City’s housing crisis exposes ‘house of cards’

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HAILEY, Idaho — Near the private jets that take billionaires to their opulent Sun Valley vacation spots, Ana Ramon Bartolome and her family have been living in the only place they have this summer: behind a blue tarp in a sweltering garage for two cars.

Without a refrigerator, the extended family of four adults and two small children store their products on plywood shelves. Since there is no sink, they wash dishes and themselves in the nearby park. With no bedroom, the six sleep on three individual mattresses on the floor.

“I’m very worried, depressed and scared,” said Ms Bartolome, who makes a living looking after the homes of wealthy residents but can’t afford even the cheapest apartments on the famous ski and golf course.

Resort communities have long grappled with how to house their workers, but in places like Sun Valley those challenges have become a crisis as the gap between those who have two homes and those who work two jobs widens . Fueled in part by a pandemic migration that has engulfed the region’s limited housing supply, rents have skyrocketed over the past two years, leaving expensive workers living in trucks, caravans or tents.

It’s not just service workers struggling to persevere. A YMCA program director lives in an RV on a piece of land in Hailey. A high school principal in Carey lived in an RV but was then converted into a tiny apartment in an industrial building. A Ketchum City Council member hops between the houses of friends and family and can’t afford a place of her own. A small business owner in Sun Valley spends each night driving dirt roads into the wilderness, parking his van under the trees, and settling down for the night.

The housing shortage now threatens to paralyze the once thriving economy and the valued sense of community. The hospital, school district and sheriff’s office have each seen potential employees turn down job offers after realizing the cost of living was unsustainable. The Sun Valley Fire Department has launched a $2.75 million fundraiser to build shelters for their firefighters.

Restaurants that cannot hire enough service staff are already closing or reducing their opening hours. And the problems are starting to spread to other businesses, said Michael David, a Ketchum councilor who has worked on housing issues for the past two decades.

“It’s kind of a house of cards,” he said. “It’s about to collapse”

Built as a popular ski resort to mirror the Alps’ iconic winter attraction, the Sun Valley area has evolved into an exclusive enclave for the rich and famous, attracting Hollywood celebrities, Washington political elites and Wall Street business titans, Many of whom are many meet each year for Allen & Company’s annual media finance conference, known as “Billionaires’ Summer Camp.” They’ve snagged desirable vacation properties next to winter ski lodges and summer golf courses, far from the gaping crowds of their hometowns.

With the onset of the pandemic, the region saw an influx of wealthy buyers looking for a work-from-home destination with plenty of conveniences, and migration drove housing costs up even further. In Ketchum, the city adjacent to Sun Valley, officials noted that home prices have skyrocketed more than 50 percent over the past two years, with the median reaching about $1.2 million. Two-bedroom rents went from less than $2,000 a month to over $3,000.

These shocks came after two decades of minimal housing construction in the city and a dramatic shift in recent years that transformed tenant-occupied units into ones that were either largely vacant by their owners or used as short-term rentals.

Similar trends are taking place in western Rocky Mountain resort towns, including Jackson Hole, Wyo., Aspen, Colo., and Whitefish, Mont. Although some larger employers, including Sun Valley Company, have developed dorm-style housing options for seasonal workers, these have little helped transform housing development for the broader communities.

One afternoon, people walked into a regional food bank in Bellevue, Idaho, ordering boxes of groceries from a warehouse filled with granola, fresh produce and Idaho potatoes. A family there said they were being evicted from the trailer park where they live because the land was to be redeveloped. They hadn’t been able to find a new place and were afraid of what was to come next.

The food bank has seen an increase in demand over the past two years, feeding about 200 families to nearly 500 each week, with numbers still rising, said Brooke Pace McKenna, a leader with the Hunger Coalition that runs the food bank.

“More and more we see the teachers, the police officers, the fire department,” Ms. McKenna said.

Kayla Burton grew up in the Sun Valley area and moved away after high school more than a decade ago. When she returned last year to take up a position as headmistress, she and her husband, who is a teacher, were shocked at how difficult it was to find an apartment. Property prices were spiraling out of control, she said, even for places that were in dire need of repairs. As rental offers became available, properties were flooded with applicants. The couple attempted to build their own home but found the cost was far out of reach.

Ms Burton and her husband moved into an RV on their parents’ property. Since then, the couple have managed to find a unit in an industrial building with no air conditioning, and they’re wondering if this is where they want to start a family.

“We’re at this weird floating point in our lives right now,” she said.

With some applicants unwilling to make the move, the area school district now has 26 open positions, some of which have remained vacant for months. The district is working on plans to develop seven affordable employee housing units.

Gretchen Gorham, the co-owner of Johnny G’s Subshack sandwich shop in Ketchum, said that while finding housing for firefighters, teachers and nurses is important, she also worries about the many people, vehicles, equipment and homes waiting.

That year, Ketchum officials urged voters to approve a tax hike to fund affordable housing for hundreds of workers over the next 10 years. It did not work.

“We live in a Wizarding City of Oz,” said Ms. Gorham. “People say one thing and then behind a closed curtain they do the other.”

Officials in the region have resorted to band-aid solutions. In Hailey, city rules prohibit RVs from parking on private property for more than 30 days, but council members have agreed not to enforce those rules for now; As a result, RVs can be seen in driveways and side yards across the city. In Ketchum, officials considered opening a tent city for workers, but decided against it.

In an area whose main asset is its spectacular wilderness, some people have taken refuge in the forests.

Aaron Clark, 43, who owns a window cleaning business, lost his long-term rent this spring when the landlord sold the property well beyond what Mr. Clark could afford. Knowing the exorbitant cost of all the other options around him, Mr. Clark boarded the van he uses to transport his ladders and washing gear.

Inside the truck, he has a bed and closets, and he’s recently added amenities like a sink with running water and solar power. He also got a fridge so he no longer has to constantly stock an ice box for his groceries. On the back there is a shower hose with heated water.

Every night when he’s done with work, he drives out into the wilderness to park for the night. One day he found a spot at the end of a potholed dirt road next to a creek where he spent some time evaluating the cryptocurrency market on his computer and then playing fetch with his dog. Mr Clark said he found joy in the lifestyle, which has at least allowed him to save up for when he eventually gets back into the housing market.

But it has its challenges.

“It’s a burden to decide every day, ‘Where do I park, where do I go?'” he said. “You come home from work, you’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re dirty, and now you have to decide what you’re going to do next.”

Of the area’s many Latino workers, about a quarter to half live in difficult situations, said Herbert Romero, co-founder of Blaine County’s Hispanic LatinUS Leadership Task Force, a group that works with the community. He said he saw up to 10 people living in two-bedroom mobile homes. Others live on couches. Some have lived in vehicles.

Ricky Williams, 37, grew up in the area before moving away and embarking on a career in the fire service. A year ago, he and his wife planned a return to the Sun Valley area, expecting high living expenses but still unprepared for what they would find there.

He recalled looking at a derelict home that was on the market for $750,000 – well over their budget with him as a full-time firefighter and his wife as a small business owner – and there was a rush of potential buyers that day available to see. He said the couple were lucky to get one of the fire department’s existing housing units and pay a reduced rent to live next door to a fire station in exchange for being on call outside of regular working hours.

Mr Williams said he feared what would become of his hometown as he watched people being priced out and moving away.

“It has affected so many of my friends and family,” he said. “I came back here to this community to give back to the community. And I see it slowly fading away. It’s pretty heartbreaking.”

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