Aspen Skico adds staff position to tackle housing issues

Aspen Skiing Co. expects the ever-present affordable-housing crunch to grow in severity in coming years, so it has added a staff position dedicated to finding solutions.

Phillip Jeffreys was hired this summer to work with Skico’s planning and development group, according to Jim Laing, Skico vice president of human resources.

“We realized we needed to bring somebody in house and have that be their singular focus,” Laing said.

Jeffreys’ first task is taking inventory of Skico’s stock of affordable housing as well as the available units in the community. Next, he will look at the potential Skico has for building projects on its own properties as well as in partnership with other parties, according to Laing. Some landowners have approached the company with the offer to team up on projects, he said.

Airbnb reducing available units

Affordable housing has been an issue for Skico and nearly every other employer in the upper Roaring Fork Valley just about every winter for decades, except maybe a year or two during the Great Recession.

But Skico says one new issue is already adding to the housing squeeze and another will soon hit hard. Laing and his staff have heard from employees that apartments that used to be available long-term or at least for the entire winter have been converted to short-term rentals. More property owners are using Airbnb and other online services to rent out their units for higher dollars, he said.

A check of Airbnb’s inventory Thursday showed that for a long weekend rental over Thanksgiving, Nov. 23 through Nov. 28, there are 268 units available in Aspen at an average of $574 per night. There are 291 units in Snowmass Village at an average of $348 per night.

The numbers fall off further downvalley. There are 32 rentals available through Airbnb in Basalt and El Jebel at an average of $257. Carbondale shows just 30 listings and Glenwood Springs 26.

Dictated by economics

Every western mountain resort with a restricted supply of residential units has seen a surge of short-term rentals, said Ralf Garrison, director of DestiMetrics, a research firm that tracks occupancy and bookings in 19 destinations.

The recession snuffed construction of new hotels at resorts, Garrison said. When the economy picked up, the demand for tourist accommodations soared while the supply was static, so prices increased, he said.

Suddenly, renting out residences for short-term rentals rather than longer-term employee housing became more enticing, and property owners responded.

“A product or service goes to its highest and best use,” Garrison said. “Economic forces are doing what economic forces do.”

While placing a unit into a property-management company’s rental pool was always an option, online services like Airbnb made it even easier.

“Those are the tools that people are using,” he said.

Not all cities and states are thrilled with the trend. Airbnb sued New York after the state signed a bill that would impose fines on Airbnb hosts who break local housing regulations, according to an article last week in The New York Times. The service also has filed lawsuits over regulations in San Francisco and Santa Monica, California.

Retirements pose problem

Skico has a bigger issue rolling forward like a freight train. The company has roughly 500 employees over the age of 60, Laing said. Their retirement in coming years will likely increase the need for housing.

“When we replace those individuals, there’s a high probability that we’re going to have to provide (the new employees) with housing,” Laing said.

Skico has about 600 beds in housing it owns or leases from Aspen to Carbondale. The company will need more in the future. Jeffreys is figuring out how many more.

The lack of adequate housing makes it more challenging but not impossible for Skico to fill the 2,500 openings in its ski, lodging, and food and beverage operations for the winter. About 1,250 of those openings must be filled by employees new to the company, Laing said. Many need housing.

“If I had the beds, I believe we’d be staffed right now,” Laing said.

Even without the beds, he said the company is “tracking very well” compared with many prior seasons. Attendance at job fairs has been slightly ahead of last year’s level, he said.

Skico has relied on advertisements, word of mouth and websites to try to entice workers. It recruited summer seasonal help in Denali National Park, Alaska, for food and beverage operations.

H2B visas, which are secured by a U.S. employer for workers from overseas, is no longer a reliable option, Laing said. It takes too long for the U.S. government to process the requests.

Skico used to recruit between 300 and 450 workers through the H2B program. This year it is “virtually none,” Laing said. It will still use international workers who come to the U.S. student visas, he said.

Meanwhile, Jeffreys will work on plans for housing on land Skico owns in Basalt and at other sites to increase its stock — and the probability of keeping its positions filled.


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