Aspen continues to innovate in employee housing efforts
Aspen is home to the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority, the oldest and largest mountain resort workforce housing program in the country.
“As a community, we are grateful for the forethought of those who started APCHA and the ongoing commitment to workforce housing from Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners, the Aspen City Council and the APCHA Board,” said Cindy Christensen, City of Aspen housing deputy director.
“Because of this continuing, long-term investment, Aspen/Roaring Fork Valley was and is better suited than most to weather the growing intensity of pressure that every ski town in the west has felt on its housing market.”
Christensen said that providing affordable housing opportunities for the local workforce remains a focus for the City of Aspen, as it recognizes its necessity to support those contributing to our community and economy’s success. Aspen City Council has prioritized creating more affordable housing, including 79 new units at Burlingame Ranch Phase 3 and potentially 300-plus units at the City’s Lumberyard property.
Eliza Voss, Vice President, Destination Marketing, with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, said that the APCHA’s inclusive, valley-wide approach is crucial in both understanding and addressing the impacts COVID-19 has created, as well as fostering long-term resilience.
Snowmass Village looks to increase inventory
Workforce housing also remains a top priority for the Town of Snowmass Village, and is a clearly identified goal of the Town Council.
“Study after study has documented our region’s unaffordable housing prices, inventory shortages and ever expanding commutes for workers,” said Betsy Crum, housing director, Town of Snowmass Village. “We are working to add an additional 185 units to our current inventory of about 475 units. This is an ambitious goal and we hope to continue to work in partnership with other public/private sector entities to evolve our housing program.”
Crum agreed that housing remains the central issue in securing Snowmass’s future.
“A world class mountain resort requires world class employees so an effective workforce housing program is as important as other critical infrastructure in our resort community,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been many things – pick your word – disruptive, unprecedented, extraordinary, a true black swan event. In several respects, the pandemic has also been an accelerant – creating additional pressure on already challenging issues related to tourism economics in mountain destinations.
The pandemic has certainly accelerated the stress on workforce housing, which was already a difficult problem with few easy solutions. Ultimately, an adequate supply of workforce housing is a community-wide issue that can have impacts on the visitor experience and the overall destination’s competitiveness.
Factors contributing to low workforce housing inventory
Indeed, residential real estate prices are up across the country; this surge is especially true in mountain communities across the U.S. Several factors have contributed to these increases – people moving to mountain communities from urban areas during the pandemic, traveler preference for short-term rentals over hotel rooms, second homeowners occupying their units for longer periods of time and the high level of interest in outdoor activities. Such patterns have added more strain to an already overburdened workforce housing supply in many popular vacation destinations.
Tom Foley, SVP of business analytics at Inntopia, sees a specific change that the pandemic wrought. “Home and condo usage by owners in mountain destination towns is up across the board, meaning that in some cases inventory that might otherwise be used for short- or long-term workforce housing is not available,” Foley said. “What’s not entirely clear yet is to what extent owner stays are [directly] impacting workforce housing.” To some degree, second homeowner usage and short-term rentals during the pandemic are complicating the workforce housing issue.
If a restaurant is understaffed or a hotel can’t get its rooms cleaned in time, the visitor experience may be negatively impacted, jeopardizing potential return trips. The lack of workforce housing, therefore, has a direct effect on a destination’s attractiveness. Carl Ribaudo, president of SMG Consulting, agrees. “The continued lack of affordable housing for residents and employees within the tourism industry limits the competitiveness of the destination. If you don’t have enough employees to provide services to visitors, how competitive can you be?”
Beyond the quality of the visitor experience and the competitiveness of the destination, sales and lodging tax collections can be suppressed. According to Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs at National Ski Areas Association, “Without ample affordable housing, the entire community suffers – it impacts tax revenues significantly, businesses cannot fully operate, and impacts guest services across the board. Without affordable housing, all businesses will struggle to find workers.”
New tools needed
Many large employers have focused on offering staff housing for their employees. In particular, ski areas across the country frequently provide subsidized, seasonal housing to their staff. According to the NSAA Kottke End of Season Report, 59% of all U.S. ski areas have employee housing. In the Rocky Mountain region, an even greater 76% of ski areas offer employee housing, with an average of 165 staff housed per ski area in the winter of 2019-20. These beds are essential because without housing, a large employer like a ski area can’t operate effectively, with potential impacts like reduced lift operations, longer lines at food and beverage outlets and an overall lower level of customer service.
Many other smaller businesses in ski towns face the same challenges; hotels and restaurants need places for their employees to live, too. But these smaller businesses can’t always afford to provide housing by themselves. A community-wide, collaborative and creative approach is often necessary, as seen recently in Big Sky. The resort area in Montana has allocated $1.9 million of its 3% resort tax to the Big Sky Community Housing Trust to build affordable housing,
In Colorado, the Town of Breckenridge continues to fund affordable housing efforts. “In addition to building new deed-restricted housing for locals, the Town is very committed to programs that preserve some of that inventory, through Buy Down Programs and deed restriction acquisition programs,” said Laurie Best, senior planner at the Town of Breckenridge. “Locally, most businesses, including critical infrastructure, are increasingly challenged to recruit and retain the employees they need,” added Best.
Federal funding could prompt housing projects
Significantly, President Biden’s current infrastructure proposal includes major funding for affordable housing across the U.S., which could have a positive impact in mountain towns via direct funding for workforce housing projects in rural areas.
“Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure bill has some very encouraging proposals on workforce housing, and he is smartly targeting rural communities with grants for workforce housing,” observed Dave Byrd. Byrd went on to say, “While the bill’s details remain to be defined, the proposal is encouraging, and the ski industry will be pushing innovative public-private agreements and funding to create sustainable and affordable housing in and near ski communities.”
The challenge of workforce housing has been on the front burner in many mountain communities for quite a while, but the pandemic pushed the issue to a critical level. To remain competitive and to provide an exceptional visitor experience, workforce housing is essential. As destinations look to new tools and funding sources, taking a broad, community-wide approach to workforce housing is more of a priority now than ever before.
Insights Collective; a Tourism Economy Think Tank and Resource Center – is a collaboration of destination travel industry experts who are collaborating and working, together with mountain resort communities and their stakeholders, to understand, plan, and navigate through the emerging tourism marketplace. www.TheInsightsCollective.com / firstname.lastname@example.org