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Aspen Skiing Co. says lack of affordable housing hinders its hiring

Workers chip away at exterior work at Aspen Skiing Co.'s 'workforce housing' project in Willits Town Center on Friday. When comleted next year, the project will add 138 beds to Skico's inventory.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

Aspen Skiing Co. is raking in job applications this fall but lack of affordable housing is hindering their ability to seal all deals.

Skico had roughly 1,200 seasonal positions to fill, as it does every winter. Getting people interested is no problem. Applications were up 70% over last fall in mid-October. That’s increased to about 90% now, said Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications.

But Skico has “a couple hundred” positions still to fill because of the age-old problem of housing, he said.

“A lot of them are coming back and saying, ‘We can’t find housing,’” Hanle said. “We don’t fill all our jobs any year, but this year it’s been driven by housing.”

So Skico is preparing to make a big push to entice existing Roaring Fork Valley residents to come to work at least part-time. The company wants to harness people who, in theory, already have secure housing.

Skico will use newspaper and digital advertising to try to catch the eyes of valley residents. It will promote flexible schedules. They will appeal to parents who can work mornings but want to be home when their kids get home from school, for example. Or they want to appeal to young, single restaurant workers who work at night and could pick up a Skico shift in the morning, according to Hanle.

Ski season starts Thanksgiving Day with the opening of Aspen Mountain and Snowmass.

Skico has between 650 and 700 beds available for seasonal workers in affordable housing it owns or where it has signed a master lease. That’s not enough to house all seasonal employees. Skico also is constructing a housing project in Willits Town Center that will add 138 units to its inventory. That project will be completed next year.

Although the housing shortage is a perennial problem, Hanle said it appears to Skico officials it is even harder to find this year. Theories are that as more people have settled in the valley — leaving urban areas during the pandemic and social strife — it’s eaten into the free-market rental pool. In addition, units that used to be rented out for the season are now going on the short-term rental market.

Other employers reported mixed outlooks on the housing front.

Bob Wade, owner of Ute Mountaineer, said he didn’t see it as any easier or harder this fall to find housing for employees.

“It’s always bad,” he said.

In the longer term, 20 years or so, he feels Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority has made strides adding to the affordable housing inventory in the upper valley. In prior times, many employees were commuting from Glenwood Springs or beyond.

“They were just cooked by the end of the winter,” Wade said.

In addition to government deed-restricted housing, Wade works his network of friends to find housing for workers. The Ute has filled most positions for this winter.

“We’re mostly there but still looking,” he said.

Tiziano Gortan, owner of L’Hostaria restaurant in Aspen, is used to dealing with housing challenges for his staff after 24 years in business. This odd year has created some unique conditions. He sold a housing unit that was reserved for staff because he wanted to build a financial cushion in case it is needed due to reduced business from the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, he will employ fewer workers this winter as belt-tightening and because business will likely be reduced. Social distancing guidelines currently allow restaurants to operate at 50% capacity or no more than 50 people indoors.

He used to have uas many as 30 staff working per night. He has reduced the staff this winter by five or six positions.

Gortan said he is fortunate to have many longtime workers on his staff, some who have been with him five and even 10-plus years. Several of them realized in recent years that they needed to secure housing, so they purchased in Basalt and Carbondale or won lotteries for affordable housing units in Aspen. For those struggling, he’s willing to try to help.

“I tell them, ‘If you need something, let me know,’” he said.

Chuck Frias, co-owner of Frias Properties, said his situation is different from businesses relying on seasonal workers. The firm employs between 90 and 100 workers, mostly year-round in its property management division.

The year-round employment and the firm’s efforts to retain employees through pay and benefits entice some workers to buy housing, he said. The company also has affordable housing to offer workers. The ones most caught in a bind are those with young, growing families who are looking for larger residences, according to Frias.

He said he couldn’t comment directly on whether the rental market is tighter for workers this season, though there is anecdotal evidence.

“We’ve had more candidates asking us if we offer housing,” he said.

Frias credited the upper valley with building an inventory of roughly 2,900 affordable-housing units. However, he is concerned about how much of that is truly available for workers. He said there needs to be better enforcement of regulations and he is concerned about how retirement is reducing the inventory.

He is concerned from a community perspective because he believes Frias Properties is in pretty good shape on the housing front.

“I’m sure a lot of others are in a lot tougher position,” he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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