The following news coverage highlights the core challenges U.S. mountain regions face. Articles are organized by U.S. State and country. Are you a journalist covering these issues? Contact us to learn more.
The following news coverage highlights the core challenges U.S. mountain regions face. Articles are organized by U.S. State and country. Are you a journalist covering these issues? Contact us to learn more.
(Schendler, Auden. “Ski Towns Need Radical Solutions to Affordable Housing.” Adventure Journal, Adventure Journal, 1 Dec. 2016, www.adventure-journal.com/2016/12/ski-towns-need-radical-solutions-affordable-housing/)
Restricting growth in the interest of saving small town character is pushing out the people towns need the most. This fall, a landscape architect named Nick stood up at a town meeting in Basalt, in western Colorado, where I live. He said he’d sold his condo and was probably the last young professional to ever try to live here.
He griped that the community had abandoned urban planning, forsaking people like him and putting the town’s future at hazard: No affordable places to live, no reasonably priced offices, and the council wanted to convert much of the town core into a park. How did we get here?
People who choose to live in the West do so because they appreciate its natural beauty. Many labored to protect it, as developers filled green spaces with subdivisions. Some smaller towns got wise: They created urban growth boundaries, protected open space, and established zoning to preserve character. Eventually, though, the problems facing people like Nick — along with the traffic — metastasized.
The issue was the way town governments and their electorate saw the world. “No growth” and “land preservation” were their hammers, and every challenge was a nail. Even today, if you want to win an election, it’s smart to run on a platform of “protecting small town character.” Use the term “slow growth” as a dog-whistle that means no growth. Oppose sprawl. Oppose density. Oppose height.
Congratulations, you’ve won! But now you’ve inherited a mess of your own creation. Like Aspen, you have gridlock traffic from bedroom communities down-valley. Like Jackson, Wyoming, you have a crisis-level worker housing shortage. Like Telluride, your land values are now worth more than the silver underground. The result: Banks become more viable than bakeries, luxury condos displace lodges. As in Boulder, Colorado, the problem is exacerbated because high buildings were deemed ugly and out of character. Your police chief commutes from 30 miles away, your teachers and nurses and carpenters from even greater distances. And the community believes it’s got to close the doors.
But opposing density and height under the guise of historical preservation and environmentalism is what created Aspen’s West End, where empty single-family mansions surround empty parks. It’s literally a museum of an old mining town. Has this neighborhood been “saved”?
Urban policy reporter Emily Badger writes in the Washington Post that the notion that a place is “full” is more about perception than reality: “We can always make choices to make more room, to build taller and denser, to upgrade schools and rethink roads to let more people in. That we don’t isn’t a limitation of physics. It’s a matter of politics disguised as physics.”
The politics creates inequality. Why should one person be allowed to live in Shangri-La, and not another? And since you can’t actually stop people from coming in, a “close the doors” land-use policy means only rich people can play.
The New York Times reported that “a growing body of economic literature suggests that anti-growth sentiment, when multiplied across countless unheralded local development battles, is a major factor in creating a stagnant and less-equal American economy.”
Meanwhile, developers are forced by space constraints and zoning into smart growth. These projects add height and density inside the town core, with smaller size and selective deed-restriction creating affordable housing for young families and encouraging foot traffic. But though they provide exactly what towns need, townspeople don’t welcome developers. Instead, they resist them, seeing the same villains that ruined Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
Of course, mountain communities can’t accommodate all the people who might want to live here. But many towns haven’t tried all that hard. Aspen Skiing Company, which operates in Aspen and Snowmass, lacks beds for 600 workers. Yet when writer James Howard Kunstler suggested Aspen ought to add another story to the downtown, he was swiftly run out of Dodge.
Recently, the White House weighed in. The Times reported that the administration published “a toolkit of economic evidence and policy fixes to help local … leaders fight back against the NIMBYs that … hold sway over municipal zoning meetings … (calling) for more density, speedier permitting and fewer restrictions on … basement and garage apartments. The plan rejects some of the arguments made by environmentalists, labor unions and other liberal constituencies.”
But the battle roils on. In Aspen, voters have fought off several hotels that would have replaced guest rooms lost as older lodges converted to condominiums. Instead, Aspen gets townhomes. These buildings often sit empty or invite car travel, which hotels do not.
This result might be just what townspeople want. Mountain and resort communities are increasingly occupied by older, wealthier people. Peace and quiet is what they prefer. But do these residents only care about numbers, and not community character? The places we live, absent families, young people, commerce and foot traffic, can’t really be described as towns, much less communities. They are, instead, locations in which to reside, “houses,” as Nick has noted, “with no rooms, just four walls and no doors.”
(Healy, J. (2016, January 24). Precipitous Rents in Ski Country Push Workers to Edges. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/25/us/precipitous-rents-in-ski-country-push-workers-to-edges.html)
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Soaring home prices and a shift toward weekend vacation rentals have created a housing crisis in ski country towns like Vail, Colo. On nights when she could not crash on a friend’s couch or unroll a sleeping mat on an attic floor, Chelsea Lilly tucked her silver Subaru into a supermarket parking lot or a dark spot along a mountain pass, wrapped herself in a green Army blanket and watched movies on her phone until she fell asleep.
Getting work at a day spa in this bustling ski town had been easy, but finding an affordable apartment this winter proved almost impossible. So Ms. Lilly, 34, bounced along an itinerant path of couches and borrowed bedrooms that has become a fact of life for workers in jewel-box tourist towns across the country. Nights in the Subaru got so cold that she shivered awake every few hours and ran the engine to thaw out.
“I didn’t know it was going to be like this,” she said.
The miners who once pried gold and silver from the heart of the Rocky Mountains would attest that living in paradise has never been easy. These days, soaring home prices and a shift toward weekend vacation rentals have created a housing crisis in ski country, one that has people piling into apartments, camping in the woods and living out of their trailers and pickup trucks.
Local officials and housing experts say it is a symptom of widening economic inequality, one that is especially sharply felt in tiny resort towns hemmed in by beautiful but undevelopable public land. While the wealthiest can afford $5 million ski homes and $120-a-day lift tickets, others work two jobs and sleep in shifts to get by.
“It’s so much worse today than it’s ever been,” said Sara Flitner, the mayor of Jackson, Wyo., where the median single-family home price rose 24 percent last year to $1.2 million, according to the Jackson Hole Report. “When I go to the grocery store, I see the people who are sleeping in shifts. We see the gap continuing to widen between the uppermost levels of income earners and the rest.”
Ski towns across the West have been building affordable housing for decades — condominiums and apartments, rowhouses and cabins — but many officials say the demand is just too much. Breckenridge is building 45 studio and one-bedroom apartments for workers, with hundreds more in various stages of development. And the housing authority of Summit County, of which Breckenridge is the seat, is putting a new employee to work trolling vacation-rental sites to make sure people in employee housing are not illegally renting their homes to vacationing snowbirds. “It’s so important that Breckenridge retain this identity of having locals live here,” said Elisabeth Lawrence, a Town Council member. “Real town, real people.”
But a countywide housing survey from two years ago shows the challenges. It estimated a housing gap as high as 1,785 units by 2018. In Jackson Hole, Wyo., carpenters and teachers are commuting from Idaho over steep, snowy mountain passes. Outside Crested Butte, Colo., so many seasonal workers and other visitors camped in the woods last summer that a local biological research station complained its research sites were being overrun by campers and cars veering off the roads.
“There are just tons of people here,” said Ian Billick, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, which operates out of the mining ghost town of Gothic. Local officials and employers have been struggling to find space for all the new arrivals and employees. Some are sleeping in their bosses’ spare bedrooms. The 2,300-person town of Telluride in southwest Colorado toyed with building tiny houses as a stopgap. In Steamboat Springs, Colo., where the vacancy rate for multifamily rental units was zero at the end of last year, bus drivers and hotel housekeepers have been living out of two motels converted to de facto dormitories.
Vail Resorts, which runs ski areas across the West, kicked up anger in December with a proposal to have its employees share bedrooms in the two-bedroom worker housing units in Summit County. The company said the option was strictly voluntary, and aimed at workers looking for a break in their rent.
Vail owns more than 3,200 beds to house flocks of wintertime employees, and said in December that it was dedicating $30 million to building more employee housing to address the crunch.
Yun Wang, 22, said she had easily found a winter gig delivering skis and boots to people’s condos and hotel rooms in the town of Vail. But she and her boyfriend, who grooms the slopes at night, could not afford anything near Vail, so they settled for the winter in an unheated basement in Gypsum, about 40 miles away.
Jacob Buettner shook snow off a rug at the trailer near Vail where he is spending the winter. She brought a space heater and was planning to buy a heated mattress pad with a gift card she got for Christmas. Her boyfriend rigged up a tarp to try to enclose their living space and conserve some heat. One night, out of curiosity, they brought a thermometer downstairs with them. It read 40 degrees, Ms. Wang said.
“At least we have a roof over our head,” she said. “Vail’s having all these hiring events. They keep on hiring new people. Where are we supposed to live?”
The economic forces that are pricing middle-class families out of San Francisco and driving young professionals deeper into New York’s boroughs also sent Mitch Bishop farther and farther from his job at a ski-rental service in Breckenridge. After paying $200 a week to sleep on couches in Breckenridge and turning down the chance to share an R.V. for $600 a month, he ended up in a cheap rental trailer in Leadville, 40 miles from work.
The commute is beautiful, but the 7 percent grades can be a bit treacherous in his Ford Focus. One day, a snow chain snapped and tore up his car. Another day, he hit a patch of black ice and veered into a snowdrift.
Mr. Bishop said he was going to stick it out. He studied natural resources management in college and has worked as a kayaking guide and fly fishing instructor, aiming to make the outdoors his life. Colorado’s mountains are the place to do it, he said.
