THE LONG-TERM EF­FECTS OF SHORT-TERM RENTALS AN EX­AM­I­NA­TION OF THE MOUN­TAIN TOWN HOUS­ING CRI­SIS

Transworld Snowboarding - - WOMEN'S FREERIDE BINDINGS - WORDS: TYLER MA­CLEOD

In Au­gust of 2011, I made the spon­ta­neous de­ci­sion to move from my home­town out­side Bal­ti­more, Mary­land, to Win­ter Park, Colorado. It was a small re­sort town I had no prior knowl­edge of, mak­ing the choice to move there all the more odd to my par­ents, fam­ily, and friends. I had grad­u­ated col­lege three months prior and was for­tu­nate to lock down a rep­utable in­tern­ship, tran­si­tion­ing into a lu­cra­tive, full-time gig, so it’s easy to imag­ine the de­gree to which eye­brows were raised. Still, the de­pres­sion that came with iron­ing a collared shirt ev­ery morn­ing for my en­su­ing ten hours be­hind a desk was eat­ing at my soul. I could see my pas­sion for snow­board­ing fad­ing in the rear view mir­ror dur­ing my hour-long com­mute each morn­ing, just as it al­ready had for many of my old on-hill com­pan­ions. It was the recipe for a spur-of-the-mo­ment, lifeal­ter­ing de­ci­sion at the ripe age of 23. A quar­ter-life cri­sis some might call it.

I didn’t know a soul in Win­ter Park, but its down-to-earth at­mos­phere made for an easy tran­si­tion. Af­ter a short pe­riod of time, I locked down a two-bed­room apart­ment with my girl­friend for a mere $575 a month. There was no wait­list, no bid­ding war, no strug­gle. I put in an ap­pli­ca­tion, and within a few days we were mov­ing in. I was liv­ing the lo­cal lifestyle with­out a care in the world, pay­ing my bills with an $11 an hour wage from tun­ing skis, and of course, snow­board­ing ev­ery sin­gle day.

In 2018, that same unit is go­ing for three times as much, and you’ll have to take a num­ber and wait in line for a chance at it. A portion of the apart­ments in the com­plex have even been scooped up by Win­ter Park Re­sort to be used as their own em­ployee hous­ing. As is the case in many other moun­tain towns across North Amer­ica, the amount of “hous­ing wanted” ads now far ex­ceeds the amount of “for rent” list­ings. When I moved here, there were plenty of rental op­tions but a scarcity of jobs. Now, seem­ingly ev­ery busi­ness has a “help wanted” sign on its door.

But for those who come to va­ca­tion through­out the year, find­ing a place to stay couldn’t be more pain­less. With the dawn of Airbnb and sim­i­lar plat­forms, find­ing a home away from home is eas­ier than ever. It just means a lo­cal may no longer have a place to live.

In­stead, they might be liv­ing out of their car, with mul­ti­ple jobs, ques­tion­ing whether the choice to leave a desk job was the right de­ci­sion af­ter all. They’re lucky if they find time to snow­board, and the quar­ter-life cri­sis has resur­faced.

Like them, I’ve re­sorted to pick­ing up ad­di­tional work to make ends meet. Iron­i­cally, my sec­ond job is clean­ing short-term rental units. And busi­ness is boom­ing. As of­ten as I walk into these units think­ing “a lo­cal could be liv­ing here,” it’s hard not to con­sider the owner’s po­si­tion as well. There’s money to be made, and it’s eas­ier to point the fin­ger when you’re not in their shoes.

IS THE BLAME ON AIRBNB WAR­RANTED?

If you’ve lived in a moun­tain town—or any des­ti­na­tion area for that mat­ter—you’re fa­mil­iar with the knee­jerk re­ac­tions of crusty lo­cals. It’s al­ways easy to place the blame on ev­ery­thing from tourists to cor­po­rate re­sort en­ti­ties for any is­sue that arises in the com­mu­nity, and while some­times war­ranted, other times these are ex­cuses for lack of ef­fort. This led me to con­sider whether Airbnb, VRBO, and sim­i­lar short-term rental ser­vices in gen­eral, are to blame for the lack of hous­ing op­tions, let alone af­ford­able ones. Are these plat­forms ac­tu­ally de­stroy­ing the very essence of my own moun­tain com­mu­nity of Win­ter Park, along­side most other ma­jor ski towns?

