There’s no place like home when it’s a van in winter
The resort lifestyle draws a dynamic breed of people, willing to do almost anything for fresh tracks. But as property values soar, ski resort employees may need more than just a few powder days.
“(Housing) is clearly a challenge that all the resorts are looking at,” said Bob Roberts, executive director for the California Ski Industry Association.
“It wasn’t too long ago that people’s attitudes were ‘we just hire them. We don’t have to worry about where they live.’ “
But as housing across the nation becomes more difficult to afford employers are starting to take notice, Roberts said.
Many people at Lake Tahoe, and other ski resort communities, are buying vacation homes, effectively taking rental properties off the market.
“The biggest issue is cold beds, said John Rice, general manager for Sierra-at-Tahoe. “People fix it up, lock it up and come up two or three times a year.”
The rental stock is decreasing and the need for more employees at ski resorts is increasing as the demand for services is increasing.
Rice said Sierra has looked at purchasing motels in the Stateline area for affordable housing, but the cost so far has not made the purchase feasible. Sierra does not have any employee housing, and the resort, which is on National Forest land, has no where to build.
“It’s going to get harder and harder to find employee housing,” Rice said.
During the 1994-95 season Sierra had 425 full-time equivalent employees (Two part-time employees represent one full-time employee.) During the 2000-01 season the resort had 575 full-time equivalents, 300 of which were actually full time, Rice said.
An estimated 90 percent of these full-time employees live in South Lake Tahoe, Meyers, Christmas Valley and Stateline, he said.
Starting wages at the South Shore resorts started as low as $6.25 an hour this season, making it difficult for employees to afford rent, but there is more.
“What is important for employees it is not just wages,” Rice said. “It is the total package of their employer taking care of them, and that extends to housing and transportation.”
But even if employees can find a place they can afford, landlords are not as willing to rent to seasonal employees on a month-to-month basis, Rice said. And for a ski resort employee to secure housing, they need to come as early as September or October, which is before the four-month work season even starts.
In some years Sierra has given employee feeds when it is slow in the beginning of the season. They also try to place employees in temporary employment until the season starts, and also hold job fairs in the spring to help their winter staff get summer employment.
“For the employees its important to let them know that you care about helping them,” Rice said.
But even employees who are on salary are having problems with housing.
“I had a supervisor who was sleeping in his van for two weeks,” Rice said.
He said that employee was probably making nearly $30,000 a year, proving that even those with adequate income are having problems with housing. The employee eventually found a room to rent with other Sierra employees.
Heavenly Ski Resort has between 1,500 and 1,600 employees during peak season, said Andrew Strain director of planning for Heavenly.
The resort offers some employee housing, but the 72 beds it offers is hardly enough to deal with the housing shortage.
“During the peak season, I think it is fair to say that we have a demand for housing that exceeds our supply,” Strain said.
Kirkwood Mountain Resort has employee housing for about 150 people, which is about 20 percent of its staff, said human resources manager David Goldstein. For Kirkwood it is a necessity. Since heavy snowfall can shut down mountain passes such Carson Pass and Carson Spur, the resort needs employees at the resort to attend to the needs of overnight guests.
With escalating rents across the county, employee housing has become very important for ski resorts when recruiting employees.
“Other human resource managers that I have talked to across the country have said it is a defining issue in recruitment,” Goldstein said.
About 40 percent of Kirkwood employees live in South Lake Tahoe, 30 percent in the Carson Valley and 10 percent are commuters from the Bay area.
“I would say that the greatest obstacle is property,” Goldstein said. “Here in the Kirkwood Valley property is very expensive. (Our employees) couldn’t find an apartment or house to rent in the Kirkwood Valley.”
To deal with this issue Kirkwood like many resorts has a free shuttle bus for employees, which travels as far as 70 miles round trip.
But Goldstein said Kirkwood does have available space at the resort, which it could build additional employee housing on, a project he said could begin in the next five years.
Heavenly Ski Resort, too, recognizes a need for more employee housing, but has hit some road blocks. The resort wants to rezone a 25-acre parcel to construct employee housing on Kingsbury Grade for 300 employees.
“We chose the area because we owned the land,” Strain said. But with improper zoning the Douglas County Commissioners have at least temporarily shot down Heavenly’s plans.
“We want to be able to provide the assurances to the county that our ultimate goal of providing employee housing is the one we are going to go after,” Strain said.
Affordable housing is not something that just faces lift operators and dishwashers, said Deanna Weber, a principal for the Design Workshop. Some out of state resorts have different levels of affordable housing that supply homes for people in middle management positions with families.
While many people fear affordable housing because they think it will lower their property values, others disagree.
“Affordable housing doesn’t have to look bad you can be innovative and use good design,” Weber said.
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