It is something of a perfect storm for ski-resort housing across the country. High monthly housing costs—in some cases, exorbitantly high—meet low availability and a largely low-wage labor force, and boom! Clap of thunder. It can be hard to find shelter, literally, in the storm.
Of course, this is not anything new for the ski industry. As NSAA president Michael Berry says, “In the West, it has been a chronic problem for 45 to 50 years.” Berry recalls his own experience as a young ski instructor decades ago following his ski bumming dreams from New Hampshire to Colorado, only to encounter a wall of housing unaffordability. But it has gotten even worse as housing prices have skyrocketed.
Western destination resorts are particularly hard hit because their housing values are typically far above the national norm. The most extreme example is Aspen, Colorado, forever the poster child, it seems, for the affordable-housing crisis.
Outside magazine has dubbed Aspen the least livable (meaning least affordable) ski town in the country. Despite Aspen’s efforts for more than 40 years to develop more affordable housing, Outside reported exceptional high monthly rents in a rental market with a vacancy rate of just one percent. Simply put, the expense of housing in Aspen, as at many Western resorts, is off the charts by national standards.
When it comes to affordability, resort towns in the West have, as Berry suggests, become victims of their own prosperity. In Summit County, Colorado, average home values are 95 percent higher than the rest of the state, according to the Summit Combined Housing Authority. Yet in a county with three major ski resorts—Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, and Keystone—the need for generally low-wage employees at ski areas and ski- and tourism-related businesses is especially high.
Where can they afford to live? According to the 2013 Summit County Workforce Housing Needs Assessment, 38 percent of 4,570 households in the county had housing payments considered unaffordable. Result: many employees are forced to find housing in neighboring counties and commute an hour or more through the mountains in winter.
Compounding the overall problem, many ski-area jobs are among the lowest-paid in the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates a national median wage of $17.40; less than three percent of the roughly 1,200 occupations listed by BLS earn median hourly wages of $10 or less. Of that three percent, however, about 85 percent are in the service and entertainment industries, with job descriptions familiar to resort residents everywhere: ski patrol/lifeguards/recreational protection services ($9.38), retail sales workers ($9.84), bartenders ($9.39), food preparation workers ($9.39). Lift operators, ticket checkers, and snowmakers are not listed, but their wages fall within a similar range.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses 30 percent of income as a high limit for housing before a household becomes “cost burdened.” For a worker earning $10 an hour, that 30-percent number would be about $500 a month.
Workers who earn less than 60 percent of the so-called area median income (for the community in which they live) are eligible for HUD housing assistance. But few ski-area employees qualify, because seasonal and/or part-time workers are excluded. Federal housing subsidies are no solution to the housing crunch.
Assuring affordable housing for employees is as essential to running a ski resort as energy is for lifts and snow guns. It is, as Vail vice president Jack Lewis told the Denver Post, simply “the cost of doing business.” So resorts have turned to other alternatives—either unilaterally or in coordination with the local community—to address the housing crunch.
In December 2015, Vail Resorts pledged $30 million to build employee housing at its resorts in Colorado, Utah, and California. That pledge came just before the company held a closed-door meeting with its Summit County employees to tell them it planned to address a local employee housing shortage by asking staff to share space designed for lower occupancy. Officially, VR called the plan “increasing density.” Essentially, it was a stopgap measure until new employee housing could be completed.
Not every resort, of course, has a $30 million stockpile of cash to throw at the housing problem. And as Berry notes, “This is a community-based issue. It is not just about the ski resort, but the entire community.”
Park City, Utah, has been credited with a sensible and effective housing and development template. In 2013, an independently commissioned study, “Report on Housing Affordability Options and Strategies,” concluded: “Park City does a very good job developing and partnering with developers to generate affordable rental housing units for lower income households,” with lower-income defined as households earning less than $50,000 a year.
Park City accomplished this, the report says, by “making effective use of federal low income house tax credits to generate high quality affordable rental apartments for service sector workers.”
With little affordable inventory to house low-wage and seasonal workers, Aspen Skiing Co. is experimenting with six “trailer coaches,” built by Sprout Tiny Homes for $100,000 apiece, and parked down-valley. If the experiment is deemed a success, more such units will follow.
Elsewhere, Northstar California recently gave $30,000 to a newly created Housing Solutions Fund, under the auspices of the Truckee North Tahoe Regional Housing Council. The fund aims to assist in a “strategy focused on accelerating regional housing solutions.” No brick and mortar yet, but its a jumpstart toward a resort-community collaboration.
Housing for full-time staff can also be an issue. In Park City, for example, the picture is less than rosy for households earning between $50,000 and $75,000 and ineligible for public housing support. According to the affordability report, the average Park City home sale price rose 85 percent between 2000 and 2010 (Zillow pegs the median home price in Park City at $1.375 million.) The squeeze on median-income housing was likely to worsen without a concerted community-planning effort, the report stated.
To address the median-income housing issue, Copper Mountain is building 15 “deed-restricted workforce housing units,” with the average sale price not to exceed 110 percent of the area median income. The Summit Combined Housing Authority will oversee sales to assure that deed restrictions are followed.