Robin Van Gyn, who rents her Whistler home out via Airbnb when she’s trav­el­ing, seems to agree. But she also re­al­izes that, like all is­sues, there are two sides.

“It does con­trib­ute to the prob­lem,” she says. “There is no hous­ing for the work­force, and peo­ple can’t af­ford to live. It’s in­sane.”

“But it’s also an­other source of in­come, so [as a home­owner] it’s hard not to,” she ad­mits. “We’re all just try­ing to get ahead.”

It’s a sen­ti­ment that’s echoed by Win­ter Park lo­cal turned part-time Ta­hoe res­i­dent Jack­son Fowler, who, like Van Gyn, has a prop­erty he’s rented out via Airbnb for the past three years.

“I’ve seen both sides of it, be­ing a snow­board bum and hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced the strug­gle to rent a room in Ta­hoe where a sim­i­lar cri­sis is go­ing on,” Fowler ex­plains. “Ev­ery­body is turn­ing to the Airbnb thing. That kind of leaves the lo­cals in the dust, and I feel for that for sure. But, at the same time, the money I make from rent­ing my house helps me get by.”

While it’s easy to blame home­own­ers who opt to rent a unit out short-term rather than long-term, as­sum­ing it’s a de­ci­sion based solely on profit po­ten­tial, for some, the lat­ter is hardly an op­tion. Van Gyn and Fowler both spend time each win­ter trav­el­ing to snow­board but still need a home base to come back to. Why not make a few bucks rather than leave it va­cant?

“I might as well do some­thing with it,” Fowler says. “And then I still have it open when I need it. I can al­ways just block off dates on Airbnb, but I can’t kick out a full-time renter. I can’t just say, ‘Hey, I’m com­ing up. Can you leave?’”

But that con­sis­tent in­con­sis­tency is some­thing Van Gyn ad­mits to strug­gling with.

“It’s hard to move your per­sonal things all the time,” she says. “Some­times you just want your space to be there and not have to screw with it. It’s work.”

As en­tic­ing as the ex­tra in­come can be, it’s not al­ways worth it.

“Short-term is a pain in the butt,” she read­ily ad­mits. “Long-term is the way to go if you can make it work.”

THE RISE OF SHORT-TERM RENTALS

With short-term rentals ris­ing in pop­u­lar­ity for both home­own­ers and va­ca­tion­ers, there had to be some quan­tifi­able proof out there. Are STRs, as they’re acronymized, ac­tu­ally tak­ing long-term op­por­tu­ni­ties off the mar­ket, or are they sim­ply fill­ing oth­er­wise va­cant prop­er­ties?

In my search for an­swers, I im­me­di­ately took to the first source that came to mind: the ever-rep­utable Craigslist. At the least, I wanted to know how many long-term hous­ing op­tions were avail­able, be­gin­ning in my own com­mu­nity of Win­ter Park.

How many did I find? Just four. The cheap­est was a dated, sin­glebed­room unit for $1,400 a month with no util­i­ties in­cluded. A twobed­room was also avail­able up the road in neigh­bor­ing Fraser for $1,500, which in­cluded a dis­claimer stat­ing that long-term lease agree­ments would in­crease, at an undis­closed amount, dur­ing ski sea­son. I also found a two-bed­room unit in down­town Win­ter Park for $3,000 per month. The fourth was pre­sum­ably a scam, as it was listed mul­ti­ple times for $950 and wouldn’t be avail­able for an­other two months any­how.

What about the lo­cal news­pa­per list­ings? Surely there had to be some­thing listed there.

Nope. Ab­so­lutely noth­ing.

Af­ter talk­ing to Fowler, who is ac­tu­ally switch­ing his Airbnb unit back to a long-term rental be­cause of a re­cent knee in­jury, that short­age be­came even more ap­par­ent.

