Tahoe ski resorts in desperate need of labor accommodation turn brutal camps

 

With winter looming, a sprawling ski resort for work and limited lodging options for seasonal employees who want to ramp up tickets or perks, Palisades Ski Resort in Tahoe tried a daring test last year.

The company has opened a campground near Interstate 89, where workers can park their small, brave cars during the snowy months without heating, water or electricity. Palisades operated and maintained the camp site, which boasted individual amenities: waterless toilets with holding tanks.

It was perhaps the strongest illustration yet of the housing crisis gripping the mountain towns of the Sierra, which depend on tourism to fuel their local economies – even as tourists squeeze the housing stock and generate demand for low-wage workers.

Palisades obtained a special use permit to rent campground from the US Forest Service, hoping to promote van living as an alternative for people who have nowhere else to go.

“The idea was partly, can we take advantage of this ‘van life’ lifestyle?” US Forest Service area ranger Jonathan Cook Fisher recalls how Palisades got inspired by the social media trend when he launched a “pilot program” with six campgrounds on the paved surface of the Granite Flat Campground.

However, if Van Living seemed romantic on Instagram, the reality at this campground was considerably less glamorous. Crews struggled shoveling snow off previously uninhabited land in the winter months, while the site’s “host” was assigned to keep campers safe in harsh conditions.

 
Dave Wilderwater and Francesca Santos joke around with each other in a tiny home community in Truckee, California, on August 3, 2022. Wilderrotter has purchased a plot of land in downtown Truckee and filled it with tiny homes to help with the housing condition his current and former employees find themselves in. Santos has worked at Wilderotter for 10 years and now works at Le Chamois.

 

Tracy Barbutes / History

“The reality is that winter camping can be quite a challenge,” said Cook Fisher, describing Granite Flat Camp as an “indicator that communities will come up with solutions” to the scarcity of affordable housing.

A Palisades spokesperson said many employees were already living in vans or mobile homes and needed “a stable, predictable, and secure parking spot without having to commute frequently.”

“We saw camp as a viable solution,” said company spokeswoman Kat Walton. The resort has attempted to pursue other forms of housing for its workers with limited success. According to Walton, Palisades purchased eight units to house 24 employees of Kings Beach. Last month, a Supreme Court judge overturned his plan to build an Olympic Valley ski area with a new village, hotels, apartment complexes and accommodation for up to 300 employees.

Now, with Palisades and the Forest Service plan to expand the program to up to 26 campgrounds this winter — possibly using electrical hookups, Walton said — other employers are seeking to replicate the program.

Some are also looking to live in a dormitory, while a business owner has filled a mobile residential plot with a small cabin for his employees. Placer County is trying its own piecemeal solutions, from helping with mortgage payments, to capping short-term rents, to recently giving landlords who rent on seasonal or long-term leases a way to free up homes that remain vacant when the tourist season ends .

Taken together, these measures reflect the desperation to maintain a local workforce, in a region where real estate prices are rising much faster than wages, and rising demand for vacation homes is constraining the housing supply.

But while local officials stress they are trying to be creative in the face of a terrible problem, housing advocates say the impasse won’t go away until Tahoe leaders start pushing for dense apartments or curbs on contracts to reserve housing for workers.

 
Dave Wilderrotter talks with Cassie Wiggins at a small home community in Truckee, California, on August 3, 2022. Wiggins is a small community property manager and has lived on the site for three and a half years. Wilderotter bought a plot of land in downtown Truckee and filled it with tiny homes to help with the housing condition his current and former employees find themselves in.

 

Tracy Barbutes / History

Otherwise, they’re just “gnawing the edges,” said Matthew Lewis, a spokesperson for the statewide group California YIMBY, which advocates for greater housing development statewide.

“Placer County and the City of Truckee always have the ability to work with the rest of the development community” on far-reaching measures, namely allocating land for workforce housing, and subsidizing it with fees on other development projects, Lewis said. “The fact that they have waited so long to get really serious about these measures has put them in a really difficult position.”

