As the ski season hits its stride, the Tahoe Inn, located close to Lake Tahoe near the California and Nevada border, will inevitably hit capacity. With room for 53 guests, the motel will welcome visitors from around the globe over the next few months for fresh powder. But it’s not the typical spot for a winter sports enthusiast.
That’s because, as Powder Magazine reports, the motel houses temporary workers, not ski-focused tourists. Converted from lodging into workforce housing by nearby Homewood Mountain Resort a few years ago, the Tahoe Inn is now used by migrant workers on visas who provide the labor that keeps the resort afloat. In rooms rented by ski instructors and maintenance workers, a bunk bed in a shared room runs $300 a month.
In ski towns across the United States, a building owned by one’s employer is often one of the few housing options a worker can afford. A combination of real estate realities and trends—rising home prices in mountain towns, limited developable land, and the growth of short-term rental activity—means the labor force is finding it harder and harder to afford to work in a winter paradise. Even the profitable ski industry can’t buy its way out of the affordable housing shortage.
The strain on housing in Skiburbia
From Colorado to Vermont, ski industry execs and local politicians talk about ski escapes like Vail, Colorado, the same way many big-city mayors talk about San Francisco: as a victim of its own success, wealth, and land-use policy, a place so prohibitively expensive that it has pushed away workers and changed its fundamental character. To avoid this fate, ski towns are testing a suite of strategies meant to increase the housing supply, bring down sky-high prices, and keep workers from being priced out of paradise.
The true test of local leadership is managing the “choppy waters of land use,” according to Willy Powell, who has been a city manager in Eagle, Colorado, for nearly three decades. Finding ways to build housing in towns that sit in mountain valleys, ringed by federally owned land that often can’t be developed, can be extremely challenging.
“The most controversial things have to do with land use, because some people want to keep towns small and some people want to grow,” he told Colorado Politics. “The most popular mountain towns are growing like crazy.”
The constellation of cities and towns that have grown around the skiing and snowboarding industry recognize winter sports as key to their economies, and many have long pushed to build affordable housing near job centers. It’s never been enough, and rapid growth and the rise of short-term rentals have made the problem worse. And with so much of the local economy and wealth in these cities and towns based on real estate and development, the forces of NIMBYism are strong.
“That really goes way back, and not just into Vail’s culture but pretty much any one of these [ski resort communities], golf communities, or whatever it might be, where the leg of the stool was real estate, and then construction that comes along with it, and not the idea that you’re trying to create a community for people to live in,” Stan Zemler, a former town manager of Vail, told the Vail Daily. “So, in a lot of ways, that ship sailed a long ways back when you just basically started building buildings to sell the units.”
Why the affordability problem is so challenging to solve
Efforts to build affordable workplace housing have always exacerbated tensions in ski towns. A 1999 New York Times article, “Housing for Poorer Neighbors Offends Vail’s Rich,” quoted former Sen. John Glenn as saying he strongly opposed new housing because it would block his valley view.
The ways development and real estate have shifted since the Great Recession have made an already tense situation more challenging.
In many ski towns, the last decade has seen a rise in housing prices, especially in the second-home market; a jump in permanent residents, many of them remote workers; and a sluggish recovery in new home construction. New building permits in Colorado ski towns have yet to return to pre-Recession levels. Add the rise of short-term rental sites like Vrbo and Airbnb, and it’s no surprise there’s a housing crunch. In Killington, Vermont, according to an analysis earlier this year by AirDNA, which provides estimates of short-term rental activity, there were 740 vacation rentals. The town only has 800 residents.
The shortage of workforce housing is “the biggest potential threat” to resort communities, says Zemler.
In Vail, the housing stock is 80 percent owned by second home owners. Empty during the fall and spring shoulder seasons, when resort towns are less busy and owners stay at home, Vail gets swamped during ski season. But because the housing stock is effectively turned over to visitors and tourists, there are fewer and fewer affordable places for workers nearby. Instead, many workers live 30 miles west, in Eagle, Colorado, where the population grew from 2,000 to 6,900 between 1990 and 2017. It still has a strong core of full-time residents, who own and occupy more than 90 percent of the town’s roughly 2,300 housing units. In effect, it’s now a bedroom community for resort workers.
Even as ski industry employment has grown for the last decade—Colorado’s ski towns have recorded employment growth for more than 88 straight months—it’s still hungry for workers. Employers clamor for temporary, seasonal staff, who are especially hard to find when, as per Powder Magazine, renting a single room can cost $700 a month or more, minimum-wage jobs may pay $11 an hour, students often can’t take an entire winter off, and low unemployment rates make it even harder to find workers. To fill the gap, the National Ski Areas Association estimates that ski resorts utilize the J-1 visa program to bring in around 7,000 foreign workers annually.
Many companies, including Vail Resorts and Steamboat, have responded by raising wages and offering more benefits and insurance for seasonal workers. But without better and cheaper housing options, it’s a tough sell to potential employees. Vail Housing Director George Ruther says that employers aren’t able to get their top choices for positions, primarily due to high housing costs.
“Just about everything that we do is some form of customer service,” he told Vail Daily, “and when you’re relying upon the very best of the best customer service coming from maybe not the best employment pool, there’s going to be consequences down the road.”
The solutions being tested to provide more housing
The situation faced by ski towns seems like a microcosm of those faced by larger, housing-starved cities: how to add density and transit options in a region with limited developable land, NIMBYism, and extremely high land costs. And like these cities, ski towns are tackling the problem on a variety of fronts, trying to untangle a knot of zoning rules, price increases, and land-use policy.
In Vail, a program called Vail InDeed seeks to solve rampant real estate inflation with deed-restricted homes, a process meant to keep the deeds to local properties with full-time residents and out of the second-home market. So far, the program, which has a goal of absorbing 1,000 homes by 2027, has been a success, and the city may ask voters for permanent funding for the program next year. In Breckenridge, Colorado, the recently launched Breckenridge Housing Helps Program offers a variation on that concept, providing property owners with cash incentives to add similar occupancy restrictions.
Salida, Colorado, located about 30 minutes from ski areas, sees a smaller footprint as the solution. The municipality approved an entire community of tiny homes, 200 buildings that would range from 200 to 800 square feet and cost roughly $750 to $1,400 a month, aimed at both the vacation rental market and seasonal workers. In a similar move, Aspen Skiing Co. built and then expanded a village of tiny homes to provide additional space for workers.
Many resorts also have plans to increase their investments in new workforce housing. Earlier this year, Aspen Skiing Co. announced it’s building a 148-room workforce housing development in Basalt, Colorado, at a cost of $15 million. Similar to the repurposing of the Tahoe Inn, Telluride resort owner Bill Jensen recently spent $6 million on turning an apartment complex into a home for his staff. In Warren, Vermont, Sugarbush Resort CEO Win Smith has looked to the community for help: He’s offering reduced $100 season passes for anybody who opens up a spare room to a worker, and he’s leasing at least 110 beds. These temporary solutions will help Sugarbush’s staff as the company completes long-term housing options, including a 90-room dorm that may open next summer.
These more immediate solutions aren’t fully matching the need. The nation’s ski towns need more infill development, more transit options between workforce housing and jobs, and a desire to pursue density—and perhaps upset the landscape of a mountain paradise—to truly solve the workforce housing problem.
“Workforce housing is one of the biggest challenges facing the ski industry in Colorado right now, and it’s even broader than Colorado,” Telluride owner Jensen told the Denver Post. “Ten, 15 years ago, communities hoped solutions would happen—and now look at Telluride, Vail, and Aspen Skiing: We are realizing we have to be the leaders in creating the solutions.”