“It’s been in­sane since I’ve put the house up as a full-time rental,” he said. “I’ve got­ten 50-plus phone calls in the past two days, and a ton of emails. I listed it at $1,600 for a two-bed­room, not in­clud­ing util­i­ties, which, for Win­ter Park, is ac­tu­ally pretty low right now.”

Per­haps the pool of Win­ter Park rentals is rel­a­tively small to be­gin with—maybe the lack of avail­able hous­ing is due to a lack of hous­ing, pe­riod. Not the case. l con­ducted a search of the Win­ter Park area on Airbnb, which re­sulted in a sur­plus of 300 short-term rentals.

I per­formed a sim­i­lar search in a num­ber of other moun­tain com­mu­ni­ties, from the nearby Colorado ski mecca of Breck­en­ridge to the hous­ing cri­sis cap­i­tal that is Jack­son, Wy­oming. The re­sults, un­sur­pris­ingly, weren’t much dif­fer­ent. While long-term list­ings in lo­cal pa­pers and on­line were both ex­pen­sive and hard to come by, Airbnb was over­flow­ing with po­ten­tial short-term rental op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Still, when it comes to work­force hous­ing short­ages, not ev­ery­one is ready to point the fin­ger at STRs. “A lot of blame is placed on short-term rentals,” ad­mits Town of Win­ter Park Hous­ing Man­ager, John Crone. “But I’m not re­ally sure there is that much blame that can go there. It has cer­tainly taken some long-term rentals off the mar­ket, but I think most of those short-term rentals are the types that sit empty most of the time any­ways.”

Ac­cord­ing to AirDNA.com, which pro­vides a mar­ket over­view on rentals for a sub­mit­ted zip code, these STRs aren’t al­ways prov­ing to be as lu­cra­tive as one might ex­pect—at least not in Win­ter Park. De­spite an av­er­age daily rate of $209, STRs in Win­ter Park are only yield­ing a 16% oc­cu­pancy rate, which re­sults in an av­er­age monthly rev­enue of only $1,003. That rev­enue doesn’t in­clude taxes or ser­vice fees that the town charges ei­ther, ul­ti­mately pro­vid­ing an av­er­age monthly rev­enue that sits well be­low the cur­rent $1,400$2,000 monthly range I saw for long-term two-bed­room units.

Rev­enue aside, Win­ter Park has wit­nessed in­cred­i­ble growth in the quan­tity of STRs avail­able. Af­ter start­ing with only six to­tal cu­mu­la­tive rentals in 2011, that amount has now in­creased to a whop­ping 2,410 in 2018, ac­cord­ing to AirDNA.com. Whether these rentals were sit­ting va­cant be­fore Airbnb or not, they aren’t sit­ting va­cant any­more, and the rate at which they’re in­creas­ing is sig­nif­i­cant.

And what does AirDNA say for Breck­en­ridge and Jack­son? Breck­en­ridge has more than twice the oc­cu­pancy rate of Win­ter Park at 33%, while Jack­son has an even higher rate of 60%. Breck­en­ridge yields an av­er­age monthly rev­enue of $2,627 and has in­creased from 12 to­tal rentals in 2011 to 6,744 in 2018. Jack­son, with an av­er­age monthly rev­enue of an im­pres­sive $6,254, showed an in­crease from only one unit in 2010 to its cur­rent 545 to­tal units.

Look­ing at the South Lake Ta­hoe area, the re­sults are sim­i­lar to that of Breck­en­ridge. AirDNA shows an av­er­age monthly rev­enue of $3,604 by way of a 43% oc­cu­pancy rate. Since 2010, the to­tal cu­mu­la­tive rentals here have in­creased from just 15 to a whop­ping 4,610.

In Ta­hoe, Fowler has seen these ef­fects first­hand.

“I had a group of friends in a four or five bed­room house. Their lease was up, and they were plan­ning to re­new, but the home­own­ers de­cided to switch to the Airbnb thing. They were left in the dust, think­ing they had a house for an­other year.”

While the mag­ni­tude of these num­bers un­doubt­edly re­quires con­text of each town’s pop­u­la­tion to ap­pro­pri­ately put into per­spec­tive—Win­ter Park has a pop­u­la­tion of just over 1,000, while South Lake Ta­hoe ex­ceeds 20,000—the fact of the mat­ter is that the num­ber of STRs is ris­ing, and ris­ing dra­mat­i­cally. Surely, it has some sort of ef­fect on the ex­ist­ing work­force hous­ing short­ages.