Some mountain towns have started building affordable housing: Mammoth Lakes has been funded and is currently building 466 affordable units, but other communities don’t seem to be considering development. Cindy Gustafson, chair of the Placer County Board of Supervisors, argued that Tahoe cannot make its way out of housing scarcity due to regional restrictions on height and development.

“There are restrictions to protect the Lake Tahoe environment,” she said, citing decades-old rules overseen by the Tahoe Territorial Planning Agency, which controls land in California and Nevada. Gustafson is a member of the agency’s board of directors, and said its members are currently reconsidering those standards.

The COVID-induced boom in remote work has exacerbated the situation. The median value of homes in Tahoe increased during that time, from $964,000 in January 2020, to $1.51 million in June 2022, according to real estate listings website Zillow. In eastern Placer County, landlords have converted more than 65% of their single-family home inventory into second homes or vacation rentals, according to a 2021 Mountain Housing Council study. As a side effect of this short-term rental boom, many dwellings remain empty most General, though all residents who need a place to live.

“Vacation rents have been a part of our culture for 40 or 50 years,” Gustafson said, noting, however, that rent transfers have spiraled out of control during the pandemic. Homes are being occupied full time by many short term tenants

With rents rising and real estate remaining unoccupied, companies are struggling to hire and retain a workforce. Many restaurant and hospitality workers can’t afford to live in Tahoe, and even government employees commute from as far away as Roseville, Myers or the South Shore, where housing is cheaper. Cook Fisher said he drives 50 miles one way from his South Shore home to his job in the Truckee Ranger.

Gustafson, who has lived in Tahoe for 40 years, said she sees signs of the housing crisis everywhere, from “Help Wanted” signs in shop windows, to the number of people who drive astonishingly long distances to get to work, to seasonal workers who They choose to sleep in cars or trucks, rather than paying to rent a cabin or studio apartment. She has seen companies falter or cut their hours. She said the post office cut back the counter service.

Scott Smelser, a Tahoe native and owner of Blue Mountain Painting, said he felt stressed when his workers began migrating to Reno and Carson City, Nevada, trading the long coms for cheaper housing.

“They drive over 50 miles one way,” Smelser said, adding that he had to organize paint crews so that those who lived close to each other could use escort cars, if possible. He’s also raised starting wages above $20 an hour and offered a salary to help defray the cost of gas.

However, more and more residents fear that they will have to leave the area. Nigel Wheeler, a fishing guide and father of two, remains among the displaced. He moved to Tahoe more than a decade ago as a penniless teenager, worked low-paying jobs at a ski resort, and was sharing $300 a room a month with a fellow skier.

Since then, Wheeler said, Wheeler has survived two booms in the housing sector, the first by a rush into vacation rentals, and the second by remote workers who wanted a taste of mountain life. Over the past year, Wheeler’s owner has raised the rent for his two-bedroom home in Myers three times—from $1,500 to $1,950.

“I have a lot of friends who were born and raised here, and now live in Guernville or Carson City and commute,” Wheeler said. “I’ll just make it work.”

A longtime Tahoe merchant expressed frustration, saying the area is hampered by the unwillingness of residents and officials to build affordable housing.

“The NIMBY problem is everywhere,” said Dave Wilderwater, owner of Tahoe Dave Skis and Boards. He’s been buying real estate in the area for years, including an RV trailer park where he’s put up 25 mini cabins for his employees to rent, for $1,000 a month. Each one measures 400 square feet, with a fireplace, bathroom, and granite countertops.

Aside from Truckee, most towns are unincorporated and live under the decisions of Placer County Supervisors or the bi-state regional planning agency. This alone has caused tension, with some residents looking for more local control.

If Wilderrotter preferred it, Tahoe and other cities would have their own local governments, and Eastern Placer County would establish a housing spending fund.

“Then he convinced retirees and second homeowners that it was okay to build an affordable complex in their area,” grumbled the NIMBYs as he sipped a glass of zinfandel on a restaurant patio on Monday. The smoke from the distant forest fires was gradually dissipating in the sky, now frothy and blue against the undulating lake.

“It’s still beautiful,” Wilderwater said. “It’s not like we want to leave.”

 

Rachel Swan is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: Tweet embed

 

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