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."
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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. Mammoth and 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.