“I’m in the heart of it,” he said. “The economy here is booming. If you can’t find a job around here, you’re unhireable.”
Many workers floating from place to place said that, without money, having a sense of adventure was crucial to making it in the mountains. Jacob Buettner fitted out a trailer near Vail with a heater and gear to survive the winter. Drew Hannibal, who moved to Colorado from Michigan to work in retail, said he had camped in the woods until the October chill forced him inside. Rosalyn Gillund put all of her stuff in storage and in her pickup truck and is spending the winter on friends’ couches, making dinner or doing laundry as payment. “I really didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “I can sleep anywhere. I’ve got that going for me.”
(CBSDenver. (2017, September 08). Town Of Vail Tackles Mountain Housing Crisis Head-On. Retrieved from http://denver.cbslocal.com/2017/09/08/vail-chamonix-housing-crisis/)
A total of 32 new townhomes will soon provide affordable, stable homes for families living in the Vail Valley. The Chamonix neighborhood in West Vail will include duplexes, town homes and multi-family flats. Crews are building the homes in a prime location off Interstate 70 and have a target completion date of early 2018. City leaders say the fix to the affordable housing crisis that’s plaguing many Colorado mountain towns won’t come overnight — and will take a lot of resources including time and money — but Vail is making progress. “Vail Town Council recently adopted a master plan whereby we want to see 1,000 new deed-restricted homes for families to live in here in the community in the next 10 years,” Vail Community Development Director George Ruther told CBS4. Vail used a lottery system in accepting new Chamonix families. “We had 88 families that qualified,” Ruther said. To qualify, applicants had to work at least 30 hours a week in Eagle County.
(Howard, E. (2016, October 13). Vail Daily column: Housing at crisis point. Retrieved from https://www.vaildaily.com/opinion/vail-daily-column-housing-at-crisis-point/)
Eagle County is an amazing place to live, work and play. I am proud to call it home and feel fortunate for the opportunity to raise my two boys here. As a family, we are spoiled by how easy it is to get outside — on skis, on bikes, on foot, in the river. We make every effort to get out and enjoy all these special activities together. This quality of life is something I never imagined growing up in a city. In addition, we are surrounded by creative, generous and resilient community members. While our population continues to grow, this is still a small town, and I have seen our community come together on countless occasions to support each other.
This quality of life comes with trade-offs. Community members are determined and always looking for creative solutions to make it work here. However, finding an affordable place to live in Eagle County has gotten harder and harder. We need almost 4,500 housing units today and nearly 12,000 by 2025 to house our workforce. There is a shortage of homes for our full-time work force and their families. By 2025, my oldest son will have graduated from high school. I often wonder what the community will look like then, and if he or his brother will be able to live in Eagle County as adults, if they choose to do so.
Affordability and availability of housing has reached a crisis point and it's tearing at the fabric of our community, causing people to move away. We are losing our creative, generous community members because they cannot find a stable, affordable place to live.
Fortunately, our county commissioners, in collaboration with nearly all the municipalities in Eagle County, have put forth a solution; a .003 cent sales tax, or three cents on every $10 purchase excluding groceries. Funds generated from this sales tax will create an affordable housing fund. This is a community issue, and it is exciting to see our leaders come together to address it.
I have seen the impacts that affordable housing can have on families and on our community through my work, during the last 11 years, with Habitat for Humanity Vail Valley. Habitat is successful because it offers families a hand up and the opportunity to provide a better life for themselves and their children. Habitat builds strength, stability and self-reliance through affordable housing. An affordable home is a strong foundation for a family, an opportunity on which they can build a better life. Strong and stable homes help build strong and stable communities. Better, affordable living conditions lead to improved health, stronger childhood development and the financial flexibility to make forward-looking choices. A decent place to live and an affordable mortgage help homeowners save more, invest in education, pursue opportunity and have more financial stability.
The affordable housing crisis cannot be solved overnight. It will take collaborative and creative solutions that address both affordable home ownership and affordable rentals to create long-term solutions for workforce housing. I believe 1A is a positive step toward the solution. Affordable workforce housing is a vital piece of infrastructure needed to support a thriving community.
(Schendler, A. (2018, January 25). Open Space Is the Enemy of Affordable Housing. Retrieved from https://www.outsideonline.com/2277281/our-mountain-towns-need-affordable-housing)
Aspen Ski Co’s vice president of sustainability on embracing change—and density—in our remote, idealized hamlets. John Steinbeck said that there’s only one story in the world, and we tell it over and over. If you live in a resort town, that story is about the lack of affordable housing, which leaves no aspect of the community untouched. Consider, for example, composting. Many restaurants compost food-waste in and around Aspen, where I work. But not everybody does it. In one location, a guest asked a manager: “Why don’t you compost here?” The manager responded: “You may not be aware of this, but my business had a severe labor shortage this year—region wide, we were down 60 employees. Composting takes labor. If we were fully staffed, we’d be able to do it no problem. But right now we don’t even have enough cashiers.”
Why the labor shortage? It turns out that employers can’t house their workforces. The ski company I work for is short some 600 beds alone, even after spending tens of millions of dollars on housing. Workers apply for jobs, realize there’s no place to sleep, and move on.
Let’s dig deeper. The person who asked about composting is likely part of what I’d call an “old school” environmental community that practices preservationism—of small town character, of land, and of history. She almost certainly also opposed recent efforts to increase density—read: affordable housing—in our town in the name of, you guessed it, protecting the environment.
This worldview is widespread. Mountain communities are often run by environmentalists from 40 years ago whose thinking has not kept abreast of the development in their hometowns. They champion stasis over change, open space over density, and consider development evil. They hate crowds—even though crowds are the foundation of the entire resort economy. “The only thing they hate more than sprawl,” an architect told me, “is density.”
Parts of Aspen look like they did decades ago, with Victorian houses and big, lovely parks. There are, however, no people in those houses (often second, third, or fourth homes), and a long line of traffic every morning and evening as people forced to live downvalley, where real estate is cheaper, end up commuting 20, 30, and even 50 miles to work.
There’s nothing environmental-friendly about any of this. The long commute creates pollution. It blocks guests from the ski hill. It wears out the road. It’s the exact antithesis of all the ideas Aspen was founded on—about renewal and escaping from the world.
I don’t mean to pick on Aspen. All resort towns—from Jackson to Telluride to Crested Butte to Conway—experience the same challenges. Ditto for Aspen’s down valley neighbor, Basalt, where I serve on the town council. “But we don’t want more people in town!” a local radio host told me once. Residents, who mostly make decisions based on what will affect their property values, vote along those lines every time.
So what’s the fix? For one, we need to embrace density. Basic urban planning principles offer some solutions. Build infill housing in the urban core, or at least within the urban growth boundary, along transit routes. Make it dense, which means small units that go up instead of out. Change codes to allow for smaller houses, which are more affordable (Carbondale, Colorado, just eliminated minimum house size requirements) and enable mother-in-law units with occupation requirements.
There are gnarlier answers, too. Proposed legislation in California would get rid of zoning restrictions around transit hubs in bigger cities, making it easier to build thousands of new units near bus stops and train stations. You can see how this would scare residents concerned about community character. But it was their unwillingness to plan ahead and accommodate others that led to the crush of housing in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for totally unrestricted growth. The goal isn’t to “let everyone in,” as people fear, or exceed carrying capacity. It’s for communities to be able to house their workforces. In doing that, we should respect urban growth boundaries and oppose unmitigated sprawl. But we must also welcome changes to our towns and understand that nothing living gets locked in time.
How do we get to the above solutions? The short answer is that we need a civics revolution, whereby younger citizens—the very ones who need housing—or enlightened elders either run for office or amp up pressure on those already in power. We need to bring to the table something missing from American politics: a commitment to the community over self interest. We need a new YIMBYism—Yes In My Back Yard—versus the current NIMBYism. We need to learn again how to live together.
(Blanchard, N. (n.d.). This Idaho area has one of the most extreme income inequality gaps in the country. Retrieved from https://www.idahostatesman.com/news/business/personal-finance/article215335440.html)
One Idaho county and its county seat are among the spots in the U.S. with the worst income inequality, thanks to top earners who rake in nearly 50 times what the average worker makes, according to new research from the Economic Policy Institute. Blaine County is the 27th most unequal county in the country, while the Hailey area is the ninth-worst area, based on 2015 economic data.
In addition, the Jackson, Wyoming, area — which extends into Eastern Idaho — is the worst in the country, said the institute, a liberal Washington think tank. According to the EPI, the top 1 percent of earners in Blaine County make about $3.6 million on average. The other 99 percent of the population averages $77,353 — 46.8 times less.
Despite earning a higher national ranking, Hailey’s ratio of income inequality is slightly less than that of its surrounding county, thanks to slightly less affluent earners. The average income of Hailey’s top 1 percent is $3.1 million, 44.9 times more than average. The average income for the other 99 percent of Hailey’s population is $69,399. The area is known for its affluence, including celebrities and tech titans who live and recreate in Hailey or nearby Sun Valley and Ketchum.
Farther east, Jackson’s income equality blew the rest of the country away: Its top 1 percent of earners bring in 132 times what the other 99 percent of people earn. The most affluent in Jackson average $16.1 million in income, while others in the area average $122,447. The Institute reports that the average income for the top 1 percent in the nation continues to balloon. Statewide, Idaho’s top 1 percent take home nearly 15 percent of all the income in Idaho. That’s an average of $820,268, while the other 99 percent of Idahoans average $47,727 — 17.4 times less.
What lands someone in Idaho’s top income category? An annual income of at least $314,532, the EPI says. Overall, Idaho’s income disparity pales in comparison to much of the country. Idaho ranks 38 out of 50 states in terms of unequal income ratio. Across the country, the average top 1 percent earner makes 26.3 times what the average 99 percent earner does.
