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Ski Resort Life

High-Country Exodus

Ski towns confront the affordable-housing crisis

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When paramedic Ryan Mason, 33, moved to Telluride in 2010,he scored a two-bedroom apartment in town for $1,400 per month. Six years later, his rent has jumped to nearly $2,000, pricing him out of his home and forcing him to look for jobs elsewhere.

“My dream is to stay here, but with what I make I can’t see how I can afford to,” he says.

Telluride’s box canyon sure is pretty, but when it comes to developing affordable housing, it doesn’t allow much room for improvement.

Mason’s story is all too familiar in Telluride, population 2,300, where lopsided classified ads in the local newspaper represent an economic epidemic affecting mountain communities everywhere. There are jobs aplenty, but apartments and houses are scarce and prohibitively expensive. As a result, locals like Mason are forced to find housing farther from the communities in which they work (if they can find housing at all), which, of course, defeats the point of moving there. The big question is: What future is there for working-class people in mountain towns?

An analysis conducted by the town of Telluride in 2015 indicated it needs 400 more units of affordable housing to shelter even 60 percent of the local workforce. An assessment conducted by the satellite hub of Mountain Village showed that community needs 1,000 more affordable units just to accommodate the employees of the resort and local businesses.

Yet as in most mountain resort communities, dirt isn’t cheap in Telluride, and according to town program director Lance MacDonald, the lack of developable land in the famous box canyon is the biggest roadblock. That means thinking outside the box. The town council considered funding a community of tiny homes within town limits (the idea was ultimately nixed) and has a plan in the works to develop a high-density boardinghouse to help house the town’s ever-growing population of seasonal workers. Last fall, the Telluride Ski Resort purchased and renovated a hotel in neighboring Rico for local employees.

“It’s unfortunately come to a stage where we need to take matters into our own hands,” Telluride Ski and Golf’s executive vice president Robert Stenhammer said of the purchase, in an interview with the Telluride Daily Planet. The property is 30 miles from town and will only house 35 people; so as Stenhammer admits,
“It’s not the solution, but it helps.”

The forced exodus of locals from ski towns isn’t just happening in Telluride. The dearth of modest homes in Steamboat Springs has forced some employers to rent their seasonal workers rooms in defunct hotels. In Park City, the city council has committed more than $40 million for affordable-housing projects in the coming years. In Big Sky, the Housing Trust has explored funneling resort-tax appropriations into the area’s affordable-housing program.

The challenge of finding affordable housing in small resort communities isn’t new; low inventory and high demand have long forced ski-town dwellers to get creative (like living in tepees and “woodsies,” or renting space on a friend’s couch or floor).

But with the tourism industry’s fast-paced growth in recent years causing employers to hire more workers, coupled with newer trends like Airbnb compelling more property owners to rent their homes and condos as vacation rather than long-term rentals, the market for housing is tighter than ever.

“There are more jobs available in town than I have ever seen,” says 16-year Crested Butte local Mike Horn, “but affordable places for those people to live are fewer and farther between.”A typical ski-bum house in the Crested Butte neighborhood nicknamed Bad Dog Alley.

A typical ski-bum house in the Crested Butte neighborhood nicknamed Bad Dog Alley.Trent Bona

Town governments across ski country have taken note, with places like Crested Butte making funding available for new for-rent and for-sale workforce-housing projects. Horn and his wife recently won a housing lottery in Crested Butte that will allow them to buy a lot within city limits at a reduced price.

“We’re one of the success stories,” Horn says, noting that without the lottery, his family never could have imagined building a home in Crested Butte.

In Aspen, developers must provide affordable housing for 60 percent of the employees resulting from their building projects. But an incentive program lets the developers buy the affordable housing (rather than build it themselves), making required employee housing a commodity on the local free market. It’s a capitalistic pay-it-forward approach.

Meanwhile, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has taken a different tack toward housing its seasonal employees. Its Tenants for Turns program offers 15-day ski passes to homeowners willing to rent to JHMR’s summer workers. Although the new program is still getting off the ground, JHMR chief administrative officer Scott Horn says the concept holds great possibilities for the future. “We all want a viable economic situation in these resort towns, and in order to make that work you’ve got to have employees—so you’ve got to have housing,” he says.

Programs like this one, and concepts like Aspen’s housing mitigation program and Telluride’s boardinghouses, provide glimmers of hope for resort towns facing the stark reality of losing their heart and soul—their locals—to the machines of success.

But for Ryan Mason, the dream of staying in Telluride has faded. He recently accepted a job out of town and plans to move to the Durango area.
“I hope I can make [Telluride] work someday,” he laments. But the reality for mountain communities everywhere is simple and hard: Making a life in a ski town has never been easy. Without affordable housing it’s becoming nearly impossible.

Contributor Martinique Davis works as a ski patroller in Telluride.