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Keeping Workers Living Locally Is the Key to Survival for Our Ski Towns

Meet three organizations working to keep mountain-town families sheltered amid one of the worst housing shortages in history.

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Living in a ski town while making ski town wages has become an impossible paradox. Rental opportunities are dwindling, home prices are only attainable for Google execs and Wall Street bankers, and the workforce is getting pushed out in droves. Housing scarcity has plagued mountain towns for decades, but this year has served as a tipping point for many as demand for real estate soars thanks to remote workers and businesses start to close their doors due to labor shortages. Ski towns are finally cracking.

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It’s finally drawing attention from the outside, and it’s putting pressure on ski towns to step up their affordable housing solutions or risk losing the heart of their community. 

Yes, chasing powder in a ski town on a liftie’s budget is starting to feel like a lofty dream, but nonprofits, innovators, and policy-driven activists are certain that there’s hope for the future. Here are three organizations that are trying to ensure that the future of ski towns is affordable. 

Landing Locals houses the workforce in underutilized rental units

When Colin and Kai Frolich moved to Truckee, Calif. from San Francisco in 2018, they were surprised at how challenging it was to find a long-term rental. Like most resort towns, vacation home owners dominate the housing market, and short-term rentals through apps like Airbnb and VRBO are far more lucrative on a per night basis than renting long-term. So although the rental market is competitive, there’s not actually a shortage of space; 80 percent of the homes in Tahoe are large, single-family second homes, and 65 percent of homes sit empty for most of the year.

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Andrea King calls the owner of Buyer’s Resource Real Estate, Chris Eby, while waiting to get the chance to view a three bedroom apartment. (: Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

“After talking with vacation home owners to find our own long-term rental, we found that many of them were actually willing to rent long-term if the opportunity were to come up, even if it meant a slightly lower rate,” says Colin Frolich, CEO and Cofounder of Landing Locals. The idea behind Landing Locals is to provide an AirBnB-style platform that connects second homeowners with the renters from the local workforce. Homeowners pay a small fee for Landing Locals to find and vet local renters, taking care of the matching process and creating a streamlined system that’s easy for homeowners to say yes to.

In the last year, renter applications have gone through the roof on the Landing Locals platform since many residents lost stable housing when homeowners started cashing out and selling their properties. In response, Landing Locals began offering a grant program in 2021, paying local homeowners up to $10,000 in grant money for renting to a local family, which Frolich says has helped curb the trend.

“What’s really exciting is the ability to expand beyond Truckee,” says Frolich. “It’s a scalable and replicable model that can be used anywhere. We already have this platform in place which can help expedite the process we went through here in Truckee.” Landing Locals has already expanded to Big Sky, Mont. and Telluride, Colo. with hopes to set up shop in South Lake Tahoe, Breckenridge, Ketchum, and Jackson as well.

Shelter JH is working to change local policy 

While other nonprofits are working to build more affordable homes, Shelter JH is coming at the crisis from a policy perspective, aiming to put measures in place to ensure workforce housing as the town grows and continues to develop. 

“There are quite a few groups working on creating more affordable housing, but without the policies in place to fund those programs, those groups can’t be as successful,” says Clare Stumpf, Shelter JH’s Coordinator. “Shelter is building grassroots and political power to make measurable change and enable those groups to be more effective.” Shelter members think of the organization as more of a union than a nonprofit, since money comes from a growing membership made up of the local workforce, and as a 501(c)4, Shelter is also able to endorse candidates, helping to get housing advocates into public office.

“Our primary goal is to build membership and empower our members to be their own housing advocates,” Stumpf explains. “Being housing insecure and working multiple jobs like so many people do here makes it hard to have time to attend town council meetings or get engaged. We try to distill information and keep members informed so it’s easier to get involved. 

Shelter’s policy platform includes things like an allocation of public funding to go towards a Community Housing Fund, new state revenue streams like a real estate transfer tax, bringing back inclusionary zoning to create a more dense urban growth within already developed areas, and fighting for more deed restrictions on existing and future development. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” says Stumpf. “It’s going to take years to build a successful coalition to get support for a real estate transfer tax, but if and when it does pass it will move the needle in a really meaningful way.”

Breckenridge Housing Helps Program buys up deed restrictions to keep home prices within reach for locals

The Town of Breckenridge has been aggressive in addressing workforce housing for the past few decades, tackling the issue in a variety of ways including building new complexes, buying up inventory, and purchasing deed restrictions from current homeowners. “It’s kind of unique for the town itself to be the developer,” says Laurie Best, Senior Planning Manager at the Town of Breckenridge. “But unless we own the land, it’s hard to be in the driver’s seat.”

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After several months of searching, a group of young renters in Frisco, Colorado walk into a rental with hopes of finally getting on a lease. Photo: Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Although she’s been working on affordable housing in Breck for over 20 years, Best says the current crisis has hit a concerning and unprecedented level, threatening the town’s ability to provide services tourists and locals need. “We’re making progress with inventory but we can’t build our way out of this,” says Best, of the 350 units currently in the pipeline. “There’s not enough land or money to add the number of units we’d need so it’s important that we preserve our existing inventory.”

The Housing Helps Program pays local homeowners to permanently deed-restrict their homes, incorporating workforce requirements and income caps in an effort to keep the booming housing market from making home ownership unattainable for those who actually live and work in the community. There are currently 1,000 deed-restricted homes in Breck, and Best says their goal is to continue to purchase as many more as possible. While a deed restriction caps appreciation, the payment from the Town of Breck doesn’t come with strings attached, so homeowners can use it for home renovations, maintenance, or mortgage payments. The program can also be used by locals looking to buy a home, with Housing Helps funds available for around 15 percent of the purchase price of the home in exchange for a deed restriction.

Best says their goal is to have at least 35 percent of the homes in Breck locally occupied, with at least 47 percent of the jobs in town held by someone who lives within city limits instead of having to commute. “It’s so important because it goes to the very core of the character of our community as a place where people can work, live, play, raise a family,” says Best. “We always say if you’re a resort community and you don’t house your workforce, you’re not a community.”