IS THERE AN EF­FECT ON THE WORK­FORCE HOUS­ING SHORT­AGE?

In Sum­mit County, Colorado, home to the afore­men­tioned town of Breck­en­ridge, that’s what of­fi­cials are bent on find­ing out.

“In gen­eral, we get a sense that they are hav­ing a large im­pact,” says Ja­son Di­etz, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for the Sum­mit Com­bined Hous­ing Author­ity. “One of the things we want to try to do is quan­tify what that is [through] work­ing with the towns that make up the Sum­mit Com­bined Hous­ing Author­ity. We don’t re­ally have a quan­tifi­able num­ber that we can point to with hard data right now.”

Cur­rently, Sum­mit County, which is com­prised of var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties in­clud­ing the towns of Breck­en­ridge, Frisco, Sil­ver­thorne, and Dil­lon, while also en­com­pass­ing pop­u­lar ski des­ti­na­tions such as Cop­per, Key­stone, Ara­pa­hoe Basin, and of course, the re­sort Breck­en­ridge, is in the process of putting to­gether a study for a new hous­ing needs as­sess­ment that hopes to zero in on ex­actly how STRs are im­pact­ing lo­cal hous­ing across the county.

“We want to un­der­stand, ‘Are we mak­ing any head­way in get­ting more work­force hous­ing, or are we stay­ing the same, or go­ing back­wards?’” ex­plains Di­etz. While Sum­mit County has long been ahead of the curve in de­vel­op­ing work­force hous­ing projects—they have a sur­plus of 500 units across the county cur­rently in the works to be de­vel­oped—there is con­cern as to whether the projects are keep­ing up with the si­mul­ta­ne­ous growth in STRs.

“We don’t re­ally know the an­swer to that,” ad­mits Di­etz. “We’re look­ing to try form­ing an RFP (re­quest for pro­posal) that will quan­tify that to see what the real num­bers are.”

To make the sit­u­a­tion more dif­fi­cult, Sum­mit County’s five ju­ris­dic­tions each reg­u­late their own com­mu­ni­ties when it comes to STRs. While Breck­en­ridge has been reg­u­lat­ing STRs for some time now, which in­cludes re­mit­ting a 3.4% tax on short-term lodg­ing back to the town, the area de­fined as Sum­mit County Un­in­cor­po­rated cur­rently has no reg­u­la­tions.

“There is zero reg­u­la­tion,” says Di­etz. “Lit­er­ally none in re­gards to it. But that is soon to end be­cause they have been work­ing on putting to­gether reg­u­la­tion since last year, and they are in the process of fi­nal­iz­ing that. The goal is to have some in place be­fore win­ter.” For com­mu­ni­ties like Jack­son, Wy­oming, where STRs are just an­other hur­dle on a long path to­ward work­force hous­ing so­lu­tions, reg­u­la­tions are es­sen­tial. And strict.

“They cer­tainly have [af­fected the hous­ing short­age],” says April Nor­ton, Di­rec­tor of the Jack­son/Te­ton County Af­ford­able Hous­ing De­part­ment when asked whether STRs have had an im­pact on the com­mu­nity’s cur­rent hous­ing dilemma. “They’ve taken hous­ing stock out of the rental mar­ket. They’ve also in­flated the val­ues of the land here.”

But ac­cord­ing to Nor­ton, STRs are just ad­di­tional fuel to an al­ready burn­ing fire.

“In Te­ton County, 97% of the land is pub­licly owned. We’re al­ready work­ing with such a fi­nite amount of land, that yes, the short-term rentals have cer­tainly helped to in­flate the prices,” she says. “But the bot­tom line is our land val­ues are in no way tied to lo­cal wages ei­ther, so you’re just fun­da­men­tally go­ing to have is­sues with hous­ing lo­cal work­ers.”

This ex­plains tough reg­u­la­tions on STRs—in­clud­ing a lodg­ing over­lay and a min­i­mum rental pe­riod of 31 days.