(Murdock, J. (2017, October 25). Valley has a blind spot in workforce housing. Retrieved from https://www.mtexpress.com/wood_river_journal/special_sections/valley-has-a-blind-spot-in-workforce-housing/article_fc8da3aa-a23c-11e7-9736-27a9cbb9251b.html)
Low-priced homes aren’t sufficient for county workers. Not only does Blaine County suffer from a shortage of middle-income-priced homes—that is, properties selling for less than $425,000 and often around $300,000—but many workers in the county are far from being able to afford a home at all, and they are faced with even fewer options. “There’s no secret that we don’t have enough housing,” Sun Valley Economic Development Executive Director Harry Griffith said during the presentation of an annexation request for a proposed development in Bellevue on Sept. 20. “There is significant demand in the employment community … that are being constrained in growing their workforces and adding to their business because of the lack of affordable housing. ‘Where do my employees live?’ That’s a problem that we don’t have an answer to.”
But while there’s a lot of talk surrounding middle-income housing, such as the development proposal in Bellevue, Blaine County Housing Authority Executive Director Nathan Harvill said, there’s not nearly enough discussion about affordable housing—deed-restricted properties with lowered rents or prices that can only be rented or purchased by people with low-enough income to qualify. So too is there not enough discussion on what’s actually affordable for the county’s workers. That creates a blind spot in the county’s overall discussion on “workforce housing,” a term Griffith said encapsulates both middle-income housing and affordable, or deed-restricted, housing. “What I’ve noticed is that I’m not seeing a lot of housing that’s accessible to people who do the majority of the work within the region, and I think there are some opportunities to have a broader discussion about what’s affordable here,” Harvill said.
Among workers in the service and hospitality industries, he said, “you’re not going to find people in those industries who are searching for a $300,000 house.” Since moving from Tulsa, Okla., to begin leading the Housing Authority in August, Harvill said he’s been poring over data on Blaine County from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and state and local agencies and organizations. They’re all in agreement that housing in this area is not affordable,” but data and opinions diverge when it comes to determining at what point housing becomes affordable, he said.
Wages don’t cover housing
Harvill said the county needs to assess “who are we trying to make housing available for? In this area, we’re talking about firefighters, policemen, teachers and working professionals, who, because of what they’re paid, don’t make enough to be able to afford a house,” he said. Harvill shared data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that the projected average annual wage for a Blaine County worker is about $47,800, a figure that was extrapolated from first-quarter 2017 data for individual workers. Complete 2016 data, adjusted for inflation, showed average yearly earnings of about $48,900 for an individual Blaine County worker. While it’s great to build middle-income homes with the goal of attracting new businesses and their employees, he said, that’s “chasing a fantasy” compared to providing for the needs of workers already living in the county who find themselves underserved by available housing.
The crisis is for people who live here right now,” he said, adding that the entry-level rung on the housing ladder is “a little bit lower than what we think it is.” Harvill said individuals and households should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and Sun Valley Economic Development classifies anyone paying more than 35 percent of earnings on rent as “rent burdened.” That means that the average Blaine County worker should be spending no more than about $1,200 on housing each month. Service-industry workers, of which there are about 9,000 in the county, make an average of about $38,000 each year and should spend no more than $950 on housing per month. The county’s 3,700 leisure and hospitality workers make an average of $24,500 a year, meaning they should spend about $600 on housing each month, “And I don’t see anything like that around Ketchum,” Harvill said.
Data from Sun Valley Economic Development show that the inventory of affordable-housing units in Blaine County has nearly flatlined since 2010, with the 524 units available that year marginally increasing to 545 by 2017, but Harvill said it’s unclear how many units, if any, are available. The last major addition was 61 new units in 2010. Before that, it was 208 new units in 2002, which brought total units at that time to 412. Of those 545 units, 444, or 81 percent, are rentals. The largest project was the Balmoral development in Hailey, which added 192 units. A total of 38 projects have been completed since 1980, with a median of four units per project. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 12,500 workers in Blaine County. “Workforce housing is not $400,000 for a house,” Bellevue City Councilman and business owner Shaun Mahoney said at the annexation request presentation in September. “$400,000 is not affordable housing.”
Mahoney said his employees have struggled to find housing in the Wood River Valley, typically having no luck with long-term rentals and instead opting to commute as much as 90 minutes each way from towns outside the area. And that experience is emblematic of Harvill’s suggestion to recalibrate the area’s perception of “affordable.” “No one really talks about rental housing … just getting people into a place to live,” he said. Harvill shared data showing that Blaine County’s average hourly wage of $23.01 across all workers in 2017 is significantly less than the $26.20 wage required to afford the median two-bedroom residence advertised in Blaine County. And that required wage is significantly greater than the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s calculation that a two-bedroom residence at fair-market rent in Blaine County should only require a wage of about $17 per hour. And even more concerning, Harvill said, is that the average Blaine County renter’s hourly wage is even lower than that, coming in at $13.75.
According to American Community Survey data from 2009-2015 compiled by Sun Valley Economic Development, about 27 percent of renters in the county are rent-burdened, spending more than 35 percent of their income on housing.
High failure rate among affordable housing
While affordable housing has been added to the county’s market in intermittent spurts, a greater number of sizable proposed projects have either failed to be completed and were built but not as affordable units. According to Sun Valley Economic Development, 14 proposed affordable-housing projects totaling 323 deed-restricted units have failed to be delivered since 1990—and the failure rate is rising, with 122 undelivered units from six failed projects in the past seven years. Reasons for project failure are diverse, including lack of affordable land, lack of funding or investors, the Great Recession and a stigma against affordable-housing projects, including lawsuits from neighbors. “It’s the NIMBYism that really hurts it,” Harvill said, referring to a “not in my backyard” mentality toward affordable housing. “You do have to kind of break down the stereotypes.” Additionally, he said, non-deed-restricted, yet low-priced, long-term rentals and homes are often purchased for conversion into more profitable ventures, such as second homes or high-end vacation rentals.
The valley, Harvill said, needs to diversify its housing by adding more long-term rentals that workers can afford. Plus, in the event of another economic downturn, falling wages and cautious lending will push more people into long-term rentals, and a community without many available will suffer. Even workers who can afford a middle-income home are hard-pressed to find one for sale or that meets their needs. According to the Sun Valley Board of Realtors and Sun Valley Economic Development, Blaine County as a whole has 4.7 months of supply of homes selling for less than $425,000. Anything less than a four-month supply is considered a sign of an unhealthy market; four to seven months of supply is a sign of a transitioning market and an eight-month supply or more is a sign of a healthy market.
Individually, Sun Valley has an 8.6-month supply of such homes, slightly into the healthy market range. Ketchum has 5.9 months of supply—a transitioning market—and Hailey and Bellevue have 2.8 months and 0.9 months of supply, respectively—both unhealthy. However, real estate agents have observed that the large supply of middle-income properties in Ketchum and Sun Valley are almost exclusively condos and townhomes—often used as vacation properties—and not the types of properties families and workers are looking to purchase. Those properties, typically single-family homes with yards, are primarily in Hailey and Bellevue. And there are very few of them. According to Sun Valley Board of Realtors data compiled by Windermere Real Estate broker Dan Gorham, there were 73 two- or three-bedroom offerings for less than $300,000 in Blaine County as of Sept. 20, and 18 were under contract, leaving 55 still available.
Gorham showed that for properties less than $500,000—the absolute upper limit for what’s considered workforce housing—and with two or three bedrooms, the median sale price dropped from $289,000 to $282,500 from 2006 to 2017. However, in 2006, only 131 such properties sold by Sept. 20, with properties taking an average of 269 days to sell. By Sept. 20, 2017, 279 properties of those criteria had sold, with an average of only 174 days on the market, illustrating that such units are being snapped up faster than in 2006.
Hailey’s monopoly on inexpensive homes
But more middle-income homes are being built in the valley, with 2016 seeing 20 permits for homes less than $250,000 and 19 permits for homes between $250,000 and $500,000. That’s a marked increase from 2011, which recorded only five permits total for homes less than $500,000, three of which were under $250,000. But since 2011, nearly all those homes have been built in Hailey, with the town becoming home to 78 new units less than $250,000 and 52 between $250,000 and $500,000. Bellevue recorded six and 10 permits for those respective price ranges during that time, and unincorporated Blaine County recorded 11 and 20 permits, respectively. In contrast, Sun Valley saw one permit in each of those price ranges during the five-year span, and Ketchum had one permit for a unit less than $250,000 and 12 permits for units between $250,000 and $500,000 during that time, but those were mostly, if not entirely, condos and townhomes, real estate agents said.
However, permits for 77 units each greater than $1 million were issued between Ketchum and Sun Valley during that time, as well as 34 permits for units between $750,000 and $1 million and 29 permits for units between $500,000 and $750,000. Unincorporated Blaine County saw 30 permits for units between $500,000 and $750,000, 17 permits for units between $750,000 and $1 million, and 52 permits for units greater than $1 million during that time. “Idaho’s a very affordable state, but Blaine County is not,” Harvill said.
(Kendall, Lewis. “Big Sky Forum Grapples with Ongoing Housing Crisis.” Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 28 Jan. 2017, www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/economy/big-sky-forum-grapples-with-ongoing-housing-crisis/article_03ac9b10-6b2c-516f-a074-e51d12980700.html.)
Housing was again the hot topic at a forum in Big Sky this week. Community members, civic leaders and business officials discussed the area’s ongoing issues with affordable and worker housing at the second in a series of meetings hosted by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. In a packed Warren Miller Performing Arts Center auditorium, the group discussed the proposed Bough Big Sky Community Subdivision, various housing projects at Big Sky Resort and the possibility of increasing the resort tax to help fund future development.
