Los Angeles and Las Vegas to work for him . even if many of them would like to move.
Even finding housing for its workers has become an ordeal. Connors says he spends hours each week trying – often unsuccessfully – to find places where his employees can afford housing. He’s currently trying to find housing for an employee who showers at the homeless shelter and lives in his car in a Walmart lot.
So far, he said, an apartment owner has offered him $1,800 for a one-bedroom apartment and another $1,400. He said that’s more than most workers in the area could afford, especially if they had a car payment and also had to pay for utilities and groceries.
“It can create a domino effect where I have to pay people more so they can afford a place to live,” Connors said. “If I want to continue my business, then I have to raise the prices. That’s the last thing you want to do because it alienates customers.”
While affordability hasn’t been an issue, availability is often an issue. Connors says many of the apartment complexes he named have 99% occupancy rates and long waiting lists.
“If people don’t have homes, they won’t survive long as my associates,” he said. “You will go to work elsewhere. We see a lot of people going to places like Mesquite.”
It’s not just cooks or other service workers who are being hit by Washington County’s housing shortage. Gregg Robison, CEO of St. George-based RAM Aviation, Space & Defense, said the area’s housing shortage has negatively impacted his company’s 250 employees, many of whom work from far flung locations like Mesquite, Enterprise and Apple Valley commute to work.
“Even for engineers, it’s difficult,” Robison said. “An engineer who graduates typically starts out at around $70,000 a year. And even with that crowd [employees] They have a hard time finding shelter and justifying life down here.”
Robison recalls offering a job to an Ohio man who told him his 3,000-square-foot home in Ohio was on three lush, green acres, complete with horses and a barn.
“‘To come here, I’d have to sell it for $350,000 and I wouldn’t buy half an acre here,'” Robison said when the man turned down the offer.
According to a study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, the average house price was $537,000 in the third quarter of last year.
Greg Esplin, Utah Tech University’s associate director of human resources, said the exorbitant prices for homes for sale or rent have become a growing problem in recruiting or retaining faculty in recent years. He said a handful of candidates turned down job offers because they couldn’t find a suitable place to live.
He added that some faculty members left the university because they may have been single when they entered the university, but felt their living arrangements were inadequate when their living situation changed.
“After a few years, they get married and have kids,” Esplin explained. “At that point, their housing situation changes and the studio apartment that was great for them when they were hired straight out of college no longer works.”
To keep his employees, Stewart Ferber, owner of the Marriott Fairfield in Virgin and the Zion Canyon Campground and RV Resort in Springdale, just outside of Zion National Park, has 23 housing units that he’s giving 35 of him free of charge, along with Additional costs employees.
“I’m not worried about retaining employees,” he said. “I have employees who have been with me for 26 years and have lived in my apartment from day one… My employees do not change jobs to employers. They can’t switch jobs because then they would lose their house.”
However, providing or constructing employee homes or housing is not an option for less affluent business owners in Springdale, especially when plots in the resort town’s commercial sector range in price from $400,000 to $1 million.
For his part, Robison is pursuing other options. He is currently working with the state, St. George, Washington County, the Five County Association of Governments and developers to evaluate the feasibility of purchasing a large lot to develop housing for lower income workers. It’s too early in the process, he added, to say where development will take place or who will pay for it.
Still, Robison insists something must be done.
“Otherwise we’re going to continue to have people who are retiring and have lots of money who want to move here and work in restaurants, grocery stores, schools and hospitals – and all the service workers who need them to support them won’t be here anymore because.” they are no longer here will have been displaced.”
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