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Cost of living moves workers out of basin

Megan Feldman
Dan Thrift/Tahoe Daily Tribune file photo Many Lake Tahoe Basin employees, including firefighters and paramedics, have found the Carson Valley as a place to buy an affordable home.
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TAHOE CITY – As real estate values rise, fewer families can afford to live in Tahoe and many are moving away to buy bigger homes for less money.

Workers spend several hours a day commuting from places like Carson City, Loyalton and Reno, which makes for reduced back-up for emergencies, declining school enrollment and an anemic business environment.

“The cost of trying to live up here priced us out of the market,” said Tahoe City Postmaster Ted Stinson, who in 2002 sold his Homewood house for $285,000 and bought a larger one in Dayton for $175,000.

“It’s kind of sad – we’re basically working class people trying to survive up here and it’s getting harder and harder,” Stinson said, adding that he commutes 62 miles to work.

The median North Shore home price last year was $477,500, according to Agate Bay Realty agent Brett Williams. That means that if people make less than $75,000 a year at current interest rates, buying a home in the area is pretty much a pipe dream.

Of the Tahoe City Post Office’s 14 employees, half live in Truckee, where homes are slightly cheaper, or in Soda Springs and Nevada, Stinson said. Of the half living on the North Shore, only a few have been able to buy homes. The salary range for U.S. Postal Service workers is $30,000 to $62,000.

Ten years ago, North Tahoe firefighters were required to live in the basin so they could respond to big fires while off-duty. But in 1992, the district had to drop the rule because the lack of affordable housing made it an “unfair requirement,” said North Tahoe Fire Protection District Chief Duane Whitelaw.

One third of the district’s firefighters commute, the closest from Truckee and the farthest from Graeagle and Gardnerville, which means there are fewer nearby if a big fire requires a larger-than-usual response.

“Our reliance on people like we used to have is gone,” Whitelaw said. “It’s not because they don’t want to live here, they just can’t.”

Firefighter/paramedics earn between $47,000 and $58,000 a year, he said. Placer County Sheriff’s deputies make between $42,000 and $52,000, while captains bring home $68,000 to $84,000.

Placer County Sheriff’s Capt. Rick Armstrong, hired last year, commutes one hour to work from Gold Run.

“I can’t afford to buy a house here and I’m the highest-paid guy here,” Armstrong said. Of 35 North Shore deputies, more than half commute because they can’t afford to buy a home here, according to the captain.

“If we have a major incident … in the old days they all lived in the basin, now they’re hours away – we really suffer,” Armstrong said.

Additional problems are created when deputies police communities they don’t live in, he added. Being part of a community where they coach and belong to clubs helps law enforcement officers connect with locals, which according to Armstrong makes them more effective in their work because they know residents’ backgrounds.

“One of the things we really push is being a member of your community, but it’s tough when you have to drive up here,” he said.

The housing crunch affects a range of professions, not only law enforcement.

Tahoe Forest Hospital recruiter Cathy Lodge said the lack of affordable housing, even in Truckee, poses the greatest challenge in hiring new people.

“We’re in a really desirable area, but the housing market is very difficult,” she said.

High real estate values that drive year-round residents away from the area leave a community of second-homeowners and tourists, making it more difficult for businesses to survive the off-seasons.

School officials say the combination of steep housing rates and a weakening business climate has been the main reason for the schools’ declining enrollment and resulting loss of funding. Schools receive money for each student, and less money makes it more difficult to maintain staffing levels and course offerings.


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