Pur­suant to the Land De­vel­op­ment Reg­u­la­tions Sec­tion 6.1.4.A Res­i­den­tial Uses, no pri­vate or res­i­den­tial unit may be rented for less than 31 days un­less it’s in­cluded on an ap­proved list of short-term rental units. While this should make it more dif­fi­cult for STRs to have a sub­stan­tial im­pres­sion on the ex­ist­ing hous­ing short­age, Nor­ton ad­mits that not ev­ery­one is a lawabid­ing cit­i­zen.

“What they’ll do is write a lease for 31 days, but they’ll only rent it for a week­end,” she says. “So peo­ple who are try­ing to legally do it will do just that; they will rent to one per­son per 31 days. But a lot of other peo­ple will just bla­tantly dis­re­gard the rules, and if they get caught, they will be fined. But if they don’t get caught, then they’re rolling in money be­cause it’s cer­tainly a lu­cra­tive thing to do.”

In Whistler, it’s not un­com­mon for Airbnb own­ers to be less than hon­est in their han­dling of busi­ness ei­ther.

“You have to be zoned for nightly rentals to rent [short-term],” Van Gyn points out. “I bought my place know­ing that, but a lot of peo­ple do it il­le­gally which is a bit shitty for prop­er­ties like mine.”

EF­FECT ON THE COM­MU­NITY

As moun­tain towns work to reg­u­late the im­pact of short-term rentals, or strive to find out whether they have a quan­tifi­able im­pact, those who live and work in these com­mu­ni­ties deal with not only the po­ten­tial that STRs are strip­ping them from po­ten­tial hous­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, af­ford­able or not, but also the im­pact they have on the char­ac­ter and at­mos­phere of a place they work hard to call home.

Karen Fisher, who lived in Jack­son, Wy­oming, from De­cem­ber 2009 to May 2016, ex­pe­ri­enced this first­hand.

“When I lived in Jack­son, I lived in the Vil­lage for a lit­tle while. Al­most ev­ery apart­ment in our com­plex—a 16-plex I think—was a short-term rental spot,” she re­flects. “And the two build­ings next to us, the same sort of deal. Ev­ery­one knew their ac­tual neigh­bors—the peo­ple who lived there—be­cause there were only maybe six per­ma­nent res­i­dents in what? 48 apart­ments? The rest were all rentals and Airbnbs. Our next door neigh­bors were these Tex­ans who came once a year but rented the unit all year long.”

At one point, with the work­force hous­ing mar­ket as bad as it was, Fisher had no other choice than to live in a garage. For Fisher, it was more than ac­cept­able com­pared to other op­tions, or lack thereof, the city had avail­able.

“The garage wasn’t bad,” she ad­mits. “It had run­ning wa­ter, a washer, dryer, sink, wood burn­ing stove, and even a bath­tub. It wasn’t very en­ergy ef­fi­cient though. Cold as hell in there.”

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

When I travel to snow­board, the in­evitable ques­tion of where to stay arises. Do I choose to book a room at a ho­tel or, of­ten for less money, avoid in­ter­ac­tion with a front desk agent and en­joy the com­forts of home while I was away?

As easy as it is to har­ness a crusty lo­cal at­ti­tude and point the fin­gers at short-term rentals, one thing is cer­tain: they aren’t go­ing any­where. And for those of us in the snow­board com­mu­nity, we’d be ly­ing if we didn’t ac­knowl­edge the ben­e­fits they can pro­vide—whether it’s earn­ing some ex­tra in­come while out film­ing, or hav­ing a com­fort­able and af­ford­able place to stay dur­ing the course of our win­ter trav­els.

But even with­out di­rectly quan­ti­fy­ing the im­pact short-term rentals are hav­ing on long-term moun­tain town hous­ing, it’s safe to say they aren’t help­ing. Hous­ing short­ages are in­creas­ing at ex­po­nen­tial rates, and un­less com­mu­ni­ties and in­di­vid­u­als take ini­tia­tives to find so­lu­tions, the ef­fects will be dra­matic.

