Living and working in some of the most scenic places in the country has often created challenges during my life. This balancing act began over 20 years ago when I first moved to the Sierra Nevada town of Mammoth Lakes to work for Mammoth Mountain, the local ski resort. Getting paid minimum wage for a job at the ski shop on the mountain, I had limited funds to pay for housing. Fortunately for me, I was able to secure a room in a condo that I could afford.
This scenario would repeat itself a few years later when I moved to Lake Tahoe. Except the demand for affordable housing far outweighed the availability. For three years, I would compete with thousands of other local employees to find a room somewhere that wouldn’t break the bank. I would comb the classifieds online and call immediately. One year, I got really lucky. The owner happened to pick up the phone rather than letting it go to voice mail and agreed to meet with me that afternoon. She liked me and rented out the room. Later, she told me she got over 50 phone calls that day inquiring about it.
Another year, I wasn’t so lucky. I arrived later in the fall, and slept on a friend’s couch for weeks. I ended up renting a room in what I can only graciously call a dump of an apartment and sleeping on an ancient leaky water bed for the winter.
In Lake Tahoe, the prices of housing were driven up by second home owners from the San Francisco Bay area. People who worked for employers like Google and Facebook, and had the income to buy million dollar homes up at the lake.
While I loved Lake Tahoe, what ultimately drove me out was the realization that on my meager $10/hour income, I would never be able to buy a home there, with even the tiniest bungalow easily costing half a million dollars.
Such is the conundrum of local workers finding affordable housing in mountain towns. The ski resorts and local businesses desperately need a work force to support the influx of tourists. In winter, it’s all about the ski resorts. In summer, Estes Park’s businesses serve the over 4 million visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park. But those businesses barely pay above minimum wage.
Shortly after moving to Colorado, we took a camping trip to Maroon Bells near Aspen, Colorado. Eating breakfast one morning in Aspen, we asked the waitress where she lived. Due to the insane cost of housing in Aspen, she was forced to rent an apartment in Glenwood Springs, over an hour away and either take the bus or carpool to work every day.
My hometown of Nederland is not immune to these issues either, even though it faces them on a smaller scale. Eldora ski resort employs over a hundred seasonal workers, and local businesses ramp up hiring to serve the thousands of visitors to the Indian Peaks Wilderness in summer and fall.
So it was with interest, that I read a story in our local paper a couple of weeks ago. Nederland is feeling the affects of increasing population growth along the Front Range, with real estate inventory shrinking and housing prices going up. On March 20, the Nederland Board of Trustees approved a project by the Boulder County Housing Authority to build 26 new homes for low-income and senior residents. Residents need to have a job in Nederland and must earn less than 60 percent of Area Media Income to qualify.
The land is centrally located walking distance to town business and adjacent to Nederland’s Park and Ride lot, which gives residents access to public transportation to nearby Boulder. Several years ago, Nederland residents approved a ballot initiative to provide all Nederland residents with RTD Ecopasses through a modest property tax surcharge.
While 26 units may not seem a lot, it’s a step in the right direction towards local businesses retaining good help and stability for the people who live and work here. And it helps the county work towards their eventual 12 percent goal of affordable housing by 2035.
I’m fortunate enough today to own a home here and not have to worry about this. But as someone who walked in the shoes of those local workers, I am grateful our community is working towards addressing this pressing need.