“We need to find solutions to help make this work,” said Big Sky Chamber interim CEO Britt Ide. “Our whole community is driven by tourism, and we want to see how can we have smart, sustainable growth.” Ide presented solutions used in similar resort communities, including tiny houses in Teton County, Wyoming and workforce housing funded by Copper Mountain in Colorado. “There are so many different options and ways you can fund affordable housing projects. Unfortunately for us as an unincorporated community, many of those options are unavailable,” she said.
The area is currently putting its proverbial eggs in the basket of the 32-unit Bough development, set to be built this summer on 10 acres of donated land off Spruce Cone Drive. The project is spearheaded by the Big Sky Community Housing Trust, an arm of the Bozeman nonprofit HRDC, with the help of $1 million in resort tax appropriations. The organization is in the process of becoming an independent nonprofit, which will give it the power to fundraise and help coordinate future housing development, said acting director Brian Guyer. The Bough units are set to be priced around $215,000 for a two-bedroom and $270,000 for three bedrooms.
Keep up with southwest Montana’s business world. Follow the Business Journal on Facebook. The homes will be deed-restricted, Guyer said, meaning future homeowners will have to meet certain criteria from a cap on income to ensuring the units are their primary place of residence. Partiality will also be shown to applicants with “essential” local jobs, such as firefighters or schoolteachers.
Much of the strain on housing is from seasonal workers, more than 80 percent of whom leave Big Sky every day, Ide said. The resort plans to add around 200 beds to its workforce campus, which would bring it closer to its goal of housing a third of its workers. “We don’t consider the rental program at the Holiday Inn sustainable,” said Brian Wheeler, director of real estate and development for Big Sky Resort. “But it all comes at one big price, and that is sacrifice. If we don’t sacrifice and don’t provide a third of our workers with seasonal housing, we’re putting the burden on you, the community.”
At the meeting, the chamber also offered its support for a bill working its way through the Legislature, which would let the community vote on an increase to the current 3 percent resort tax to help fund future housing efforts.
(Schechter, J. (2017, February 22). Housing crisis needs fact-based reality. Retrieved from http://www.jhnewsandguide.com/news/business/corpus_callosum/housing-crisis-needs-fact-based-reality/article_71ec5862-30c2-57c6-a26b-66a2b5a4467c.html)
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” — Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Facts are the bedrock of our language, our institutions, our civilization. Advocating “alternative facts” debases all this — it debases us as people. So does attacking those pursuing facts, for they are the ones creating society’s building blocks.
Over the past decade or so, one fact about our region has stood astride all others: On a per capita basis Teton County is the richest county in the richest country in the history of the world. The genesis of our wealth can be traced back to the Renaissance, when people began to realize that belief systems alone did not accurately explain the world. In response, scholars began systematically pursuing, combining and making sense of verifiable facts. Five centuries later the knowledge, technology and wealth resulting from that effort have allowed Jackson Hole — a community situated in one of the harshest, most unforgiving environments in America — to not only exist but flourish. When false prophets question not just facts they don’t like but the entire structure supporting those facts, they erode the foundation of our community, nation and modern world. While Jackson Hole suffers few false prophets, we do face a related problem: too few facts.
Consider the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan, our community’s most important secular document. Its vision is simple, powerful, inspired: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.” Yet by any objective measure we have little sense of how well we’re doing in pursuit of that vision. As I’ve written before, we know something about our economy, but not nearly enough. What’s far more worrisome is that we know essentially nothing about the plan’s raison d’etre: preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem.
In any human relationship, discrepancies between words and behaviors breed skepticism, if not distrust. In this case, when local government says its vision is preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem yet puts essentially no resources into that effort, it fans the cynicism many feel toward government.
To be fair, this disconnect isn’t all that surprising. Throughout history humans have taken nature’s bounty for granted, not missing their water till the well runs dry. What is surprising, however, is how little we know about the third leg of the Comp Plan’s focus: community, specifically housing.
Jackson Hole’s housing problem or crisis or emergency or what have you has been the community’s primary public policy issue for years, yet we know very little about our housing stock. We don’t know exactly how many housing units we have. We don’t know exactly how those units are used. And because the town and county use different systems to permit buildings, it’s hard to know exactly what we’ve built in any given year. Add it all together and we’ve created an interesting dilemma for ourselves — trying to solve a problem about which we’ve chosen to know little.
What do we know? Big picture, we have a sense of how many housing units we have — estimates range between 10,000 and 14,000 or so. But that’s a pretty big margin of error, and if we’ve learned anything over the past five centuries, it’s that the more accurately you understand something, the easier it is to address it. Unfortunately, in our case a margin of error approaching 40 percent is not terribly accurate. But in this era of alternative facts, who cares? We know we have a problem, so what does it matter knowing exactly how many units we have? Let’s just focus on building more.
The problem is that such an approach makes it impossible to assess whether we are meeting our stated goal of housing 65 percent of the community’s workers in Teton County. Without accurate measurements, how will we know if we’ve met the goal? And if we don’t care, why have the goal in the first place?
Switching gears slightly, I think the world of the people in the town and county planning departments, who I hope one day get the resources they need to develop a spot-on inventory of local housing stock. Until then, what they do know they put into the annual Comp Plan Indicator Report.
The report’s most recent edition estimates there are 14,237 dwelling units in Teton County. Of these, 56 percent house at least one person in the local workforce, while 9 percent are home to people not in the workforce. Of the remaining 35 percent most are second homes (Graph 1). The same report indicates that, given our current mix of vacant land and zoning, at build-out Teton County will add at most another 7,000 housing units.
Do the math, and ultimately Teton County will have slightly over 21,000 dwelling units. Do a bit more math, and given that the number of jobs in Teton County is growing faster than our housing stock, for the county to meet its 65 percent goal means nearly 14,000 of those 21,000-plus homes will need to house at least one worker (Graph 2).
This is where facts really kick in, and, as much as we might wish otherwise, they don’t paint a pretty picture. To achieve the goal of 65 percent of workers living in-county, 83 percent of the remaining 7,000 homes to be built — 5 out of every 6 — will have to house at least one local worker (Graph 3).
Which ain’t never, ever gonna happen.
In part it won’t happen because there are too many unbuilt lots at Shooting Star, 3 Creek, Snake River Sporting Club and other subdivisions, high-end and otherwise. In part it won’t happen because 10 years or so from now too many homes now occupied by local workers will be second homes or occupied by retirees. But mostly it won’t happen because, given our constraints of land, money and politics, there is no way Teton County will ever add nearly 6,000 more homes affordable to local workers.
Because these numbers are all estimates, the final figures may be several percentage points higher or lower. Regardless, as much as we may not like what the data tell us, they couldn’t be clearer. And they will remain clear even if, as seems to be all the rage these days, those who don’t like the message scream “fake news” or “alternative facts” or threaten to hold their breath until they turn blue.
Housing 65 percent of our workers in Teton County is a goal appropriate for an earlier time in Jackson Hole, one shaped by a different set of facts. Today the facts have changed, and with them so must our perceptions, goals and concomitant plans. Either that or resign ourselves to continuing to fight a battle any reality-based analysis shows can never be won.
Nearly 250 years ago John Adams defended a group of British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre, saying: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Teton County is an exceptional place, yet despite our wishes, inclinations and the dictates of our extremely high passions, our exceptionalism does not free us from the constraints of facts and evidence. Ditto the nation as a whole.
(Barber, M. (2016, July 06). Inside the ski town housing crisis. Retrieved from https://www.curbed.com/2016/7/6/12101006/jackson-hole-real-estate-tourism)
In March 2016, the family of 11-year-old Ventura Garcia Perez, otherwise known as "Vennie," received an eviction letter. Born in Jackson, Wyoming, Vennie lives in the 56-unit Virginian Village Apartment complex with his parents, his four-year-old brother Dominic, and his dog Charlie. Throughout this summer, the owners of the Virginian are evicting several hundred tenants on a rolling timeline so the apartments can be remodeled and sold or rented at higher rates. Now, despite having jobs, going to school, and being active in the community, Vennie and his family, like so many others in Jackson, have nowhere to live.
Jackson is in Teton County, one of the richest counties in America, where the wealthy flock in order to take advantage of Wyoming’s lack of income tax. (Jackson is the city; Jackson Hole, as it is more widely known, is the name of both the larger region and the ski area.) Known for skiing, its proximity to two popular national parks, and billionaires who skewed the county’s 2013 average income to $300,000, Jackson was also recently named the most economically unequal city in the United States. Faced with rising rents and a dearth of new housing developments, the ski town is experiencing an affordable housing shortage that’s more reminiscent of San Francisco than a town with a year-round population of 10,000 people.
In the past, young, slightly naïve nature lovers "moved to a ski town" in search of themselves, never-ending powder, and fresh mountain air. These ski bums lived in mountain towns for one season or 20, sometimes heading back home and sometimes putting down roots. Housing wasn’t always easy to come by and it certainly wasn’t cheap; crashing on a friend’s couch became a rite of passage, usually before finding more secure lodging and gradually integrating into the fabric of ski town life. But now, resort communities like Jackson are at a crossroads, struggling to balance a booming tourism-based economy with a severe shortage of places for residents to live.
The same thing that makes towns like Jackson attractive to tourists and residents—a focus on nature and conservation—makes developable land and housing scarce. Jackson sits at the gateway of two national parks, Yellowstone and Grand Teton, with 97 percent of the land around the town federally protected.
Each summer, millions of tourists travel through Jackson to get to the parks, and according to the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, more people are visiting Teton County than ever before. More than 4.1 million people toured Yellowstone National Park in 2015, up from a 2014 total of around 3.5 million. And with the national parks system celebrating its centennial anniversary this summer, Jackson is braced for record numbers of tourists.
