Despite economic growth, workers struggle to find housing in St. George

Chaden Tervo standing before an apartment complex in downtown St. George, Dec. 13, 2020. | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News.

ST. GEORGE — Though he has a full-time job as an electrician’s apprentice, 22-year-old Chaden Tervo sleeps in a tent on Bureau of Land Management land at the west end of River Road.

Herein lies the paradox behind St. George’s jobs and population growth. Even as Utah’s economy was ranked first in the nation by 24/7 Wall Street, and the Census Bureau called St. George the fifth fastest growing metro area in the nation, some workers still can’t afford housing.

“The best thing you can do for yourself is get a gym membership,” Tervo said, settling into a seat at the Bear Paw Café Sunday morning. “You’re going to need something to do. You’re going to need a shower. And Pilot is too expensive.”

Tervo was talking about Pilot Flying J Travel Centers, where interstate travelers can stop and buy a shower for $12. Overnight parking costs between $12-$18 per night, depending where you are.

“You can get a gym membership for $20 a month,” Tervo said. “With that, you get a place where you can shower and get in shape.”

Tervo has seen his share of struggle in the past month. After getting hired by People’s Plumbing, he was laid off. He applied for unemployment but Snow Electrical Inc. offered him a job less than a day later.

“I was unemployed for 48 hours,” he said. “It’s all about references. Snow spoke to my former boss, who he gave me a good reference. They called me 20 minutes after I applied.”

But finding a job didn’t solve Tervo’s housing problem. Though he’s held jobs as a cook, and a few skilled trades, Tervo says he still hasn’t lived in a place of his own.

“I spent six months living with my aunt,” said Tervo, who is from the Hurricane area. “It was hard. We had six people living in a four bedroom house. We all shared one bathroom, but we were each paying $600 a month.”

Like many people his age, Tervo is compelled to choose between living with family members or roommates. While sharing expenses helps to save money, it exacts its own price upon the individual.

“There’s always some drama,” he said. “It might be about who isn’t cleaning up after themselves. It might be about somebody who can’t make their share of the rent. I had to get out of there.”

When asked whether he wanted a place of his own, he looked confused, conflicted.

“You can’t even find a studio around here for less than $800,” he said. “That worries me. I start wondering: Will I eat? Will I be able to pay rent? What happens if I get laid off again? I just don’t know.”

Because of the cost, and the level of competition, Tervo isn’t even looking for his own place.

“I’d rather save my money,” he said. “The dream right now is to get a van. If I can get a van, and keep a good job for a while, I’ll be able to save up enough money to get my own place … eventually.”

For those who find themselves in similar situations, Tervo advised building up your resources.

“I do service for people on the weekends,” he said. “They might give you a little money, or something to eat. If you take care of people, they take care of you.”

Places like Switchpoint can help, too. Switchpoint offers a variety of services, from help finding jobs and housing to learning skills needed for the workforce.

“They’ve got a shelter,” Tervo said. “They’ve given me food boxes when I really needed them.”

Though times are hard, he said he feels lucky. He has his health, he’s paying off debts and he still has his dreams.

“I want to join the union,” he said. “I want to buy my mom a trailer home, so she won’t have to pay rent anymore. And I want to save up enough money to build my own home recording studio.”

That last bit is a remnant of his first passion, music. A singer throughout high school, Tervo began playing guitar in college.

“I love it,” he said. “One thing I’ve been able to afford, is the time to do what I love.”

Speaking of love, Tervo said not to ask about his love life.

“You can’t ask a girl to go home with you when you live in a tent,” Tervo joked. Then, as he took stock of his situation, he took on a more serious tone.

“I’m still trying to figure out who I am. Where I fit in. It’s lonely, but I’m having a good time.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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