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Did the Pandemic Finally End the Modern-Day Ski Bum?

I walked over to the Stagecoach Bar for lunch last week, a local favorite at the bottom of Teton Pass, only to discover a sign on the door: “Sorry, closed until 5 p.m. due to lack of staffing.” 

At first glance it seemed surprising. The town of Jackson is as busy as it’s ever been, with record visitor numbers already reported in May and June. Coffee shop lines stretch out the door, trailheads fill up before 8 a.m. in Grand Teton National Park, and driving the eight miles from Jackson to Wilson now takes up to 40 minutes instead of the usual 10. But although the town is bustling, local shops and restaurants are being forced to reduce hours or close for the simple reason that they have no one to staff them. 

A line of customers snakes out the door at Jackson’s Pearl Street Bagels in early July. Photo: Ryan Dorgan

“A lot of our staff has lost their rentals and no one can move here because of the housing shortage,” says Josh Hirschmann, General Manager of Local Restaurant and Bar, who recently announced they’d be closed on the weekends to protect the mental health of their already overworked staff. “There are people I know with the skillsets we need but we can’t hire them because they can’t find a place to live.”

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Flipping through the classifieds in the Jackson Hole Daily last week, I found 10 pages of Help Wanted inquiries with 183 job postings followed by only three long-term rentals, one of which was a one-bedroom condo in town for $3,500 per month. “I can’t get anyone to bus tables because you need to be making a ridiculous amount of money to live here,” Hirschmann adds. 

The housing crisis isn’t a new issue for ski towns like Jackson, Aspen, and Crested Butte, where the local workforce has been struggling with an expensive, unstable, and competitive housing market for decades. “The last year homes were affordable to the local workforce in Jackson, meaning the median home sale correlated to the median earning household, was 1987,” says April Norton, Teton County Housing Director. “But people are starting to hit their breaking point.”

Jason Fabian works in the radiology department at St. John’s Health in Jackson but has been unable to find housing that he can afford. He spends most nights in his truck on U.S. Forest Service land and occasionally lucks into a room for a night or two at the hospital’s Hitching Post Lodge. Photo: Ryan Dorgan

It’s not uncommon to move every few months, pay $1,500 for a windowless basement room, spend the summer in a Subaru Outback, or share a motel room for the winter. My neighbors in my last apartment complex had a family of four crammed into a 450-square-foot studio. People will do whatever it takes to survive in this town, but now that restaurants, bars, libraries, bike shops, and even the public pool are starting to close or reduce hours, the crisis is finally drawing attention from those who only follow the market loosely. 

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For many Americans pre-pandemic, jobs were the only thing keeping them in places like New York, L.A., or San Francisco. Mountain towns have seen a huge influx in both visitors and new residents since the COVID-19 outbreak as digital nomads with deep pockets for monthly rent flee the city in favor of fresh mountain air. 

“Condos that were selling for $300,000 two years ago are going for $700,000. That kind of appreciation is just phenomenal.” says Norton, who added that in the last year, rent rates have gone up 10 percent, houses have gone up 22 to 40 percent, and wages have only gone up 4 percent.It’s challenging to work with families here who have good jobs and have saved up money over the years, only to be outbid by cash buyers from outside the valley, sight unseen.”

People enjoy the view from residential balconies at Jackson’s new Westview Condominiums development following a May ribbon-cutting ceremony. The property has 16 permanently deed-restricted condominiums for local workers, some of which will be owner-occupied while others were purchased by local businesses for employee housing. The 2-bedroom 960-square-foot condos were priced between $699,000 and $733,000 each. Photo: Ryan Dorgan

It’s easy to point fingers at the big-city refugees who are willing to pay double the cost of what an apartment should be, but the surge in demand for housing this past year is bringing to the surface a problem that has plagued these mountain towns for decades: not enough affordable housing.

Crested Butte declared a Housing Disaster Emergency in June, stating that “the current lack of available, affordable workforce housing is threatening the livelihood and character of the town, its citizens, and its businesses.” Similar to Jackson, local businesses in Crested Butte are spread too thin, unable to staff restaurants and bike shops for the summer. The town authorized tent camping and mobile homes in residentially zoned private properties, an emergency protocol to buy a little bit of time, but by no means a real fix. 

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Aspen has long struggled with a competitive housing market, but is ahead of the mountain town curve when it comes to affordable housing projects. Aspen Ski Co.’s most recent project, The Hub at Willits, opened Memorial Day with 35 units for Ski Co. employees and eight units for non-Ski Co. employees who are local licensed childcare workers. According to Aspen Ski Co., the town of Aspen has offered the largest affordable housing program per capita in the United States for the past 45 years, with roughly 3,000 employee units set aside in a town that has about 7,500 full-time residents.

Norton is hopeful about upcoming projects in Jackson, with 350 deed-restricted units in the pipeline, on top of the 1,230 units already in the valley. But there’s still a long way to go. 

The Sagebrush Apartments on Broadway near Flat Creek are nearing completion. The private development will add 90 units to the valley’s housing stock, with about a third deed restricted for local workers. Rent will start at just below $1,700 per month for a 371-square-foot studio apartment. Photo: Ryan Dorgan

“I’m really worried about what’s going to happen to our community because of this,” says Hirschmann. “We need to find a way to keep the ski bum. That’s the heart of Jackson. If we lose the skid, we not only lose our workforce, but we lose our culture.”