South Shore must fight for its soul |

South Shore must fight for its soul

The issue of affordable housing took on a more chilling reality last night as I watched a friend’s face twist with worry.

El Dorado County had raised her real estate taxes. Her employer had significantly cut her income during the past year, even as he increased her workload. Energy costs had doubled and were soaring.

A great employee, a wonderful neighbor and all-round good citizen – why was she being squeezed out of a community she made her home long ago?

She was being squeezed by a company that regards employees as a budget line item; by a county that takes in more each year as it provides less; by a community in the throes of change with little grasp of possible outcomes; by an increasingly absentee taxpayer base; by special interest groups comprised of the wealthy and politically savvy; and by ever increasing federal control over land within the Tahoe Basin.

She was being squeezed out of a once sleepy resort now rushing headlong toward the allure of world-class status.

She’s hardly alone. In the classified section of Tuesday’s Tahoe Daily Tribune, there were 128 ads for full-time employees. That’s not the total number of positions available as some of those ads offered an array of jobs.

Of those 128 ads, only 22 were for full-time, long-term jobs that paid $12 an hour or more. Of those, one fourth had been placed by businesses off the hill.

Of the remaining 106 jobs, 11 were temporary, 57 were for minimum wage or just above, and eight were commissioned sales positions.

However, in the same classified ads, the four modest houses listed on the California side averaged from $170,000 for a “steal” – a tiny, one-bedroom cabin that is probably uninhabitable in the winter – to a $315,000 three-bedroom house across from the county equipment yard.

Even more telling were the 15 apartments listed as available for rent.

The average price per month for a one bedroom was $643 – more than 30 percent of the monthly pay for those lucky 16 or so employees out of the 128 advertised jobs able to make $12 per hour. Should those fortunate few be supporting families requiring a two-bedroom apartment, the average monthly rent would be $820, or almost 40 percent of their income.

This is yesterday’s dose of reality. It will only get worse.

I have seen such changes in two other communities, both world-class resorts struggling with a shrinking employee pool, the shortage of affordable housing, the tightening of state and federal land regulations and the soaring cost of land.

In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the problem was so bad eight years ago that many employees used the campgrounds as neighborhoods, even in the winter. For businesses that wanted to retain key employees, they were forced to subsidize rents or supply housing. For minimum wage workers, when they could be found, were often paid twice that amount or more.

For many years, the area did little about the escalating land costs and shrinking employee base. As a result, businesses scrambled for workers and workers scrambled to get by. The median cost of a house was $500,000, a price well beyond the capacity of most area workers, skilled or not.

Finally, the area made some moves, limited but important. The city backed a few affordable housing projects and the feds began targeting areas for denser populations. The idea of five acres and a farm house gave way to three-bedroom townhouses with a central park.

But these efforts were made only after the city realized most of its employees lived an hour away, over a difficult mountain pass, and were not available to provide emergency service to the tourists stranded by frequent snowstorms.

Each season, Jackson still struggles to find workers. Professionals, technicians and craftsman generally don’t stay long, outside of those established real estate agents who thrive on wealthy second-home owners. Jackson has rightfully earned its reputation as a great place to visit but an impossible place to live.

On the other side of the country, Williamsburg labored with the same issue more than a decade ago. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, as well as environmental and historic groups, tied up considerable amounts of land around the Williamsburg area. The rest was being purchased by wealthy retirees, or builders who catered to wealthy retirees. Although not mountain-locked like Tahoe and Jackson, Williamsburg was squeezing workers farther and farther from their jobs.

But the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation did something quite remarkable. The all-powerful Oz came out from behind its curtain and spoke to the people. The Foundation united with the U.S. Forest Service, Anheiser Busch Brewery, the College of William and Mary, the state historic groups, the chamber of commerce, the Realtors and the rest of the community to work out land issues. The process took a year and resulted in some significant zoning changes, as well as business incentives for affordable housing.

Even if the problem in Williamsburg wasn’t resolved, the realities of business and government decisions became much more immediately apparent.

In Williamsburg, the community came first, which may have saved the town.

As I watch my friend struggle, I know this issue is bigger than she is.

It’s bigger than any single entity on the South Shore.

But it is not bigger than this community. There are solutions, not just remedies.

It’s time for everyone – casinos, ski resorts, local businesses, chambers of commerce, Realtors, federal agencies and special interest groups – to realize how easy it is to sell the heart out of a town, and in the process, lose its soul.

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