Housing crisis hits US resort towns with some people sleeping in their vehicles

Ms Ana Ramon Bartolome and her family in the sweltering garage where they live in Hailey, Idaho, on July 20, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HAILEY, Idaho (NYTIMES) - Near the private jets that shuttle billionaires to their opulent Sun Valley getaways, Ms Ana Ramon Bartolome and her family have spent this summer living in the only place available to them: Behind a blue tarp in a sweltering two-car garage.

With no refrigerator, the extended family of four adults and two young children keeps produce on plywood shelves.

With no sink, they wash dishes and themselves at the nearby park. With no bedrooms, the six of them sleep on three single mattresses on the floor.

"I'm very anxious, depressed and scared," said Ms Bartolome, who makes her living tending to the homes of wealthy residents but cannot afford even the cheapest housing in the famous ski-and-golf playground.

Resort towns have long grappled with how to house their workers, but in places such as Sun Valley, those challenges have become a crisis as the chasm widens between those who have two homes and those who have two jobs.

Fulled in part by a pandemic migration that has gobbled up the region's limited housing supply, rents have soared over the past two years, leaving priced-out workers living in trucks, trailers or tents.

It is not just service workers struggling to hold on.

A program director at the YMCA is living in a camper on a slice of land in Hailey. A high school principal in Carey was living in a camper but then upgraded to a tiny apartment in an industrial building.

A City Council member in Ketchum is bouncing between the homes of friends and family, unable to afford a place of his own. A small-business owner in Sun Valley spends each night driving dirt roads into the wilderness, parking his box truck under the trees and settling down for the night.

The housing shortfall is now threatening to paralyse what had been a thriving economy and cherished sense of community.

The hospital, school district and sheriff's office have each seen prospective employees bail on job offers after realising the cost of living was untenable.

The Fire Department that covers Sun Valley has started a US$2.75 million (S$3.8 million) fundraising campaign to build housing for their firefighters.

Already, restaurants unable to hire enough service workers are closing or shortening hours. And the problems are starting to spread to other businesses, said Mr Michael David, a Ketchum council member who has been working on housing issues for the past two decades.

"It's kind of a house of cards," he said. "It is close to toppling."

Built as a destination ski resort to mirror the iconic winter appeal of the Alps, the Sun Valley area has grown into an exclusive enclave for the wealthy and famous, drawing Hollywood celebrities, political elites from Washington, DC, and business titans from Wall Street, many of whom gather each year for Allen & Co's annual media finance conference, known as the "summer camp for billionaires".

Idaho's Sun Valley area has been developed as a destination ski resort, an exclusive enclave for the wealthy and famous. PHOTO: NYTIMES

They have scooped up desirable vacation properties nestled next to winter ski lodges and summer golf courses, away from the gawking crowds of their home cities.

With the onset of the pandemic, the region saw an influx of wealthy buyers looking for a work-from-home destination with plentiful amenities, and the migration sent housing costs soaring even further.

In Ketchum, the town next to Sun Valley, officials found that home prices shot up more than 50 per cent over the past two years, with the median reaching about US$1.2 million. Two-bedroom rentals went from less than US$2,000 a month to more than US$3,000.

Those jolts came after two decades of minimal residential construction in the city and a dramatic shift in recent years that converted renter-occupied units into those that were either kept largely vacant by their owners or used as short-term rentals.

Similar trends are happening in resort towns across the Rocky Mountain West, including Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Aspen, Colorado; and Whitefish, Montana.

A help wanted sign at a convenience store in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 20, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

People filed into a regional food bank in Bellevue, Idaho, one recent afternoon, ordering boxes of food from a warehouse stocked with cereal, fresh produce and Idaho potatoes.

One family there said they were being evicted from the trailer park where they live because the land was going to be redeveloped. They had been unable to find a new place and were fearful about what was coming next.

The food bank has experienced a surge in demand in the past two years, serving about 200 families each week to nearly 500 with the number still climbing, said Ms Brooke Pace McKenna, a leader at the Hunger Coalition, which runs the food bank.

"More and more, we are seeing the teachers, the policemen, the Fire Department," Ms McKenna said.

Ms Gretchen Gorham, co-owner of Johnny G's Subshack sandwich shop in Ketchum, said that although it was vital to find housing for firefighters, teachers and nurses, she also worried about the many people who service vehicles, equipment and homes.

Ms Kimberlyn Sanchez prepares a box of food at the Bloom Community Food Center in Bellevue, Idaho, on July 21, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

This year, Ketchum officials asked voters to approve a tax increase to fund affordable housing for hundreds of workers over the next 10 years. It did not pass.

"We live in a town of Wizard of Oz," Gorham said. "People say one thing, and then behind a closed curtain, they're doing another." Officials in the region have been reaching for Band-Aid solutions.

In Hailey, city rules prohibit Recreation Vehicles (RVs) from parking on private property for more than 30 days, but council members have agreed not to enforce those rules for now; as a result, RVs can be seen in driveways and side yards across town.

In Ketchum, officials considered opening a tent city for workers but decided against the idea.

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