A boom in the wintertime economy has also stretched housing needs. Jackson boasts two ski areas (Snow King and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) and a local airport with direct flights from 14 cities. Fueled by good snow and a healthy dose of El Niño hype, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort recorded its second best winter in 2015-2016, totaling 560,400 skier visits.
Robust tourist numbers have corresponded with soaring real estate prices. A recent Forbesarticle documented how high demand and a dearth of inventory drove property prices up 31.2 percent in 2015 compared with the previous year. The median sale price of a home in Jackson hit a whopping $1.76 million last year. While that may be affordable to one of the many celebrities who own property in the ski town, it’s out of reach of your local cook or concierge.
By all metrics, Jackson is in the midst of an economic boom. Mayor of Jackson Sara Flitner acknowledged, "I think the economy is hot right now. We are experiencing higher levels of visitation than we have in the past. On the one hand, that’s a great high-class problem to have because our coffers are paid by sales tax dollars."
But while there are jobs aplenty in Jackson, housing can be near impossible to find. "Property and inventory are scarce," says Flitner. "So the economy is fully recovered, and you have a scarcity of land, and a higher demand for employees." The backbone of Jackson’s resort-based economy is the service industry, with nearly 45 percent of all wage jobs contributing to tourism. According to numbers collected by the city of Jackson, temporary workers swell the town’s population by 52,000 people in the summer and by 5,000 people in the winter. It is often these service workers who have nowhere to live.
While much of Teton County is zoned to discourage density (and therefore affordable housing), Jackson’s status as a vacation spot makes the situation more extreme: at least 43 percent of homes sit empty because they are predominantly used as vacation homes for the wealthy. Few housing units have been built since the recession. According to data from 2014, between 2000 and 2010, Teton County added over 2,500 housing units, a growth of almost 25 percent. But from 2010 through 2013, only 460 new units were built, which equates to a growth rate of 3.2 percent. The growth in the housing supply has not kept pace with the number of people working in Jackson—in that same three-year period, the county gained 2,125 jobs.
To make matters worse, many of the larger affordable housing complexes have been taken off the market. In early 2015, worker housing in downtown Jackson was demolished to make way for a Marriott Hotel that’s still under construction. Not long after, developers cleared out mobile homes at the corner of Kelly Avenue and Millward Street to make way for new apartments. Long-term residents in the run-down Pioneer Motel were forced outafter the building’s owner (the Bank of Jackson Hole) deemed it unsafe. Many rooms lacked electricity or water, and still they were rented out at a cost of $570 per month.
In summer 2015, tenants in Jackson’s 294-unit Blair Place Apartments received notice that their rents would increase by more than 40 percent. A two-bedroom unit’s rent rose from $1,250 to $1,800. The complex’s owners justified the increase by saying they were following "a market adjustment." Jorge Moreno and his family were some of the many residents affected by the Blair Place rent hikes. When Moreno, an active volunteer and former case worker at the Latino Resource Center, realized how much his rent was about to go up, he thought, "I’ve invested so much in this community, and now all of a sudden I am going to lose it." Moreno spent hours surveying 200 tenants at Blair Place in an effort to put a human face on the rent hikes. He and other community members eventually negotiated for the 40 percent increase to be spread out over two years. Moreno’s rent is now $1,500 for his two-bedroom apartment, and he knows he will likely have to move when the second 20 percent increase occurs next year. Still, he’s grateful. The negotiated solution bought his family "another year of hope."
On the eve of Jackson’s busy season, the most recent loss of available rental units at the Virginian apartments has created what Mary Erickson, executive director at the Community Resource Center in Jackson, calls a "perfect storm." Before the latest evictions, housing in Jackson was already tight. Now, Erickson remarks, "We just don’t have anywhere for the people to go. That’s what’s making it an emergency."
When faced with rising rents, evictions, or the inability to find housing, Jackson workers have few options. Some are able to find alternative apartments, although vacancy rates are often less than 1 percent. Jackson also has an inventory of approximately 1,488 affordable housing units, but the supply of working housing is shrinking relative to vacant second homes. In 2000, local residents occupied 75 percent of the homes in Jackson. Today, an estimated 62 percent of Jackson’s workers live in Teton County. There are simply not enough housing options. Even using outdated 2010 census numbers, less than 11 percent of Jackson’s housing units are deemed "affordable" through deed and income restrictions, rent restrictions, or other permanent protections. The percentage is likely less now.
Those faced with homelessness often move into the homes of friends and family, swelling the occupancy numbers in one- and two-bedroom apartments. Erickson acknowledges that according to the lease agreements at the Virginian apartments, only 100 people should have been affected by the 2016 evictions. In reality, more than 200 people were living in 56 units, with multiple families cramming into a two-bedroom home.
An informal survey conducted by the Community Resource Center after the Virginian evictions found that most tenants had no plan for where they would live next. One woman told surveyors, "I don't want to leave Jackson because here is where I have a job and where my daughters go to school." Nearly all of the families asked for whatever help was available.
That help included donated tents. Especially in the summertime, camping (both legal and illegal) becomes widespread in the National Forests surrounding Teton County. Men and women live out of cars, or camp in places like Curtis Canyon, a campground 25 minutes northeast of town where the daily camp rate is $12. Campers often move between different sites to avoid the five-day camping limit, have little access to water, and shower at the recreation center. So many people were forced into camping in June 2016 that Flitner talked with Bridger-Teton Forest Supervisor Tricia O’Connor about organizing a labor camp of some kind on forest land, but a partnership now looks unlikely due to the time it would take to perform an environmental analysis to assess a potential site’s feasibility. O’Connor told the local publication Planet Jackson Hole, "While this may have looked at first blush like an easy fix, it is not. And we don’t have any other easy fixes for this summer."
I don’t want to survive in Jackson, I want to live in Jackson. And what I’m doing right now is just surviving.
If camping isn’t an option, especially for families with children, many are forced to consider moving outside of Jackson. The towns of Victor and Driggs, both in Idaho, now house Jackson workers who commute 45 minutes each way. South of Jackson, towns like Alpine require more than an hour drive into work. When commuting doesn’t make sense, workers in Jackson take the next logical step: they leave.
Despite help-wanted signs in storefronts throughout the city, much of Jackson’s workforce has left. "We’re going to have restaurants and stores and hotels that are understaffed all summer," Erickson says. "And that impacts the guest experience." Jackson Hole Mountain Resort decided not to open its Couloir restaurant on the top of the Bridger Gondola for summer 2016 in part because they couldn’t staff it.
The situation worsened so severely in May and June of 2016 that many proclaimed that it was no longer a housing "crisis," but was now an emergency. Christine Walker, a former executive of the Teton County Housing Authority, first moved to Jackson in 1989, and even then she had to camp until she found a place to live. But, she says, now entire families are forced into homelessness. "When you’ve got families who are camping because they don’t have any other choice," she says, "That’s an emergency. When you’ve got four people crammed into a tiny hotel room because that’s their only option, it becomes a public safety and health issue."
In the short term, those most affected are the low-wage workers in the community, many of them with kids in schools. "They’re having to make hard choices, basic need choices," Walker says. "They’re having to choose whether to pay for shelter or food, shelter or medical care, shelter or education."
The crisis boiled over on June 6, when more than 100 people braved pelting rain and hail to march to a town council meeting and demand action on affordable housing. Handmade signs read, "Homelessness is here" and "Yes, In My Backyard." Vennie Perez wore his own sign that day, carefully written in black Sharpie. It read, "I love my country. I love my community. I’m proud to be a part of a poor family. But I feel sad, because my family and many other families don’t have a place to live." As of press time, Perez and his family had yet to find a new apartment.
The severity of the housing shortage this summer has led to a surge of grassroots movements hoping to publicize the plight of Jackson’s struggling workforce.
Groups like Shelter JH and the Awareness Project are working to put a face on homelessness, sharing the stories of those who have been displaced. In addition to organizing rallies, Shelter JH has proposed to bring in fully equipped trailers to provide year-round lodging options for workers. They also want to allow Jackson residents to host workers and families’ RVs in private driveways year-round, something that current zoning laws prohibit. Other short-term options include permits to sleep in public parking lots as well as permitted overnight street parking.
But while the town of Jackson is sympathetic to the plight of the homeless, the city isn’t ready to overturn decades of laws that have prohibited this type of in-town camping. Lifting the camping ban in Jackson "isn’t a long term solution," says Flitner. "No one is coming to me and saying if you let me live in my car that would solve my problem. But I’m listening. And I’m still listening. And these are good people who want to help solve the problem. Too often we demonize others because we don’t like their ideas or we have a different opinion, and that’s what is responsible for the lack of progress."
The city has instead looked to other options to ease the housing crunch. The town of Jackson recently expanded bus service to help commuters living in nearby Victor, Alpine, and Driggs. It’s also providing incentives to the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust if it can begin construction this summer on new affordable housing. The Redmond Street Rentals project aims to build 28 one- and two-bedroom units of affordable, deed-restricted rental housing on the east side of town. It’s the only affordable housing project in Jackson that is shovel-ready, but even with approval from the town, the Housing Trust in late June 2016 was still short $6 million of its $12 million budget. And while it won’t help people struggling with housing this summer, the town council also approved the placement of a 1 percent General Revenue Sales Tax on the November 2016 ballot. If approved, the tax is expected to collect $40 to $48 million over four years, with 50 percent of the money going towards workforce housing projects.
Many complain, however, that government efforts to solve Jackson’s affordable housing issues have been stymied by inaction and misdirection. The Teton County Housing Authority was recently gutted and restructured, a process which has delayed shovel-ready projects and provided, as Christine Walker sees it, a "distraction" from the real issues. In June, the city hired April Norton, a former nonprofit program officer, to serve as director of the newly created Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department. But new rental units like the Redmond Street apartments will likely not be ready for tenants until summer 2017 at the earliest.
