The ski town problem

For flatlanders, there’s nothing as romantic as the idea of living in a ski town in the American west. Those romances, however, aren’t always as they seem.

Driving through a ski town, winding between the luxury hotels and the slopeside mansions, little about the experience projects a financial crisis, but the reality of the situation is the working class has trouble gaining a foothold in resort towns.

A slopeside mansion. (Ski House of the Day)

In the ski industry, the people who own those mansions expect a certain level of service that workers need to provide. The problem is that the prices of those mansions have created a housing market that is increasingly expensive, while workers’ salaries remain at the service level.

Ski resorts and ski towns rely on young, cheap workforces that sacrifice it all for the quality of life associated with living in the mountains, but many workers are having trouble finding housing and affording it.

In some cases, American ski towns have too few homes for the population there. In other cases, the homes available are too expensive. (Source: census.gov)

In an examination of five ski towns from five different American states, different problems emerged. For some cities, like Park City, Utah, there exists ample housing for its population. For others, like remote Kalispell, Montana, the population far exceeds the housing options.

In places like Aspen, Colorado and Truckee, California, the population and housing numbers are closer, but in Jackson, Wyoming, the population nearly doubles the housing units.

The city of Aspen offers a quality of life of which many skiers dream, but the lack of affordable housing makes the dream less attainable. (Photo courtesy Aspen Skiing Company)

For those who stick it out and find a place to live, the trouble may just be starting. As luxury homes infiltrate these once cozy, quiet enclaves, the cost to live there increases.

For many young, single workers in ski towns, renting is the only option, especially because some jobs are seasonal. Rents in these towns, however, can account for much if not all of a worker’s income. When taking into account the higher cost of food and other living expenses, the numbers sometimes don’t add up for ski town workers.

The rent is high for ski town workers, making living in places like Aspen, Truckee, Kalispell, Jackson or Park City tough on the bank account. (Source: census.gov)

These disparities are problematic for Western ski towns and it may lend credence to living in the flatlands and chasing the alpine when you can. Still, for many, that dream of living in a ski town never wanes.

Doing so is a gamble, however. Like anything in skiing, Mother Nature gets the final say. If you lived in a place like Aspen, which saw nearly record low snow totals this year, it may not be worth it, especially if your job depends on tourism.

To fix this problem, the ski towns are taking notice, however. In Jackson, if you build a new business, you must also build housing for the number of employees you bring in, helping to create more affordable housing units to re-boost that ski town working class.

Until more cities take similar and further action, however, the monster mansions will sit empty while those who serve their infrequent occupants look for a place to sleep.

2 thoughts on “The ski town problem

  1. Pingback: Issue Story: The ski town problem – Gunnar Olson

  2. Pingback: Ski town problem: Steamboat looks to decrease employee housing density – Midwest Ski Journal

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