A slopeside room on the cheap is a ski bum equivalent of the American Dream, though an increasingly elusive one. High costs of living in mountain towns is nothing new, but other challenges—like the lack of available housing inventory and space constraints preventing the building of more—add to the immense challenge of housing the ski industry’s seasonal workforce.
As second home owners push low-wage workers further and further from the lifts, the very character of any given mountain town is at risk, character that’s so often built by local workers who can no longer afford to live there. No one suffers more in this scenario than ski area employees themselves.
The “Airbnb Effect,” too, has taken its toll on employee housing inventory. Owners of houses and condos that once reliably housed hourly employees now often find it more lucrative to rent short-term to vacationers. Average monthly housing cost for a single adult in a one- or two-bedroom apartment in the ski Mecca of Summit County, CO is $1,098. A quick search of vacation rental sites for the area shows that one-bedroom units often fetch that price for a week of in-season rental.
Resort communities from Tahoe to Killington have been living this reality for years. For Summit County—home to Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin and Copper Mountain—the challenge is county-wide a microcosm of the greater ski housing struggle industry.
It’s no surprise that vacation home buyers are attracted to ski towns. But it’s tough to ponder that, at the same time, seasonal resort employees often live in overcrowded ski bum houses, and others are in desperate need for a room when so many of those vacation housing units sit vacant most of the year.
“More than a housing inventory problem, we have a housing use problem,” says Town of Breckenridge Housing Planner, Nichole Rex. “Seventy five percent of our housing stock is empty, is short-term rental, or might not even be used for most of the year, and the remaining 25 percent is what is available to serve our workforce.”
If left to sort itself out, this problem only gets worse as real estate is bought and sold.
“We’re losing units,” Rex continues. “And when I say losing units, I’m talking about market rate units that exist in our community that might be serving a local worker. When that unit goes to sell, generally, nine times out of 10 it’s purchased by someone that doesn’t work here or live here full time.”
Rex acknowledges that this phenomenon is good for sellers in the residential housing market, but it adds significant challenges when much of the local workforce is working low-wage service industry jobs and can’t afford to rent at market rate much less buy.
To combat the encroachment on housing inventory, the town of Breckenridge, through its Housing Helps program, has implemented tactics such as working with landlords to place deed restrictions on some units, essentially paying homeowners for restrictions that require renting to full-time local workers. Other strategies include the implementation of a policy in the town’s development code which requires that any new development, such as non-resort restaurant or retail store, mitigate the housing need for at least 30% of new employees generated.
A staple of the ski bum housing market is resort-owned employee housing, which is often available in limited quantities at far below the market rate. Every resort in Summit County offers some kind of employee housing option, all below market rate, some closer to the lifts than others, and all with waiting lists. According to the National Ski Areas Association, though, only roughly 30 percent of ski areas nationwide offer employee housing. The NSAA’s 2019/2020 end of season report classified most of the ski areas offering employee housing as large or extra-large ski areas.
Copper Mountain, with its 542-bed slope-side, dorm style housing building, the Edge, is known as an employee housing leader in the local community. Where some resorts would have long ago built high dollar condos or a hotel, the Edge, a former Club Med building itself, has prioritized seasonal employees, providing affordable accommodations in a true ski-in, ski-out setting that’s walking distance from the restaurants and nightlife of Copper’s Center Village.
Residents of the Edge will tell you about the outdated fixtures and décor—and the fact that the building is featured in the terrible 1983 film, Copper Mountain: A Club Med Experience starring Jim Carrey, Allan Thicke, and Jean-Claude Killy. Its rooms are cramped—tenants have been known to have dinner steaming away in a crock pot beside the toilet for lack of counter space. But, for resort employees looking for the quintessential ski bum experience of meeting (and partying with) new friends from all over the world while waking up a stone’s throw from the chairlift (and work), the Edge delivers.
“The Edge definitely adds to the community feel of Copper, to be right there close to everything,” says Copper Mountain Resort Communications Coordinator, Olivia Butrymovich.
Just before this season started in November 2020, Copper opened the first of two buildings in its newest housing development, Sky Chutes Landing. While the Edge is focused on dorm-style housing primarily with seasonal employees in mind, Sky Chutes is a mix of studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments designed for year-round and long-term employees. This building is capable of housing 65 employees at below-market rates, and was designed and built with sustainability as a focus and earning a Certified Green distinction by the National Green Building Standard. Phase two of Sky Chutes, also with a 65-employee capacity, is set to open November 2021.
With about 1,600 employees during peak season, and the current capacity to house over 600 of them, Copper still currently has about 100 employees on housing waiting lists and has had up to 200 employees waiting in the past.
While the two phases of Sky Chutes Landing will accommodate 130 employees in a county-wide workforce of about 20,000, this development attempts to solve a problem inherent in resort-owned housing in general: It is often only available and appealing to first and second year employees.
“A lot of people a few years into their careers really don’t want to live in college dorm-style, employee housing anymore,” says Summit Daily Reporter, Taylor Sienkiewicz, who covers Summit County housing issues. “Everyone says that party atmosphere is really fun at first, (though that is different this year), but a lot of them say you outgrow that after a season or two.”
Sienkiewicz’s “Prosperity Disparity” article series portrays many of the challenges that come when low-wage hourly employees leave resort-owned units to find housing on their own. Many either find living space in wildly overcrowded homes, pay upwards of half of their income on housing, or end up commuting long distances. Those paying large portions of their income on housing have to cut costs elsewhere, and oftentimes healthcare is the first thing to go.
In Summit County, like so many other ski towns across the country, it comes down to the housing inventory. With local employees sleeping on couches or paying unsustainable amounts of their income toward places to live, Sienkiewicz says it seems silly that so many of the surrounding homes sit empty half the time.
“But that kind of comes with the territory,” she says. “This is a ski resort town, of course, and the reason we have these ski resorts is because tourists come to visit them.”
Yet, the ski bum dream still exists for some. Monthly rent at the Edge is $327.50 per person. Even at Colorado’s current minimum wage of $12.32 an hour, that rent is well below the commonly accepted standard that no more than 30 percent of income should go toward housing. (The rent at Sky Chutes Landing ranges from $800 to $1,600 per month, typically split between roommates in the multi-bedroom units.)
For those that remain on the waiting list, though, the solution to the employee housing problem isn’t easy to pin down.
“It seems like a simple question, but it gets complex,” Nichole Rex says. “We can’t just build our way out of it. It’s a challenge for a lot of towns in Colorado—it’s not unique to us: how much can we build and still keep our character?”