Ski towns, stop serving the ultrarich
It’s no surprise that mountain towns across the West have a problem. The real estate boom fueled by the pandemic has taken a toll on residents of Bozeman, Montana, in Bend, Oregon. In the cities of Ouray and Telluride, Colorado, housing shortages have resulted in labor shortages, forcing businesses to operate at reduced capacity. And in Crested Butte, Colorado, the 2021 school year has started without school buses because the district can’t find anyone in the area to hire to drive them.
But for some inhabitants of mountain towns, this problem is not new.
Karla Garcia Gonzales moved from Peru to Telluride in 2004, where she began working as a cultural awareness coordinator and organizing for immigrant rights. For over a decade, she has tried to bring the Latino community closer to the wealth and opportunities that exist in Telluride. But she could never reconcile the fact that she could casually talk to a billionaire at the cafe, then walk down the block to help a single mom with multiple jobs figure out how to pay rent.
San Miguel County, where Telluride is located, ranked eighth in the country for highest income inequality, according to a 2015 report. And that’s not exactly the most racially fair, either. The Latin American population represents a significant percentage of the local workforce, but often does not have access to affordable housing funded by the federal government, as many of them are undocumented, leaving little to ‘options in an already limited workforce housing market. Many are forced to travel long distances or share accommodation. Meanwhile, black residents make up less than 1% of the population.
Ultimately, for Gonzalez, the inequality of wealth was “too much in his face.” She worked tirelessly for her community but could not afford to buy a house. In 2011, she moved to Denver, away from friends and the scenery she loved.
“The joys of skiing and living in a small mountain town have been conferred disproportionately on wealthy whites,” says Willa Williford, affordable housing consultant for mountain communities in Colorado.
Many of these mountain towns have started to tackle racial and social inequalities more seriously in response to the Black Lives Matter tidal wave in 2020. Now they are struggling to house even longtime locals (who are mostly white and middle class). Yet what looks like two separate lost battles actually creates a collective opportunity. If these places can find a way to stop caring for the ultrarich and instead create more accessible, fair and equitable atmospheres for BIPOC residents and visitors, they may have a chance to save what rest of their middle class souls.
In Williford’s opinion, the first thing to tackle is affordable housing. In Telluride, where the median household income is $ 66,000 and the average residential property sells for $ 2.1 million (not to mention the many homes listed in the area at $ 36 million), the pain of inequality is felt by almost all full-time residents. make local wages.
Williford says that many mountain communities where she works are keenly aware of ways in which state and federal resources do not adequately meet housing needs; as a result, local leaders are innovating solutions that could be applied elsewhere. In Steamboat Springs, a coalition works on housing advocacy programs for its Latino community. In Leadville, housing leaders are negotiating with a mining company to donate land for a project to increase the rental pool. At Crête Butte, a newly formed Black Lives Matter group explores ideas for providing housing specifically to attract BIPOC people. And to Bozeman, creators of an innovation, mixed neighborhood still hope to prove that smart and equitable growth is possible.
“I think we need to write a white paper on the cost for these places to keep people out,” says Christine Walker, former director of the Jackson / Teton County Housing Authority in Wyoming, and now a housing consultant at Hand -work. She notes that being inclusive requires increasing density, a concept most mountain communities resist so fiercely that residents have often moved to try and escape the crowds. Ultimately, however, this exclusivity hurts everyone in the community.
Low-density zoning policies in many mountain towns favor large, expensive single-family homes that are often used as second homes and vacation rentals. (Typically one to two-thirds of the housing stock in ski resorts is not occupied all year round, according to one 2019 report conducted by the Colorado Ski Town Association and the Northwestern Colorado Council of Governments.) The simple equation of finite land and increased housing demand means that a local wage is not enough to buy a house and the workers are forced to descend into the valley. The benefits of small towns like cycling to work or living next to friends are lost. Business leaders are struggling to find employees. Water and energy are used inefficiently, traffic increases, carbon dioxide emissions increase, and collisions with wildlife increase.
When a community needs to import its workforce, it exposes residents, commuters and visitors. For example, when a massive storm is expected to pass through the Tetons, emergency responders employed in Jackson – many of whom live outside of Teton County – must decide if they will return home for the night and risk shady roads. or closed in the morning, or stay somewhere in town (local hotels offer reduced rates for these occasions). Such a storm could bar 20% of teachers from going to school, 18 of Teton County’s 21 patrol officers from reporting to work, and nearly half of hospital workers and essential workers. like snow plow operators and mechanics to get to work.
In San Francisco, a city known for its absurd housing prices and the resulting gentrification, a 2018 report showed that an average teacher could only afford 0.7% of the available housing, and first responders could get away from it all. allow 2.4% of the dwellings currently listed. To help resolve their housing crises, voters recently passed an election measure that increased taxes on the sale of properties worth more than $ 10 million. These revenues will help fund rent relief and affordable housing for low- and middle-income residents. Seattle has passed a similar measure in July, imposing an additional tax on high incomes which will then go to community development, support for local businesses and housing for the workforce. Vancouver, British Columbia, Oakland, California and Washington, DC have taxed homes that remain vacant most of the year. Mountain towns must follow suit.
Fortunately, some are. A Teton County lawmaker is proposing a second home fee, and Breckenridge, Colo., Buys houses in town and converts them to deed-restricted dwellings in order to increase the number of diverse residents year round. Other places, including Summit County, Colorado, Truckee, Calif., Steamboat Springs, and Crested Butte, have all chosen to impose themselves and / or visitors to create dedicated local funding sources for housing.
An increasing amount of studies demonstrate that people who interact with different socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds, whether at school, at work or in neighborhoods, fare better in terms of mental health, personal finances, education and death rates. ‘use. There is evidence that companies with better sexual and racial representation have higher profits and are more innovative, that children who attend more integrated schools develop more empathic tools, and that diversity promotes more effective communication and consensus building.
Inclusiveness is also good for business. Even Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, admits the ski industry has waited far too long to invest in communities of color. Katz wrote a open letter to its employees, recognizing that the lack of diversity in the ski industry is “not only a moral and societal problem, but a business problem”. The US Census Bureau predicts that more than half of the country will be non-white by 2044, and according to a report by the National Ski Areas Association, visits by people of color have remained fairly stagnant over the past decade and no longer follow. not with the growth of minority populations in the United States Katz recognizes that the ski industry must expand its base to more colored skiers if it is to survive. Likewise, the mountain biking, rock climbing, hunting and fishing industries, which fuel all mountain town tourist economies, have remained predominantly white as the face of America becomes increasingly diverse. .
Geographically isolated mountain communities once believed that exclusionary practices could isolate them from modern, urban hardships – this is clearly no longer the case. The safety nets that previously held communities together are stretched and torn as wealth flows in and unfair practices persist. Gonzales points out that we can’t use old solutions for new problems and that these communities have the power to level the playing field. She believes that bringing people to the table “not because they think like you or you look like you, but because they are different ”is the key to the survival of mountain towns. “We’re in this mess together,” she said. “Let’s work together to learn and build together. “