Those affected by homelessness want to see more temporary housing units, rent control, and an expansion of tenants’ rights. Although Jorge Moreno only had to spend a month or two living in hotel rooms or staying with friends when his family was homeless in April 2014, it was an awful time. He tried "to tell my wife and kids that everything was going to be fine, but I didn’t know it was going to be fine." A temporary trailer (like they "had in Katrina," Moreno adds) would have made all the difference. "We’re willing to pay rent," Moreno explains, "we just need an option."
Moreno also believes that landlords shouldn’t be allowed to raise rents by 50 to 100 percent. Wyoming’s property laws give landlords a great deal of power, and the housing shortage has meant that tenants have little recourse when faced with rent hikes or deplorable conditions. Many of his friends have never even seen a rental contract, Moreno says, and if they do have a contract, the terms are for as short as three or six months. "We have no options. A landlord can raise the rent at any time and there’s nothing we can do about it."
In order to house the workforce needed in Jackson’s tourism-based economy, many think the makeup of the town will have to change. As Mary Erickson acknowledges, "We’re not going to get there with duplexes and triplexes, we need to allow more density. If we really want to house our service workers, we need to be looking at apartment complexes." Jackson’s 2012 Comprehensive Plan set a goal of housing 65 percent of its workforce locally, and in November 2015, it housed approximately 62 percent. To bridge that gap, zoning laws for the downtown corridor will have to allow for increased density.
Christine Walker says that elected officials and the community need to capitalize on the grassroots movements striving to address the housing problem. She says, "We tend to look for the perfect solution instead of a lot of good solutions. We never find the right location … it’s never right. But we just need to be comfortable that it’s not the perfect location, or the perfect solution, but we’re going to have some really good solutions. And that will address our problems better than if we look for a perfect solution."
To evolve, Jackson will also have to change how it sees itself. "We still think of ourselves as a little rural community, and we’re not," says Mary Erickson. "We’re dealing with very serious urban issues." Jackson is no longer a stopover for adventurers passing through, but a world-class, high-end tourist destination. Christine Walker believes the solution lies in looking to other "high cost areas like San Francisco, New York, Boston, to see what they’re doing to address housing their workforce."
While housing has almost always been tight, the people struggling to find housing in Jackson are no longer just college kids. Now, families make up a large percentage of Jackson’s at-risk population. As Erickson remarks, "We talk a lot about seasonal workers, but the real concern for me and the people I serve is one of the things that has shifted in the past decade or so, more and more people who are year-round residents, are trying to make a life here, have children, and are working at the very low end jobs. What used to be college kids are now families. That’s shifting all over the country, right? A job at McDonald’s was never intended to be a job for a family, but that’s what is happening."
The housing crisis in Jackson also disproportionately affects Latino workers, who now make up over 30 percent of Jackson’s population (up from 17 percent in 2010). Many Latinos are drawn to Jackson because of the community’s immense need for workers. As Jorge Moreno puts it, they want what everyone wants: "a better life for my family." Instead, Moreno and others are forced to deal with the constant stress of housing insecurity. "I don’t want to survive in Jackson, I want to live in Jackson," Moreno explains. "And what I’m doing right now is just surviving."
But while lower-wage workers are suffering from housing insecurity, it’s important to note that this isn’t just a lower-income problem. When a community can’t house its workforce, it has devastating effects for everyone. "From tourists to residents to businesses to wage workers to families—everyone in this community is affected by the housing crunch," Walker says. When Moreno surveyed his fellow tenants at the Blair Place Apartments, nursing students, nonprofit workers, and teachers were all struggling to pay for increased rent. Jackson’s lack of affordable housing is eating away at the middle class, too.
The Jackson community "is disintegrating," Erickson says. "I understand that people don’t want things to change, but at the same time if we don’t do something to address this, we will change at a deep level. We think of ourselves as this great community, but that’s what’s at risk." Change is inevitable, Erickson believes. The fight against density, development, the "Not In My Backyard" voice that influences so much of Jackson’s politics, all of it aims to preserve the Jackson of yesterday. But just like in New York City, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, when housing costs make it impossible for diverse populations to live in the same place, something essential is lost. Jackson’s crisis highlights big questions: who is served in resort communities? Do ski towns exist purely for tourists, those who come and go and are willing to spend over $100 on a lift ticket? Or are ski towns about something else, something more than all of the second homes sitting empty?
This problem isn’t unique to Jackson, and towns like Telluride, Truckee, and Big Sky are all working to expand affordable housing options. But it’s in Jackson that the problem is most acute, and where so much of ski town identity is in flux. In a 2015 report on the state of the town, the Jackson-based think tank the Charture Institute proclaimed that the town had reached the end of the "ski bum era." No longer can "someone of limited means but tremendous passion ... move to the valley and, with hard work and a little luck, have a reasonable shot at making a permanent home." The cost of living has made that dream untenable.
(Davies, J. C. (2017, October 22). The New American Dream Home Is a Parking Lot. Retrieved from https://www.outsideonline.com/2250311/new-american-dream-home-parking-lot)
The housing crisis in the Mountain West has gotten so bad that some folks are happy to rent a clean piece of pavement. Earlier this year, Josef and Ben Sipiorski had a big idea for their college summer break. The brothers, ages 21 and 20, respectively, had spent most of their lives in rural Carpentersville, Illinois, a flat suburb an hour northwest of Chicago. They yearned for the mountains, somewhere they could learn how to fly-fish, climb, and mountain bike. They decided to move to Jackson, Wyoming, which they had previously visited on a snowboarding trip.
Their dad suggested they live in their grandfather’s camper. The 1965 Streamline Countess was falling apart, but the brothers gutted it and used old barn wood and other reclaimed materials to refurbish the trailer into a beautiful, modern mobile home, complete with a miniature wood stove, glass cabinetry, wood floors and shelving, and, of course, succulents. If nothing else, it was Instagram-ready: @TwoTurdsAndATrailer.
Josef Sipiorski makes breakfast inside the renovated 1965 Streamline Countess camper that he shares with his brother on the north end of Jackson, Wyoming. The two work as lifeguards at the recreation center and, like others at the camp, have their parking fees covered for the summer. (Ryan Dorgan)
Brothers Ben and Josef Sipiorski, of Carpentersville, Illinois, get ready for the day in their 1965 Streamline Countess camper behind the Teton County/Jackson Recreation Center in Jackson, Wyoming. (Ryan Dorgan)
That spring, the Sipiorskis searched for work from their home in Illinois. Getting a job wasn’t hard. The unemployment rate in Jackson Hole is just 2.6 percent, and the town is hungry for employees. Since 2012, jobs—20 percent of which are in the service industry—increased by 17.2 percent, and the effective population (including seasonal workers, commuters, and visitors) in summer ballooned by 91 percent. The City of Jackson Parks and Recreation Department quickly hired the brothers as lifeguards. The pay was $16 an hour—twice as much as they made back home doing the same job. In May, they rented an SUV to pull the camper and hit the road for Wyoming.
When the Sipiorskis arrived, though, they encountered a problem: They couldn’t find anywhere to park their new home. The only place available was a field. It cost $600 a month and had no hookups for electric or water. It was also in Victor, Idaho, nearly an hour from Jackson.
They had driven smack into a housing crisis that’s gutting communities across the Mountain West. Dream towns like Jackson have always been pricey places to live, but recent trends have turned a longtime concern into a defining issue. The median household income in town is $68,000. Twenty-two percent of males ages 25 to 34 live below the poverty line. In many places, there are simply no viable rental options for seasonal workers, or even for full-time employees earning middle-class salaries.
Fortunately for the Sipiorskis, Jackson had an unexpected option that suited them just fine. In mid-June, their manager at Parks and Rec told the brothers about a new program aimed at addressing Jackson’s unprecedented housing crisis: City employees could camp for free behind the rec center. The camp—population: eight—was located on a city-owned lot a few blocks from the center of town. In June, the city had launched the summer-long pilot program to gauge the viability of a municipal campground that would give its seasonal workforce an affordable place to live while easing the impact this population has made while camping on surrounding public lands.
Suddenly, their drive went from 60 minutes to 30 seconds; their rent from $600 to $0. The Sipiorskis were able to do something few in Jackson could: live in town and save money. They just had to embrace living in a parking lot.
“I mean, I know I’m only in college and not living here permanently, but I definitely don’t mind living like this in the summer,” says Josef. “It’s better than staying in a tent,” says Ben, “which is what some people have to do.”
Housing shortages in mountain towns are not necessarily a new problem—limited land means less development—but recently it has reached a fever pitch, and it isn’t unique to Jackson. Aspen Ski Co. is housing employees in a parking lot full of 350-square-foot tiny homes. In Tahoe City, where median rents for two-bedroom places have increased 52 percent to $1,900 a month since 2012, city officials have proposed paying owners to rent idle second homes to local employees. Whistler, which has a 650-person waiting list for workforce housing, can’t build units fast enough to accommodate its growth in tourism.
But Jackson may just represent the apotheosis of the issue, due to the combination of the rapid job growth and drastically wide income gap. According to a 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute, Jackson has the highest rate of income inequality of anywhere in the country. Meanwhile, job growth has outpaced residential growth by a factor of three. The median price of listed homes in Jackson is $1.375 million. Rentals are limited and expensive—the average one bedroom is more than $1,000 a month and next to impossible to find. While tourists flood the town square to dine on $40 elk medallions, the people serving them live in rooftop tents, in backyards, or in trailers and vans scattered around town.
It isn’t just seasonal service employees who are affected. The city is struggling to hire police officers, paramedics, teachers, and director-level positions—essential positions for a safe, functioning municipality. Chalk it up to a litany of issues—limited land, poor wages, outside investors buying up properties, the proliferation of short-term rentals, dramatic tourism growth, and Wyoming’s lack of an income tax, which leads the wealthy to buy rarely inhabited homes to use as tax havens.