Says Copper president and GM Gary Rodgers: “We are aiming to help area employees call Summit County home for the long term.” For low-wage seasonal workers, Copper had already converted a former Club Med into a 540-bed employee-housing block, with per-month rental costs as low as $327.50.
Despite its reputation, the town of Aspen has been a leader in establishing affordable housing policies since the ’70s. Its 2002 Affordable Housing Strategic Plan identified 2,000 affordable units in the town, made available through “incentive zoning, mitigation requirements, and public investment in the construction of affordable housing on City-owned sites.” Unfortunately, as the program has matured, many units have had the same occupants for years, often retirees.
In Jackson, Wyo., a coordinated effort by Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, local property owners, the privately funded Jackson Community Housing Trust, and the local government is addressing affordable-housing solutions. The resort recently built three buildings to house 94 seasonal employees. While that’s not nearly enough to match seasonal housing needs, it was a way of “raising our hand in the community to say, ‘we want to tackle this problem head-on,’” says JHMR communications manager Anna Cole.
The resort also works with property owners in apportioning affordable units for resort employees. Through private donations, the Housing Trust recently spent $12 million to build 28 affordable rental units in the town of Jackson. And according to Cole, a community-wide task force was formed to address affordable-housing concerns.
Even so, high housing costs and limited building space mean that about half of the resort’s employees, by Cole’s estimate, must live at least 45 minutes away.
Steamboat Ski Resort has been able to house 442 employees in resort-owned housing, accommodating roughly a quarter of its total workforce. But the resort had the good fortune of available “defunct” hotels that it was able to convert for employee use.
To supplement its sizable employee-housing inventory, this winter the resort offered local landlords $200 incentives toward monthly rents to house resort employees. Resort spokesperson Nicole Miller says a vetting process assured available units met a set of acceptable housing standards before being offered the incentive.
In the end, says Miller, most needy seasonal employees were accommodated in the resort’s employee housing. Still, the concept of offering subsidies to local landlords seems a sensible solution—certainly less expensive than the cost of building additional employee housing.
An Eastern Perspective
Providing housing, of course, is just one piece of the overall process of assembling a winter workforce. Sugarbush, Vermont, finds itself pressured on three fronts: a general local housing shortage, low unemployment in Vermont, and the state’s high cost of living.
Ironically, too much affordability may have contributed to a housing scarcity for Sugarbush. Numerous moderately-priced condos are privately-owned as second homes, and owners have little incentive to sell or rent seasonally, leaving units largely unoccupied.
The housing shortage is further tightened, Berry says, by the recent growth in vacation rentals by owner. If a condo owner can generate significantly higher income through holiday rentals, why rent to seasonal workers?
In addition, in November 2016, Vermont’s unemployment rate was 3.2 percent, giving prospective employees leverage in applying for jobs. Sugarbush president Win Smith concludes: “It’s harder to find employees, period. Especially with the cost of living in Vermont being relatively high, discouraging workforce [recruitment].” (Vermont ranks fifth highest among U.S. states on the BLS’s cost of living index.) Vermont employers can’t simply post a $10-an-hour job and expect a stampede of interest. They need to sweeten the pot, and affordable housing is perhaps the biggest-ticket item.
To address labor costs, Sugarbush has turned to J1 student- and worker-exchange programs to find seasonal employees, largely from South America. J1 employees need a resort’s support not only with housing, but also transportation. Sugarbush accommodates some workers in nearby employee housing, but, according to Smith, the resort also had to set up an employee bus system for workers housed in the Barre-Montpelier area, about 45 minutes away.
The Transit Issue
Indeed, transportation is a critical component in resolving affordable housing challenges. Affordable housing an hour or more away is of little use without a reliable means of transportation.
In Aspen, resort employees typically live in the down-valley communities of Basalt, El Jebel, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs, with rising housing costs pushing employees even farther afield. In Vail, the scenario is similar, with employees living in Avon, Edwards, Gypsum, Eagle, and even 80 miles away in Rifle. Fortunately, both Aspen and Vail have fairly well-developed public-bus systems, augmented by employee shuttles.
But such is not the case at all resorts. Limited public-bus options forced Sugarbush to set up its own employee bus plan.
For most resorts, the affordable-housing issue centers on the overall challenge of staffing-up for the winter. But from a community perspective, there is a social and economic component in play. In the 1990s, the mayor of Aspen mixed warning with lament: “We don’t want to be just an empty theme park, full of houses that are occupied only a few weeks out of the year. We want to remain a real-life town, with living, breathing people who have real jobs.”
Building a “real life” community might not be an issue that impacts a resort’s balance sheet. But in a grander scheme, a vibrant resort community triggers a rising cultural tide that can raise all ships—including the resort. That might be increasingly important as resorts seek to boost four-season business, when visitors are interested in a wide range of activities.
There is no single solution to the affordable-housing crunch. Creativity and collaboration—among resorts, surrounding communities, governmental agencies, and employees—is needed in equal parts. Therein, perhaps, lies the most effective strategy in weathering the housing storm.