Straw Bale Homes:The Solution To Affordable Housing?

Mar 5, 2019

 Community Rebuilds is an innovative affordable housing program based in Moab. They partner low income wage earners living in the community with emerging professional builders who want to learn to build energy efficient houses.

Like Summit and Wasatch Counties, the Moab community needs more affordable housing. It’s a tourism-based economy but also a highly desired place to live. Homeownership has become unattainable for many workers who are integral to sustaining the thriving economy. Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus is a founder of the non-profit Community Rebuilds. She explains how the program works.

“Energy efficient housing for us that’s straw-bale construction with solar photo voltaic with passive solar, adobe floors, straw bales. And, they partner together. Build a home over five months. Put the key in the door at the end. The students walk away with an education. Homeowners walk away with a home. Students don’t pay for the program and they’re provided housing and a food stipend. Homeowners are required to do a lot of sweat equity, so they build alongside each other. So, it’s just a really beautiful little program that seeks to address housing affordability for wage earners that make below 80 percent of the area median income.”

Niehaus founded the organization 15 years ago. She’s stepping aside, but as Mayor of Moab, she also acknowledges the need for medium income housing. Access to affordable housing is a statewide issue and she’s hopeful the legislature will pass an incentives bill for communities to create more affordable and attainable housing.

“In Moab, we’ve got a whole list of barriers to affordable housing or housing affordability. We’re rural, materials cost more. We don’t have a lot of vendors to pull from where as in Park City, you can get businesses, contactors to come up from Salt Lake. We are just so very remote. And, then also our land cost is rising. The wages in the tourism-based economy are somewhat capped at a level that doesn’t match the cost of land.”

For the past 15 years, Community Rebuilds has acquired dilapidated properties that they helped to redevelop. But land prices continue to go up and CR now acquires what they’re calling tricky parcels.

“So, they may be in a flood zone. They may be on a hill side. They may have complicated soils. So, we’re able to subsidize the cost of tricky lots and be able to do some redevelopment. Also, there’s an emerging community land trust in Moab that acquired 32 acres that Community Rebuild is slated to be a partner with that. Now, on the City side, we’ve also passed an ordinance that requires hotel builders to build workforce housing for the workers or to pay into a fund. So, that fund is going to enable some workforce housing in Moab.”

The city has put a moratorium on building hotels so planning can address zoning and consider residential development in some of those commercial areas.

Niehaus says straw bale homes, like they use in Community Rebuilds, can be built in snow country pointing out a project they did in Mount Crested Butte, Colorado.

Photos of the straw bale homes can be seen on KPCW.org.