A Town’s Housing Crisis Exposes a ‘House of Cards’

HAILEY, Idaho — Near the private jets that shuttle billionaires to their opulent Sun Valley getaways, 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 like Sun Valley those challenges have become a crisis as the chasm widens between those who have two homes and those who have two jobs. Fueled in part by a pandemic migration that has gobbled up the region’s limited housing supply, rents have soared over the last 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 Y.M.C.A. 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 paralyze 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 realizing the cost of living was untenable. The Fire Department that covers Sun Valley has started a $2.75 million fund-raising 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 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 and business titans from Wall Street, many of whom gather each year for Allen & Company’s annual media finance conference, known as the “summer camp for billionaires.” 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 percent over the past two years, with the median reaching about $1.2 million. Two-bedroom rentals went from less than $2,000 a month to more than $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, Wyo., Aspen, Colo., and Whitefish, Mont. Although some larger employers, including the Sun Valley Company, have developed dorm-style living options for seasonal workers, those have done little to change the housing trajectories for the broader communities.

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 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.

Kayla Burton had grown up in the Sun Valley region and moved away after high school more than a decade ago. When she returned last year to take a job as a high school principal, she and her husband, who is a teacher, were shocked at how hard it was to find a place to live. Home prices were spinning out of control, she said, even for places that were in desperate need of repairs. When rentals became available, the properties were flooded with applicants. The couple looked at trying to build their own place but found that the cost was far out of reach.

Ms. Burton and her husband moved into a camper on her parents’ property. The couple have since managed to find a unit inside an industrial building with no air-conditioning, leaving them wondering if it is the kind of place where they would want to start a family.

“We are in this weird limbo spot in our life right now,” she said.

With some job applicants unwilling to make the move, the region’s school district now has 26 job openings, some that have gone unfilled for months. The district is working on plans to develop seven affordable housing units for employees.

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

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,” Ms. 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 R.V.s 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, R.V.s 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.

So in an area whose principal asset is its spectacular wilderness, some people have taken refuge in the woods.

Aaron Clark, 43, who owns a window washing business, lost his long-term rental this spring when the landlord sold the property for well beyond what Mr. Clark could afford. Knowing the exorbitant cost of all the other options around him, Mr. Clark moved into the box truck he uses to shuttle his ladders and washing equipment.

Inside the truck, he has a bed and cabinets, and he recently added amenities like a sink with running water and solar power. He also got a refrigerator, so he no longer has to keep restocking an icebox for his food. Out the back is a shower hose with heated water.

Each night, when he’s done working, he drives out into the wilderness to park for the night. One recent day, he found a spot at the end of a potholed dirt road, next to a stream, where he spent a bit of time assessing the cryptocurrency market on his computer and then played fetch with his dog. Mr. Clark said he had found joy in the lifestyle, which at least has allowed him to save for when he eventually re-enters the housing market.

But it has its challenges.

“It is a drain, every day, deciding, ‘Where am I going to park, where am I going to go?’” he said. “You get off work, you are tired, you are hungry, you are dirty, and now you have to decide what you are going to do next.”

For the region’s many Latino workers, about one-quarter to one-half are living in difficult situations, said Herbert Romero, co-founder of the Hispanic LatinUS Leadership Task Force of Blaine County, a group that works with the community. He said he had seen up to 10 people living in two-bedroom mobile homes. Others are living on couches. Some have been living in vehicles.

Ricky Williams, 37, grew up in the region before moving away and starting a career in firefighting. A year ago, he and his wife planned a return to the Sun Valley area, anticipating a high cost of living but still unprepared for what they would find.

He recalled checking out one dilapidated home that was on the market for $750,000 — well beyond their budget with him as a full-time firefighter and his wife as a small-business owner — and there was a rush of potential buyers on the day it was available to see. He said the couple was lucky to get one of the Fire Department’s existing housing units, paying discounted rent to live next to a fire station in exchange for being on call outside regular work hours.

Mr. Williams said he feared what was becoming of his hometown as he watched people priced out and moving away.

“It’s affected so many of my friends and family,” he said. “I came back here to this community to give back to the community. And I kind of see it slowly dwindling away. It’s pretty heartbreaking.”

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