In my home of Win­ter Park, the town has al­ready con­structed a 38-unit work­force hous­ing com­plex—one of those units for­tu­nately be­long­ing to my­self. They’ve also bro­ken ground on a 27-unit, 104-bed­room com­plex through a long-term lease with Win­ter Park Re­sort. This new re­la­tion­ship be­tween the re­sort and the town will prove vi­tal in pro­vid­ing ad­e­quate hous­ing for lo­cal em­ploy­ees, both at the re­sort and through­out the rest of the com­mu­nity.

In nearby Sum­mit County, nu­mer­ous projects are ei­ther com­pleted or un­der­way, ac­cord­ing to Di­etz. The town of Sil­ver­thorne has bro­ken ground on 200 work­force hous­ing For Fisher, STRs meant trad­ing a once sup­port­ive com­mu­nity for a re­volv­ing door of va­ca­tion-minded vis­i­tors. While it can be ar­gued that moun­tain towns only ex­ist be­cause of the tourists they host, in a place like Jack­son, where the ma­jor­ity of the work­force makes 80% less than the me­dian in­come, that idea be­comes a hard pill to swal­low.

“A sense of com­mu­nity didn’t ex­ist for me in the Vil­lage,” she says. “There’s some­thing to be said about hav­ing neigh­bors to help each other out, which we didn’t re­ally have.”

And that lost sense of com­mu­nity was mag­ni­fied depend­ing on the sea­son.

“Dur­ing sum­mer, it was much busier be­cause the renters were on their way to Yel­low­stone,” she adds. “So typ­i­cally they were older and re­spect­ful, at least. The win­ters had fewer renters, but most were man-cation ‘let’s party a bunch and make loud noises’ types. That was tough while work­ing early morn­ing shifts. I wore earplugs.”

Due to the in­creas­ingly im­pos­si­ble task of find­ing hous­ing and slip­ping sense of com­mu­nity, Fisher left Jack­son in the spring of 2016.

“The only peo­ple I know that still live there are folks who bought houses more than ten years ago. Things don’t add up. It’s al­most manda­tory you have a trust or other source of in­come to live there, or just own a condo and have it as a rental and come out pe­ri­od­i­cally on va­ca­tion.” units, with 60 of them set to be avail­able be­fore this up­com­ing win­ter. Neigh­bor­ing Key­stone has 66 sin­gle fam­ily homes in the works, and Breck­en­ridge, in ad­di­tion to hav­ing re­cently wrapped up a project that pro­vided 52 town­homes and 30 apart­ments, will also have an­other 18 units be­com­ing avail­able in the com­ing months.

Jack­son is even mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant strides. Ac­cord­ing to Nor­ton, the com­mu­nity ap­proved a com­pre­hen­sive plan in 2012 with the goal to house 65% of the work­force in town. Cur­rently, they are at 59% and trend­ing in the right di­rec­tion. In ad­di­tion to 28 units re­cently avail­able in Au­gust, an­other 90 are ex­pected to open up within the next year and a half. Jack­son is also in the process of con­struct­ing 125 ad­di­tional rental units, and while not all of them will be re­stricted, they will hope­fully as­sist in driv­ing rent down.

On an in­di­vid­ual level, it could mean pick­ing up an­other job for the time be­ing—maybe even clean­ing some short-term rentals on the side—or find­ing a less-than-prefer­able place to call home for a bit. It might not be as cheap and easy as it once was to live in these places, but If you’re com­mit­ted to snow­board­ing, you’ll find a way to make it a re­al­ity.

“All the peo­ple I know will make it work some­how or an­other,” says Fowler. “If they re­ally want to snow­board, they’ll ei­ther live in their car or stay on peo­ple’s couches. Airbnb is def­i­nitely mak­ing it harder to live in these places, but no mat­ter what, I’ve re­al­ized we’re all go­ing to make it work one way or an­other.”

And no mat­ter how frus­trat­ing the hous­ing cli­mate be­comes, I prom­ise you that iron­ing wax will al­ways beat iron­ing a shirt.

Whistler is no stranger work­force hous­ing woes, and short-term rentals don’t seem to be help­ing.

As more home­own­ers fa­vor Airbnb, lo­cals will con­tinue to strug­gle to make the Whistler back­coun­try their per­sonal back­yard.

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