“Just pick up a real estate brochure,” says Jim Stanford, city councilman and vice mayor, who is also a raft guide and champion of the pilot parking-lot program. “There seems to be no end to the people who can afford multimillion-dollar properties, while so many of the people who make up the heart of the community, who are trying to live and work here, are shut out.”
The parking lot took three years to approve. Stanford originally envisioned a large, open grassy field with rows of tents, but that idea was shut down over concerns about cleanliness and community degradation. “I felt very strongly that it was irresponsible of us to pretend that this doesn’t exist or stick our heads in the sand and put the impact on the surrounding forest,” says Stanford, who himself used to be one of the many individuals who camp on nearby public lands to save on rent.
In mid-June, the council settled on the out-of-sight parking spaces behind the rec center. In the original wording, the city would allow 20 people to live there for $465 a month each, from June 16 to September 4—the busiest season in Jackson. To alleviate concerns about dirtbags and ne’er-do-wells descending upon the parking lot, the city came up with rules that bordered on the draconian: no fires, awnings, pets, smoking, or generators; any and all sleeping, sitting, cooking, washing dishes, and eating had to be done within the confines of the vehicle. The program forbade tents and trailers, meaning residents had to be in their car or rooftop camper at all times—you could live there, but the citizenry didn’t want to see you living there.
To ensure that the parking lot units went to locally employed people, the town reached out to area businesses, which in turn offered the deal to their staffers. The employers sold exactly zero permits. Turns out that nearly $500 for an asphalt parking space with limited electric, no water, and a shared Porta-Potty is not an appealing offer.
“The employee looked at it and said, ‘If I’m going to be living out of my van, I’d rather live in the forest, as opposed to a parking lot,” says Steve Ashworth, director of the Parks and Recreation Department. “I get it. It’s worked out well for Parks and Recreation, but it has really provided no solution for the community as a whole.”
Ultimately, eight municipal workers stayed in the lot for the summer. In large part, that was because the city had agreed to cover its own employees’ rent in the lot and provide a membership to the rec center, where they could shower. (It’s open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.) “It’s a small but, I think, significant first step,” says Stanford.
Emily Rutz and Matt Guido spend most of their time at work and outdoors, but they sometimes retreat to their cozy 1973 camper to read or tie new flies.(Ryan Dorgan)
With such limited interest, the town also relaxed the no-trailer rule. The Sipiorski brothers jumped on the offer. So did their parking lot neighbor, Emily Rutz, who leads activities for the five- and six-year-old kids enrolled in Camp Jackson, which says it will “send your kids home happy, tired, often wet, and sometimes muddy!” Rutz is between degrees at the University of Vermont and a master’s in speech pathology from Boston University. When she and her boyfriend, Matt Guido, first arrived in town, they struggled to find somewhere to live despite having full-time jobs. They couch-surfed, house-sat, and got kicked out of a place that their landlord sold. “We were going to have to move home, live in a campground, or live out of a car,” Rutz says.
Then her manager told her the news about the city-approved parking lot camp. Guido got a job doing landscaping for the city so he could also live there, and the two bought a ten-foot trailer for $2,000. “We would have figured it out, but this is way easier and way more convenient,” says Rutz. “I wake up five minutes before I have to go to work.”
Three other Camp Jackson employees—Jon Fisher, Alex Rangel, and Drew Evans—all took up occupancy as well. But it wasn’t just young, seasonal employees utilizing the new government camp. Rutz’s neighbor was Ladee Johnson, 44, an employee of the city’s wastewater department. When I spoke to him outside his trailer, Johnson wore a black shirt that read “Not shy, just don’t like you.” He had recently separated from his wife, and the home he was renting has been sold. He bounced around hotels and slept in his 20-foot Komfort trailer or his truck, on roads both in town and in the surrounding county. “I just got tired of it all,” Johnson says. When his manager mentioned the lot, he took it. It allowed him to stay close to his kids. He called it a lifesaver. “Looking in the paper, you can find a two bedroom, one bath for three grand a month,” Johnson says. “Who can afford that? Unless you’re getting paid $30 an hour, and that’s not going to happen here.”
Had Johnson and the others not found the parking lot, there’s a good chance some would have ended up in Curtis Canyon, an infamous squatters’ camp just outside town in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Every person I spoke to in Jackson warned me about Curtis Canyon. It happened often enough that I began to suspect that the in-town campground was more about the Curtis Canyon problem than the housing crisis. People described it as a “crazy,” “nefarious,” “man-camp” full of partiers who had exploited and trashed the national forest. Police have reported knife fights. In June, after another drunken fight led to another truck rolling down the canyon, Teton County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Matt Carr told the Jackson Hole News & Guide, “Curtis Canyon is reminiscent of the lawless towns of the Old West. We are just trying to keep the peace up there. We can’t enforce the camping regulations, and it’s becoming overrun. If you go up during the day, it’s pretty mellow because people are in town working. It gets crazy at nightfall.”
For many, though, it’s one of the few viable housing options. During the summer, anyone can legally camp for free in Curtis for five days, though then you’re supposed to not return for 30 days. Few follow these rules, however. Kevin Dehm, a 24-year-old raft guide, has camped in the canyon for the past several summers. Dehm usually heads there after dinner and looks for a spot for his 1999 Subaru Outback, which has a bed in the back. He says he knows around 20 people in Curtis and estimates that about 100 people live there. Though the Forest Service has complained about toilet paper in the sagebrush, Dehm says he always uses a trowel when he has to go. “I know how to poop in woods respectfully,” he says. Dehm worries about the reputation Curtis has developed, because the area provides a space many depend on. He acknowledged how rowdy it can get, but felt it was mostly outsiders, not forest residents, who gave the area a bad name. “You look at the news, and it gave us a bad look,” Dehm says. “We just need a place to stay.”
Of course, not everyone wants to sleep in their car or live in a parking lot, especially if it costs $465 a month. “Would I want to live in a municipal campground? Absolutely not,” says April Norton, who holds the unenviable job of heading up Jackson Teton County’s housing department. The housing crisis isn’t limited to low-wage employees fresh out of college. Ashworth says he’s offered an aquatics operations supervisor position—a job that pays $55,000 to $60,000—to five different people. None have accepted because they couldn’t afford a place to live. For a town facing a many-layered crisis, a municipal campground for employees helps, but it’s a niche solution.
Norton has more in mind. The town has new software and a new enforcement officer to crack down on illegal short-term rentals, particularly Airbnbs, which are legal only in certain areas near downtown. Meanwhile, 220 workforce units—apartments designated for locally employed people—are coming online this year to supplement the 817 already in town. The city is also rezoning some neighborhoods to allow accessory units, such as guesthouses, and mandating that any new developments include affordable housing, which is available to anyone making less than 120 percent of the median income. (For one person, that means making less than $76,776.) The city also hopes to expand the municipal camping program by partnering with a federal agency on a larger piece of land. Three more projects, including one for an 83,000-square-foot residential development, await approval.
Norton acknowledges the town still has a long way to go. Its goal is to have 65 percent of its workforce living locally—in 2017, only 58 percent did. (In the 1990s, it was 85 percent.) Norton estimates they’ll need to add 2,800 units in the next ten years to reach that goal. “That means we have stable neighborhoods, we have people volunteering, we have children in schools, we know our neighbors, we have a stable tax base,” she says. “When we get below that, then we need to take pressing action.”
Such action generally faces fierce opposition—a 2016 tax proposal that would have split a one-cent general sales tax between transportation and affordable housing was soundly defeated. In a resort town where community character is prized, change is slow, and the opposition is well-funded and passionate. “They don’t want anything to change,” Norton says. “I get that. I totally do. I loved Jackson the way it was when I first moved here. The reality is Jackson is going to change, and we either can define that for ourselves or not.”
The local government, though, led by Mayor Pete Muldoon, believes it has a responsibility to keep the community intact. Muldoon, a political newcomer who was elected by 38 votes in 2016, is hoping the town will choose to embrace new options for Jackson. Muldoon is a musician and baggage handler at the airport. He refers to himself as “not particularly ambitious, financially.” In 2008, he lost his job and his house. He lived out of his RV as recently as four years ago. Muldoon was a champion for action on a municipal campground.
“You think of someone who’s been here for 20, 30 years, they’ve built up all of this trust, these relationships, all of that. When they leave, they don’t take that to Boise. It disappears at the county line,” Muldoon says. “When you lose that, it’s economically problematic, and it’s a travesty and tragedy for the community.”
Jackson was packed when I was in town. The cheapest room I could find was a Motel 6 single for $300 a night. So I did what most people in town do who don’t want to pay such a premium for a place to lay their head: I headed up to Curtis Canyon to sleep in the back of my car.
Outside of town, the road to Curtis turns to gravel and ascends a switchback before reaching designated campsites. I found a flat space near a fire pit in a dirt lot, sat on the hatch of my rented minivan, and opened a beer. I went for a walk to see the view from the rim of the canyon. It was dusk. I could see the silhouette of the Tetons against a dark navy sky. Below, the airport glowed as the day’s last planes arrived. A steady stream of traffic headed for the town.
I walked back to my van by headlamp. I didn’t see any brawls, just a lot of people, fires, and vehicles. While I was gone, several cars had parked next to mine. I opened the hatch and crawled into my sleeping bag. I could hear people coming and going along the gravel road all night long. When I woke in the morning at 6:30, nearly everyone had gone. Their workday had already begun.
(Packard, Simon. “French Ski Resort's Lure Leaves Locals Bruised.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Mar. 2006, www.nytimes.com/2006/03/15/business/worldbusiness/french-ski-resorts-lure-leaves-locals-bruised.html.)
