Vail Valley businesses wrestle with housing crunch
Vail, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” When Kati Schwabe started her job, the condo that came with the job was just a “plus,” but now with affordable housing becoming scarce, she considers the one-bedroom she rents in Lionshead a “huge benefit.”
Schwabe, a conference director for Antlers at Vail in Lionshead, lives in one of the condominium and conference center’s employee homes
“I love where I’m living. It’s a fantastic benefit,” she said. “If I didn’t have this, I probably would have to move further down the valley and definitely have to have roommates.”
Having workforce housing makes a big difference in hiring, turn over rate, and quality of employees, said Antlers general manager Rob LeVine, and many valley businesses agree.
Numbers show that middle-to-low income homes in Eagle County are scarce, and studies predict rent will rise in the next few years. Already, many businesses are scrambling for employees who cannot afford to live here.
“Frankly, I’m disappointed that more businesses haven’t stepped up to the plate,” said County Commissioner Sara Fisher to developers during a recent workforce housing discussion.
But what exactly are businesses doing about the problem, and how much housing are they providing?
After the largest employers ” which include the hospital, Vail Resorts, the school district and the county ” not too much, said Don Cohen, director of the Eagle County Economic Council.
Vail Resorts, the area’s largest employer, provides about 3,000 beds throughout Eagle and Summit counties. They are also the top lease holder at Timber Ridge, an employee housing complex in Vail. They lease almost 75 percent of the 200-apartment complex, said Nina Timm, housing director for the Town of Vail.
However, Vail Resorts had long waiting lists for every one of its employee beds this season, despite doubling occupancy in some apartments and renting extra apartments around the valley for the first time, said Kelly Ladyga, the company’s director of communications.
Ladyga said the company did not have numbers on what portion of its employees it houses.
But the community cannot look completely to businesses to provide housing, said Cohen.
“It’s not realistic for a smaller company to be providing it, no matter how much people wish,” he said. “There is room (for businesses) to do more, but how much I’m not sure.”
It simply costs too much for smaller businesses to buy or rent a homes in the valley, he said.
R.A. Nelson Construction falls into that category ” the company does not provide employee housing other than informally finding places for their seasonal interns, said marketing director Diana Scherr.
“It’s always been an issue. When we interview people we tell them to be aware (of housing difficulties), and it definitely deters some people,” she said.
But Karl Berger, owner of Gypsum-based Two Rivers Landscape, argues that providing housing is simply what businesses need to do to stay competitive.
During the busy season he has about seven employees who are housed rent-free in a couple cabins near his Gypsum nursery, he said.
In return, his workers take care of the property and the cabins.
Having the cabins has helped him hire dedicated and regular staff, he said.
“If you want to attract and keep good employees, you’ve got to do something more than anybody else. People already make a good wage here, so housing is something I can do to go above and beyond,” he said.
The cost of providing the housing is a necessary investment for hiring and keeping employees, said LeVine, of Antlers.
Antlers houses about 25 percent its their workers in on-site condos.
“I wish we had more,” he said. “When we advertise for new employees and the housing is filled, it’s very hard to hire. We can look for weeks and weeks. When the housing is open, we get dozens of people and, we can pick the best one.”
The homes allow them to keep workers longer. Workers who stay long enough can save up and find rentals in town or eventually purchase a home, he said.
Linda Ruggeberg, housing manager for the school district, said she thinks the lack of housing is a big part of why it is difficult to keep teachers.
The school district owns several mobile home lots in Minturn and several houses throughout the valley. Still, it doesn’t come close to providing the housing needed, and the waiting lists are always full, she said.
“(Teachers) will come and find an apartment with some roommates and be happy for awhile. They feel like they’re in college again and it’s not so fun anymore. Then they realize they can’t afford to buy anything here, and they move,” she said.
For some employers, the dilemma is between providing homes at affordable prices and being able to afford to upkeep the homes.
Joel Schwab, a forest technician who works on the areas trails, is one of the few seasonal employees in the valley who does not have to worry about housing, thanks to an employee bunkhouse provided by the U.S. Forest Service.
He pays discounted rent in the summer, and volunteers with for the Forest Service in the winter in place of his rent.
“It’s a pretty good deal. It’s definitely a big incentive to come here and work because you know they’ll have a place for you. It takes all the pain out of finding a place to live in a resort area,” he said.
But it is getting harder and harder to maintain the employee houses, and they need more, said Randy Parker of the White River National Forest.
Rent is based on national averages, which are far below the valley’s average.
“The rent goes into maintenance and upkeep, and they’re getting in worse and worse shape. It’s getting difficult to manage them without special appropriations (from the Forest Service),” he said.
Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 748-2928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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