‘A big win’: Best Friends breaks ground on $6 million staff housing project in Kanab

ST. GEORGE — In response to a housing shortage in Kanab, Best Friends Animal Society broke ground on a $6 million staff housing project last month, a first for American nonprofits, they said.

Best Friends CEO Julie Castle, second from left, Jacob Cluff of H&C Development, third from the left, and Best Friends colleagues break ground on new employee housing in Kanab, Utah on Sept. 22, 2022 | Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

The Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is located in Kanab, where more than half of its 850 employees reside, according to a news release sent to St. George News.

“The small-town lifestyle, unprecedented beauty, and the proximity to National Parks and outdoor recreation have made Kanab an increasingly popular vacation and retirement community, as well as a prime “Zoomtown” location for remote workers,” the release states.

The project was driven by a “gradual shift in the rental market” toward more short-term rentals that occurred over the last five to 10 years, Judah Battista, Best Friends’ chief sanctuary officer said. While it’s been a “boon” for property owners, employees have struggled to find attainable housing.

“It’s essential in delivering on our mission and purpose that we have people and the ability to make sure that the people that are choosing to do good with their lives aren’t having to make existential sacrifices,” he said.

Best Friends Animal Society CEO Julie Castle with Coconut, an adoptable puppy from the sanctuary, Kanab, Utah, Sept. 22, 2022 | Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

The release states that housing costs have “skyrocketed,” and as many properties are converted to vacation rentals, the long-term rental market has “disappeared.”

“A recent internet search showed only two (rental units) available,” it said.

Best Friends is the largest employer in Kane County and was recognized as a Top Workplace by Energage in March, as St. George News previously reported.

Still, the nonprofit said in the release that it has struggled to fill 42 open positions due to the housing shortage, prompting the organization to begin construction on the 12 upcoming duplexes.

“Beautiful, pet-friendly homes” will be built with private yards and garages and include appliances, Best Friends CEO Julie Castle said in the news release.

“We need people. Period,” Castle said. “That’s why we made the commitment to building housing for our staff.”

Various unit sizes will be available, ranging from three-bedroom units of 1,247 square feet to one-bedroom dwellings that are 724 square feet, Best Friends public relations and marketing strategist Michelle Sathe said in an email.

Each one will be single-story and include a 6-foot fence and 300 square feet of grass in the backyards. Front yards will be drought-tolerant and xeriscaped.

Best Friends chose to provide pet-friendly units because their “employees are predominantly pet owners, and all pet lovers,” Battista said.

A rendering of the front of one of the upcoming duplexes in Best Friends Animal Society’s staff housing project in Kanab | Image courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

They expect to finish constructing the first duplex in early 2023, which will then be available for rent, Battista said. Another duplex will be completed every two weeks until all units are available.

The houses will be built in the Creekside development in Kanab’s “The Ranchos” area, Sathe said.

The project is expected to alleviate housing challenges employees face, including living in tents, cars, campers or trailers, homes that are too small, or with multiple roommates to afford rent, Sathe said.

As an animal welfare organization, Battista said Best Friends is “wholly dependent” on having staff to meet their commitment to the animals.

“That’s been a barrier to relocating. … It’s been a challenge to retaining people in the community,” he said. “It’s something that we ultimately had to prioritize.”

A rendering of the back of one of the upcoming duplexes in Best Friends Animal Society’s staff housing project in Kanab | Image courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

Best Friends’ stated goal is for rent to be as cost-effective as possible and will be priced according to the area’s fair market value. Additionally, the homes are meant to provide “long-term, transitional” housing, Sathe said.

“After a predetermined timeframe, staff will be expected to find their own accommodation, which will ensure these units will continue to be available to alleviate ongoing staff housing issues,” she said.

The units are meant to be a “gateway to more permanent residences,” Battista added.

“That will help us attract staff to the community, but it’s not going to meet every housing need that our employees have,” he said.

The project will cost an estimated $6 million, which includes the cost of land, design, engineering and construction. It was funded through bank financing and not from private donations to Best Friends, which is used to “help homeless pets in our care and across the country,” Sathe said.

In this file photo, Nick Dineschi holds Sansa at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Kanab, Utah, Feb. 24, 2022 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“Kanab real estate has proven to be an excellent long-term investment,” she said. “This is an investment in real estate, in our staff, and in our mission.”

The nonprofit will partner with a local contractor to add to its “already significant local economic impact.” And according to the news release, Best Friends has paid more than $22.5 million in wages and has a total economic output of over $42 million.

“This project is a huge win for Best Friends and the community,” Castle said. “While this won’t fix everything and we’ll continue to look for additional avenues to tackle the housing issues in Kanab, these 24 units will help us continue to recruit the best people and will allow us to help some of our existing staff that are badly under-housed.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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