Resort towns struggle to be affordable |

Resort towns struggle to be affordable

Susan Wood and William Ferchland, Tahoe Daily Tribune
Provided to the TribuneMammoth Lakes has incorporated affordable housing into its redevelopment plan. The average home costs $475,000.

Welcome to the club, Vail City Manager Bob McLaurin said. He was referring to the notion of South Lake Tahoe grappling with high housing costs and service-industry wages.

For 30 years, Vail has worked on the issue that plagues other tourism towns.

During that time, wages have gone up, with bus drivers earning $13 an hour. But they’ve recently leveled off.

As for affordable housing, McLaurin said the city has gone out of its way to secure land for housing projects. In the last four years, 120 units have been added to its housing base.

The city breaks up its housing into three categories: owner-occupied, long-term and short-term. The latter accommodates seasonal employees.

South Shore residents need only look a few hours south off Highway 395 to get a mirror image of its cost-of-living plight.

Mammoth Lakes has made a concerted effort to deal with affordable housing to accommodate service industry wages for its residents.

The city raised its transient occupancy tax in March from 10 percent to 12 percent, with 1 percent of the money earmarked for affordable housing projects, Senior Planner Bill Taylor reported. It amounts to $500,000 to $600,000 a year in revenue.

The hike in the motel room tax took effect in July.

From that effort, Taylor said the city has nibbled away on a plan outlining short- and long-term opportunities to try to keep housing costs at a rate at which all its residents can afford to live there if they so choose.

According to the Mammoth Board of Realtors, the median price of a single-family home is $475,000. One $360,000 home was listed as a fixer-upper.

“It is hard. There’s huge pressure to buy because people are worried about (prices) going further out of sight,” Taylor said.

Permanent residents are competing with second-home buyers looking for a quality of life that’s free from concerns of the cities.

Three projects have made inroads to create 70 new units in recent years.

The city has converted one motel into single-family housing. A developer has received tax credits to create low-income units, and a lodging establishment was turned into an apartment complex.

Taylor said the City Council has made it a mission to have suitable housing in town.

Mammoth Mountain has joined the fight. The ski area invested $8 million in employee housing, which consists of three buildings opening up 200 beds.

“It’s not a glamorous way to spend the money, but it’s important,” Mammoth spokeswoman Joni Lynch said.

There’s an added problem. Outside of Mammoth Lakes, there’s no escape to Gardnerville or Carson City like workers’ of South Lake Tahoe flight out of the city.

“If they’re all second homes, that’s not really a community,” he said.

The challenges have been affected by changing demographics. Young adults who traditionally held the low-paying service jobs as a trade-off for a lifestyle choice have been replaced by Latinos looking for a way to raise a family in a desirable setting.

“Any place that’s attractive for social and economic reasons is going through this,” Taylor said.

Oregon has its problems

The plight is repeated across the state line.

“We’re not escaping this either,” said Brian Almquist, city manager of Ashland, Ore. “It happens in tourist towns. We’ve all had to deal with it.”

Like Mammoth, Ashland has a significant number of service jobs that pay $6 to $9 an hour. These jobs are grabbed up by some of the 5,000 students who attend Southern Oregon University, which is located in town.

At the same time, Ashland’s median sales price of $289,000 for a single-family home shows an inequity at balancing the cost of living.

“You can’t find anything less than $150,000,” Almquist said.

The high cost of living has driven down school enrollment because many families have been forced to move out of town to more affordable regions.

Ashland recently closed one of its five elementary schools.

Almquist said the city’s hands are essentially tied to make significant changes, with a free-market economy and fewer Housing and Urban Development projects funded.

“Affordable housing we talk about, but it’s something we can’t do much about,” he said.

Trends seen nationwide

Jonathan Schechter is executive director of Charture Institute, a Wyoming think tank that investigates growth and change issues in resort and national gateway communities.

Schechter cited four things that occurred during the past decade that contributed to the evolution of resort communities. He listed them as changes in economy, technology, where people live compared to where they work and quality of life. They are the reasons why resort communities are experiencing a growth in population.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Schechter said during the 1990s the United States grew in population by 13 percent. Looking closer at the matter, Schechter found an average 39 percent growth in 12 western U.S. ski towns, while 25 resort counties had an average growth of 34 percent.

Along the same lines, Schechter looked at housing stock, which grew nationwide by 13 percent, identical to population growth. The housing stock of the counties grew on average 27 percent. The ski towns averaged 28 percent, Schechter said.

With the information, it’s easy to ask if the data is good or bad.

“Who knows?” Schechter said. “That question is something every beautiful place in America is struggling with right now. All of them are being overwhelmed with that question and have no model to deal with it. It’s a brand new phenomenon. It’s causing tremendous pressures on sense of community and it’s killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Jackson Hole tries to cope

The Charture Institute is located in Jackson, Wyo., a resort town that has three ski resorts — Snow King, Teton Village, Grand Targhee — within close proximity. Jackson, a town of 8,647 people, has 113 full-time equivalent city employees, 25 percent of whom live outside city limits, said Michael Parda, town administrator.

The average price for condominiums and town houses in 2000 was $367,000, while the 1996 average was $192,000.

In May 2001, a 1 percent sales tax which will likely produce $9.3 million was approved and designated for affordable housing, from apartments to single-family houses.

Second homes in Colorado

About 660 miles southwest of Jackson lies Frisco, Colo., a small ski town of about 2,500 people wedged among Breckenridge, Copper Ridge and Vail.

Town Manager Alan Briley estimated 55 to 65 percent of the housing stock is second homes owned by Denver and Colorado Springs residents. Affordable housing is a priority, with the average sales price of homes about $430,000, and five to six people sharing a one-bedroom apartment, Briley said.

The average age of the people in Frisco is 31, which distinguishes the area as having one of the highest percentages of people in the 25- to 35-year-old demographic in the nation, Briley said.

Frisco is looking into ways to institute a transient occupancy tax. Even though it’s a pressing need, it’s not as large as affordable day care.

“The other issue we found — it sounds like a broken record because property values are so high — is child care,” Briley said. “You can’t afford to have a piece of property worth half a million dollars and take care of kids charging $60 a day. It’s becoming a very big issue in Summit County.”

— Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at; William Ferchland can be reached at (530)542-8014 or

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