CHAMONIX, France — Mickael Colombin says many of his childhood friends cannot afford property in their hometown near Chamonix, an Alpine ski resort at the foot of Mont Blanc. They say wealthy investors, particularly from Britain, are to blame. "Young people with good jobs are moving out because it's no longer possible to stay," said Colombin, a 30-year- old marketing executive for a local construction company. Ski towns like Chamonix are among France's most expensive places to live. Real estate prices in the Upper Savoy region, running from the southern shore of Lake Geneva to Mont Blanc, have increased 15 percent a year since 2002. Many buyers come from Britain, causing resentment among the French and prompting regional governments to try to limit purchases by international investors.
It is "making everyone jealous and developing tensions between locals and foreigners," said Bernard Prud'homme, the director of Chamonix's tourist board. A 70-square-meter, or 750-square- foot, apartment in Chamonix sells for €279,300, or $335,800, according to the latest figures from the French Notaries Federation in Paris. That is about 10 times the average salary in France and well beyond the reach of Chamonix locals with seasonal jobs. Getting to the slopes in less than five hours from Chichester, in southern England, was important for Richard Elwes. He expects to spend about €1 million for an apartment in a chalet in Les Houches, near Chamonix, he said. "The Chamonix valley has it all," said Elwes, who is turning his back on farming to develop his land and invest in property. "This allows me to diversify my assets, and I get a better income."
The effects of the property boom on Chamonix are visible. In a parking lot on the town's limits there are about 50 battered camper vans and mobile homes, where seasonal workers and low-budget skiers prefer to stay, rather than pay the €500 a month that it costs to rent a studio apartment - and much more for a weekly rental during peak periods.
Those unable to live in the ski towns are settling in the plains, where land is half the price, and commuting up the mountain to work, said Thierry Lejeune, who surveyed property prices in 110 Savoy-region ski resorts for the French Notaries Federation. To prevent Chamonix from losing the identity that attracts investors, the town hall is setting aside land and loosening rules to provide affordable housing for locals, said a deputy mayor, Françoise Devouassoux. "Yes, we're being protectionist, but we're doing it to help locals stay put," she said.
Ill feelings in Chamonix have been directed chiefly at the British, whose economy will have grown 9.8 percent more than the French economy from 2000 to 2006, according to estimates by Eurostat, the statistics company. The French feel left out because English has become the lingua franca of the town's population of 10,000. The British are the largest contingent of foreign tourists.
Workers in Chamonix's bars, shops and restaurants often do not speak French. The success of British entrepreneurs like David Kartal, 41, who has built a hotel, chalet and shuttle bus business, has added to the jealousies. Tensions have simmered since newspapers highlighted the "English invasion" two years ago, alleging that Britons were knocking on doors offering cash sums to locals to sell, he said.
"If locals really want to keep Chamonix French, they would accept less when they sell their homes," said Kartal, who has lived in the valley for 20 years. "I can understand a certain resentment, but why pick on people who have invested in Chamonix and contribute by bringing in jobs and money?"
The notaries' study showed that foreigners provided 41 percent of investment in new apartments built in ski resorts in Upper Savoy in the year that ended Sept. 30. Grosset Janin, a builder of luxury chalets, is not grousing at the foreign influx. The builder has more than doubled sales to about €20 million a year since 2000. Some customers demolish existing structures to build chalets in the traditional timber style. "With land in short supply, it will always be a good investment," said Antoine Charignon, a developer who is a partner with Grosset Janin.
(Michelson, M. (2017, October 24). Whistler Is Housing More Of Its Employees Than Any Other Ski Town. Here's How. Retrieved from https://www.powder.com/stories/news/whistler-housing-employees-ski-town-heres)
A pervasive housing shortage is afflicting mountain towns from Stowe to Telluride. The issue is not just a question of locals being able to afford million-dollar homes--it's also about availability. "There is very little vacancy for ownership or rental units, and what is vacant is very unaffordable," says Stacy Stoker, housing manager for Wyoming's Teton County Housing Authority, which oversees affordable housing in the Jackson Hole area. "Less than three percent of the land in the county is able to be developed. This means that there is not a lot of land for building affordable housing."
Aspen, Colorado, has a vacancy rate of less than 1 percent for rental units; in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, it's zero; in Mammoth Lakes, California, it's less than two percent. Thanks to a proliferation of vacation homes used a couple of times a year and the rise of short-term vacation rentals, there are very few places left for year-round, working residents of these towns to live.
To see how deep the current housing crisis runs, just look at the numbers of people who are forced to commute into these resort towns for work. Breckenridge, Colorado, houses 50 percent of its workforce--so half of the town's employees commute from elsewhere. Vail and Aspen house less than 30 percent. Truckee, California, shelters 41 percent of its employees. Mammothand Jackson are doing well by comparison, each housing around 63 percent of its workforce.
"How do you define innovative or successful housing solutions?" says John Warner, a former two-term mayor of Breckenridge and an advocate for affordable housing. "To me, the outcome that is truly successful is one where a community houses a majority of their workforce to minimize commuter miles, create a positive financial impact on the community, and create a sense of investment in the community."
So how do you find a way to house over half--or ideally, significantly more--of your workers in town? What mountain towns have figured this out? Warner says look to our neighbor to the north. "Interestingly, Whistler houses over 70 percent of their workforce," he says.
In fact, in 2015, Whistler, British Columbia, provided housing to a whopping 79 percent of the area's workers, a number not matched by any major ski town in the U.S. "We have a target of housing a minimum of 75 percent of our workforce," says Marla Zucht, general manager of the Whistler Housing Authority. "We looked at other resort communities, places like Aspen, Vail, and Breckenridge, and they were housing around 25 to 30 percent. We learned the benefit of housing people locally to retain the town's culture and workforce. We intend to continue to meet our 75 percent target of housing our employees locally through various housing initiatives."
But how did they do it?
Whistler, population around 10,000, didn't come up with a one-stop solution to the housing crisis--they've been slowly ticking away at the problem for decades. In the ’90s, the resort municipality formed a housing authority and adopted a local bylaw that requires commercial developers to build or provide staff housing or give cash in lieu of construction, which would go to the housing authority to create affordable units. Similar laws exist in many other ski towns.
Whistler has also focused on converting market-rate housing into employee-restricted housing, with a cap on how much a place can rent or sell for. After the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, the athlete village in Whistler was converted into employee-restricted housing for around 1,000 people. Leading up to the Olympics, the wait list for affordable housing was around 1,000 households. Even with a significant uptick in population and jobs in the area over the last few years, they've managed to reduce that wait list number to 650 households. Which means, of course, there's still a wait list, but at least it's shorter than it once was.
Nicole Koshure has been a ski patroller on Blackcomb Mountain for the last 15 years. In 2003, she got on the wait list for a home through the town's affordable housing program. She was able to buy a price-restricted two-bedroom condo in 2009, just before the Olympic Games. It’s a good thing she got in early. She says she still can't afford a market-rate home in Whistler.
"The Whistler Housing Authority was originally setup as an interim step for locals to purchase affordable housing in Whistler and then eventually move into the open market, however the price gap between the WHA housing and the open real estate market has become so large people are no longer able to take that step and are staying long term in their WHA homes," says Koshure. "As such there's little movement off the WHA list, while the WHA list continues to grow with more and more locals looking to purchase affordable housing."
The issue of short-term rentals is one the town is still working on. Whistler has around 8,800 units zoned specifically for temporary vacation rentals, like Airbnb or VRBO. But the majority of Whistler's residential neighborhoods are restricted to full-time residential use, meaning it's illegal to rent your house to weekenders or vacationers--and you'll be fined $1,000 for breaking the rules. (They encourage neighbors to report illegal rentals, and so far this year, over 50 properties have been reported.)
"We know that these vacation rentals displace longer term rentals," says Zucht. "That's existing market housing that has, in the past, provided housing for our workforce. So this is something we're focusing on. Enforcement is really getting ramped up now."
Last year, Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden formed a task force to anticipate housing shortages. The task force then launched a program called Home Run, which encourages homeowners with any vacant space in their houses to rent to local businesses. The housing authority hired a property manager to match those property owners with businesses that need to house their employees.
"When we launched this program, we had 34 businesses registered and 23 properties," says Zucht. "The incentive for homeowners is the property manager fee is less than what it would typically be and they're not having to go out and look for tenants. We take care of everything."
Of course, Whistler hasn't solved the entire problem. There are still people who can't find or afford housing--ski patrollers living in vans, Australian pizza-flippers cramming four people to a bedroom, and hordes of locals moving to Pemberton or Squamish, where they can afford to buy a house, and commuting 45 minutes into Whistler for work.
"We're not without our challenges. We are definitely still feeling a housing shortage in our town as a result of recent strong economic growth," adds Zucht. "There's no one solution to this issue. It requires a multi-faceted approach and collaboration between many community members and support of the local government."
But is the struggle for housing worth it for a chance to live in the mountains? Just ask Whistler local Justin Morton, a paramedic and ski patroller who got off the wait list for a price-restricted house in 2009.
"The housing situation in Whistler has been steadily improving over my time here. In my experience, it's always been the type of place where it's easier to find a job than it is to find a place to live," says Morton. "But there's no doubt that you need to be creative to stay put in this town, work a few jobs, live in a van for a while or squat in the woods, but that's been the case for as long as I've been here. The effort it takes to call this place home is a great filter. The ones who put in the effort and create businesses, families, and lives here, that effort is what bonds them and gives this place its strong sense of community."
To qualify for affordable housing in Whistler, you have to be a full-time resident who works a minimum of 20 hours a week within the municipality of Whistler. Rental rates amongst the town’s affordable housing lots start at around $800 a month for a studio apartment and $1,775 for a three-bedroom place--still not cheap, but considerably less than the town’s market-rate rentals, where a 260-square-foot studio in Whistler is currently offered for $2,000 a month and three-bedroom places, if you can even find them, rent for at least $3,000 a month.