All Jacob Buettner wanted for the 2015–16 ski season was somewhere to live. Didn’t have to be nice—just “a place where a ski bum who loves the simple life can pay reasonable rent and eat their granola in peace,” says the 26-year-old snowcat driver, who has spent long nights grooming Vail Mountain’s hardpack into corduroy every winter since 2009.
Distressingly for seasonal employees like Buettner, who spent the summer working at a Minnesota lumberyard, this year is different. After a long hangover, the housing market and Vail’s economy are partying again: before the first flakes started falling, jobs were plentiful, and ski industry workers were flooding the valley. In the fall shoulder season, rent was soaring, vacancies were few, and seekers were describing the local housing situation as “insane,” “chaos,” and “ridiculous.” Joe Romano, a ski instructor, says he contacted 30 or 40 landlords searching for a room. Most didn’t respond. Erich Zeddies, an EMT, spent two months looking; Ben Dodd, a graphic designer, spent three months.
More than a third of employees who responded to Vail Valley Economic Development’s annual workforce survey (published in June) said that finding affordable housing was a “major frustration,” with just 18 percent rating their experience as “pretty good” or “excellent.” It’s trouble for businesses, too. In the same study, 56 percent of business owners reported that the housing shortage makes it harder to attract and retain employees—a major pressure point, according to Chris Romer, CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, the parent organization of Vail Valley Economic Development.
Workers caught in the crunch resorted to extreme actions: doubling up rooms, converting living areas to bedrooms, commuting from Denver or Summit County, sleeping on couches and even in closets. Some, like an exasperated Evergreen Lodge bartender named Lindsey Dorman, gave up entirely on sleeping indoors this winter: the Alabama native is camping in an RV with just a ceramic space heater and her dog, Steel, to keep her warm.
Buettner, the granola-fancying snowcat driver, eventually settled in a five-by-seven-foot utility trailer with a fold-away bed, a hot plate, and a jug of water for cleaning and teeth brushing. But then he had another problem: where to park it? Dorman ended up in Gypsum. Even trailer park dreams are long shots in Vail.
There has been progress. By year’s end, Vail’s redevelopment of Timber Ridge will add a grand total of 30 additional bedrooms to the resort’s largest employee housing complex, while the town council greenlighted plans to build more than 50 new, price-capped single-family homes in West Vail’s Chamonix area, just up the road from Timber Ridge. But it’s not nearly enough. An assessment by Eagle County in 2012 found need for nearly 5,000 units. “It’s in crisis,” says Sandi Brenden, a Legacy Mountain Properties relocation specialist who has assissted seasonal employees since 1981. “We need housing for our worker bees.”
In terms of the percentage of the average wage that’s required to buy an average-price home, a recent survey by RealtyTrac ranked the Vail area as America’s least affordable county for homebuyers. And salaries in Eagle County aren’t rising nearly as fast as rent, with the average monthly rate eclipsing that of Brooklyn.
“With the kind of wages you make on the mountain, there’s no way you can get the money together for a place,” says one Beaver Creek snowmaker who wished to withhold his name to avoid appearing to complain about his employer. He spent last winter living in the back of his Ford Ranger, snuggling a propane heater, until one night he woke to find a three-foot section of his Coleman sleeping bag on fire and bailed out the back window. This season, he’s devised a new housing strategy: Tinder. In other words, the affordable housing situation in Vail and Beaver Creek has regressed to the point that it’s finally actualized the punchline of an old, bad ski town joke: What do you call a ski bum without a girlfriend?