HAILEY, Idaho – Close to the private jets that take billionaires to their lavish getaways in Sun Valley, Ana Ramon Bartolome and her family have lived this summer in the only place available to them: behind a blue tarpaulin in a sizzling front garage. two cars.
Without a refrigerator, the extended family of four adults and two young children stores the products on plywood shelves. Without a sink, they wash the dishes and themselves in the nearby park. Without bedrooms, the six of them sleep on three single mattresses on the floor.
“I’m very anxious, depressed and scared,” said Ms Bartolome, who earns her living looking after the homes of wealthy residents but can’t afford even the cheapest housing in the famous ski and golf playground.
Beach resorts have long struggled to accommodate their workers, but in places like Sun Valley, those challenges have turned into a crisis as the gap widens between those who have two homes and those who have two jobs. Fueled in part by a pandemic migration that has swallowed up the region’s limited housing supply, rents have skyrocketed over the past two years, forcing expensive workers to live in trucks, trailers or tents.
It’s not just service workers struggling to keep up. A YMCA program director lives in an RV on a piece of land in Hailey. A Carey high school principal lived in a RV, but was then upgraded to a small apartment in an industrial building. A city councilor in Ketchum bounces between the homes of friends and family, but can’t afford a place of his own. A small business owner in Sun Valley drives every night on dirt roads into the wilderness, parks his box truck under the trees and goes to sleep peacefully.
The housing shortage now threatens to cripple a thriving economy and a cherished sense of community. The hospital, school district and sheriff’s office have each seen potential employees turn down job offers after realizing the cost of living was unsustainable. The fire department that covers Sun Valley has started a $2.75 million fundraiser to build homes for their firefighters.
Already, restaurants that are unable to hire sufficient service staff are closing or shortening their opening hours. And the problems are starting to spread to other businesses, said Michael David, a Ketchum councilor who has worked on housing issues for the past two decades.
“It’s like a house of cards,” he said. “It’s about to tip over.”
Built as a destination ski resort to reflect the iconic winter appeal of the Alps, the Sun Valley area has become an exclusive enclave for the rich and famous, drawing Hollywood celebrities, Washington political elites and Wall Street business titans, from many of whom gather every year for Allen & Company’s annual media finance conference, known as the “Billionaires’ Summer Camp.” They’ve found desirable vacation properties nestled next to winter ski lodges and summer golf courses, away from the yawning crowds of their home towns.
With the onset of the pandemic, the region saw an influx of wealthy buyers seeking a work-from-home destination with abundant amenities, and the migration further increased housing costs. In Ketchum, the town adjacent to Sun Valley, officials found that home prices have risen more than 50 percent in the past two years, with a median of about $1.2 million. The two-bedroom rent went from less than $2,000 a month to more than $3,000.
Those shocks came after two decades of minimal housing development in the city and a dramatic shift in recent years that transformed tenant-occupied units into homes largely vacant by their owners or used for short-term rentals.
Similar trends are happening in Rocky Mountain West resort areas, including Jackson Hole, Wyo., Aspen, Colo., and Whitefish, Mont. While some larger employers, including the Sun Valley Company, have developed dorm-style housing options for seasonal workers, they have done little to change the housing pathways for the wider communities.
On a recent afternoon, people reported to a regional food bank in Bellevue, Idaho, ordering boxes of food from a warehouse full of grains, fresh produce, and Idaho potatoes. A family there said they were being evicted from the trailer park where they live because the land was to be redeveloped. They hadn’t been able to find a new place and were afraid of what was to come.
The food bank has seen a surge in demand over the past two years, serving about 200 families a week to nearly 500, with numbers still rising, said Brooke Pace McKenna, a leader with the Hunger Coalition, which runs the food bank.
“More and more we see the teachers, the police officers, the fire service,” Ms. McKenna said.
Kayla Burton had grown up in the Sun Valley area and had moved out of high school more than a decade ago. When she returned to take a job as a high school principal last year, she and her husband, who is a teacher, were shocked at how difficult it was to find a place to live. Home prices were spiraling out of control, she said, even for places in dire need of repair. When rental properties became available, the properties were flooded with candidates. The couple tried to build their own home, but found the cost was way out of reach.
Mrs. Burton and her husband moved into a motor home on her parents’ property. The couple have since managed to find a unit in an industrial building with no air conditioning, leaving them wondering if this is the kind of place they would want to raise a family.
“We’re in this weird limbo spot in our lives right now,” she said.
With some applicants unwilling to switch, the region’s school district now has 26 vacancies, some of which 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 Johnny G’s Subshack sandwich shop in Ketchum, said that while it was vital to find housing for firefighters, teachers and nurses, she was also concerned about the many people who own vehicles, equipment and maintain houses.
This year, Ketchum officials asked voters to approve a tax hike to fund affordable housing for hundreds of workers over the next 10 years. It didn’t pass.
“We live in a Wizard of Oz town,” said Mrs. Gorham. “People say one thing, and then behind a closed curtain they do another.”
Officials in the region are looking for plaster solutions. In Hailey, city rules prohibit RVs from parking on private property for more than 30 days, but councilors have agreed not to enforce these rules for now; as a result, RVs can be seen on driveways and side yards in the city. In Ketchum, they considered opening a tent town for workers, but rejected the idea.
So in an area whose main asset is the spectacular wilderness, some people have taken refuge in the forests.
Aaron Clark, 43, who owns a window cleaning business, lost his long-term rent this spring when the landlord sold the property for much more than Mr. Clark could afford. Knowing the exorbitant costs of all the other options around him, Mr. Clark got into the box truck he uses to move his ladders and laundry equipment.
Inside the truck, he has a bed and closets, and recently added amenities such as a sink with running water and solar power. He has also been given a fridge, so he no longer has to stock a cooler for his food. At the back is a shower hose with heated water.
Every evening, when he is done with work, he drives into the wilderness to park for the night. On a recent day, he found a spot at the end of a potholed dirt road, next to a stream, where he spent some 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 allowed him to save for when he eventually returns to the housing market.
But it has its challenges.
“It’s a drain, every day, deciding, ‘Where am I going to park, where am I going?'” he said. “You’re coming from work, you’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re dirty, and now you have to decide what to do next.”
For the many Latino workers in the region, about a quarter to half live in difficult situations, said Herbert Romero, co-founder of Blaine County’s Hispanic LatinUS Leadership Task Force, a group that works with the community. He said he had seen up to 10 people living in two-bedroom mobile homes. Others live on benches. Some have lived in vehicles.
Ricky Williams, 37, grew up in the region before leaving and embarking on a career in firefighting. A year ago, he and his wife planned a return to the Sun Valley area, awaiting a high cost of living, but still unprepared for what they would find.
He recalled viewing a dilapidated house for sale for $750,000—far more than their budget with him as a full-time firefighter and his wife as a small business owner—and there was a flood of potential buyers the day that it was available to see. He said the couple were lucky enough to get one of the existing fire brigade housing units, paying a reduced rent to live next door to a fire station in exchange for being on call outside of regular working hours.
Mr Williams said he feared what would happen to his hometown as he watched people get discounted and move away.
“It has 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 see it slowly but surely decreasing. It’s pretty heartbreaking.”