Aspen living on Aspen wages: Ski towns across America are battling a workforce housing crisis
Alyse Kalish/Business Insider
- The ski industry's affordable workforce housing crisis showcases widening economic inequality in the US.
- Most ski resort employees cannot live where they work, having been priced out by rising home costs and the success of the short-term rental market in the areas surrounding popular skiing destinations.
- Ski resorts themselves are starting to shoulder the responsibility of creating affordable workforce housing, but the developments thus far seem grim.
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During peak season, Aspen Skiing Company will employee between 4,000 and 4,500 people.
That total, according to Aspen Daily News, includes full-time, part-time, and seasonal workers across four Colorado mountains that have traditionally served as the backdrop for America's most expensive ski getaway.
In a winter haven where billionaires are pricing out millionaires, not many can afford to stay - including the thousands making up its workforce. In December, Aspen Times Weekly's Andrew Travers wrote that over the past decade, it has gotten increasingly "more difficult for people to live near Aspen on Aspen wages."
The ski season workforce has been struggling to secure housing for years - since the mid-2000s, even - due to the steady rise of mountain home prices, the short supply of developable land, and the boom of the short-term rental market, according to Curbed.
The affordable housing crisis isn't unique to Aspen's workforce - it's impacting ski towns across America
Killington, Vermont, has an estimated 740 available short-term vacation rentals listed on services like Airbnb or VRBO, according to Curbed. The town itself only has about 700 residents. Killington, coincidentally, was just named by rental property management company Vacasa as the best place to buy a winter vacation home. The one-two punch of a strong second-home market and a thriving short-term rental market in Killington pushes workers employed there to live elsewhere.
According to Curbed, the Vail, Colorado, housing market is 80% dominated by second-home owners, too. Many Vail workers live 30 miles west in Eagle, a town that saw its population grow by nearly 5,000 people from 1990 to 2017 - and that growth is almost completely attributed to resort workers. Stan Zemler, a former town manager in Vail, told Colorado Politics in December that a lack of workforce housing is the "biggest potential threat to any [ski] resort communities," insinuating that a resort without a quality workforce is no resort at all.
Powder Magazine reported that many minimum-wage jobs in major ski towns may pay around $11 an hour while renting a single room can cost over $700 a month. In some places, like Lake Tahoe, California, employer-owned housing comprised of a bunk-bed in a shared room of a former motel for $300 a month, while undesirable, is the best case scenario.
The bleak best-case scenario also seems to be the best-case solution
In early 2019, Aspen Skiing Company announced it is building a 148-room workforce housing development 18 miles away in Basalt, Colorado, for $15 million. Bill Jensen, the owner of Telluride ski area in Colorado, spent $6 million converting an empty apartment complex into employee housing. In 2017, Jensen told the Denver Post: "Ten, fifteen years ago, communities hoped solutions would happen - and now look at Telluride, Vail, and Aspen Skiing: We are realizing we have to be the leaders in creating the solutions."
But even as ski resorts start to shoulder more responsibility, the problem demands attention beyond building a couple new complexes: legislature, a potential shakeup of landscape, and diversified transit options could be coming down the pipeline in a number of American ski towns.