Out before the snow flies: Longtime Steamboat Resort employees evicted under new lease policy
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On March 18, Ervin Clark, a former lift operator and snowmaker with Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., received an unsettling email from the management office of his apartment complex.
“To All Ponds Tenants,” the letter began, referring to Ski Corp.’s employee housing project on the east end of the city. “In an effort to provide winter seasonal housing for new incoming employees, beginning this season SSRC is implementing a new policy regarding lease lengths for year-round tenants at The Ponds.”
The policy established a three-year limit at the apartments, which house about 500 residents, all of whom work at Steamboat Resort. This meant that Clark, who has lived in the complex for the past four years, would have to move out by Sept. 30 under the new rule.
It also meant he would no longer benefit from the Ponds’ cheap rent, designed to allow employees the opportunity to live in Steamboat Springs, despite their low, seasonal wages.
Clark — a scruffy-faced, 36-year-old — made $12.50 per hour at the resort, about $1.50 more than the state’s minimum wage. By comparison, median income for Steamboat residents is about $19 per hour, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was OK when Clark was paying $390 per month for rent at the Ponds, but all of the available rentals he found outside of employee housing were more than double that amount.
As he scoured the city looking for a new home, Clark came to a hard realization.
“I can’t afford to work for the resort,” he said.
Reasons for the lease limit
Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. declined to say exactly how many people have been affected by the new policy. Loryn Duke, director of communications, said the number was fewer than 20. And to be clear, the three-year limit only applies to those who live in the Ponds for more than four consecutive months each year. It does not include those who live and work seasonally.
Of the policy, Duke said, “We have made accommodations with our employees within the housing confines of what we have available right now.”
The Pond’s three-year lease limit came three months after Steamboat Springs City Council voted to prohibit multifamily housing units, such as apartments and condominiums, from having more than six unrelated people living there. This followed a complaint of a code violation in 2018, which alleged the Ponds was breaking the city’s limit of three unrelated people per single-family home and five per multifamily unit.
In its defense, Ski Corps. cited a 27-year-old planning document it claimed allowed the apartment complex to have a higher occupancy rate than other similar housing units in the city.
Council members disagreed, listing concerns regarding parking, trash, health and safety as primary reasons for their decision. They also did not want the Ponds to set a precedent of sardine-canning tenants into other multifamily units around Steamboat.
Duke would not say if the lease policy was a direct result of City Council’s regulation, but she told Steamboat Pilot & Today that Ski Corp. was disappointed by the decision.
“We will have to re-evaluate how we can find additional housing for the ski resort’s workforce needs,” Duke said in December.
Until City Council took action, the resort was cramming six people into 30 two-bedroom apartment units at the Ponds. To accommodate all those tenants in such a small space, each room had a bunk bed along with another bed.
Residents, for the most part, have the choice of how many roommates they have in the complex, but living with more people comes with lower rent. At $260 per month, the price of the six-person units was the cheapest option.
To keep prices low, the Ponds is still allowing up to five people to stay in the two-bedroom units, with rent ranging from $290 to $390 per month, according to the ski resort’s website. Residents also can choose a four-person unit for $410 to $445 per month, but there is limited availability for that option.
“It’s dorm living without the education,” one current resident described the situation. He requested to be known only as “Joe” because he still works for the resort.
Joe is about to begin his third, and therefore his last, winter at the Ponds. While he is optimistic about finding a place before his eviction date, he wishes he could have received more notice after working with the resort for almost three years. He enjoys living in Steamboat and had hoped the Ponds would be a long-term option until he got a higher-paying job.
Now, he is trying to save as much and as quickly as he can to afford an anticipated spike in rent after he leaves employee housing.
“It feels so pressured,” he said of his required move-out. “I don’t want to rush into something and have a bad roommate or a bad landlord.”
Resort towns’ growing pains
Unfortunately, he and Clark’s struggle to afford to live in Steamboat is not uncommon, and the issue is not unique to resort employees. It is evidence not of malice or ignorance on the part of those behind the change, but of the city’s growing pains that have made affordable housing a scarcity.
The average residential price in Routt County was $686,781 at the end of 2018, according to a report from the Land Title Guarantee Company. The median gross rent, according to the Census Bureau, is just under $1,200.
“There is no housing for the little man in Steamboat,” Clark said.
In May, Steamboat Pilot & Today reported nearly half of residents, about 47%, overspend on housing. That is according to metrics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development which considers anyone who spends more than 30% of their income on housing to be “cost burdened.”
The lack of affordable housing is not a unique problem to Steamboat. Ski towns across the country, from Squaw Valley, in California, to Stowe, in Vermont, have seen skyrocketing real estate prices in recent years. Journalist Brigid Mander, in an article published in March in Outside Magazine, partly blamed the consolidation of the ski industry for the spike in housing.
As Vail Resort’s Epic Pass and Alterra Mountain Co.’s Ikon Pass — of which Steamboat is a part — add more locations to their rosters, more people flock to once-bucolic towns. Temporary vacation rentals, such as Airbnb, and wealthy, multi-homeowners have replaced permanent residents. Many of the people who work in these towns can no longer afford to live in them.
Two weeks after his mandated move-out date at the Ponds, Clark now lives in Hayden, where he pays less than half of Steamboat’s median rent for a three-bedroom house he shares with two people.
He quit his resort job following the policy change at the Ponds. He works for Colorado Event Rentals on the west end of Steamboat, where he earns a higher wage that allows him to save some money. While this may seem like a success story, his has not been an easy transition.
Clark does not own a car. At the Ponds, he could take advantage of the free Steamboat Springs Transit buses to get to and from work, plus around the city. He now spends $10 per day to take the regional bus, which only runs twice per day. That makes it hard for him to schedule errands or spend free time around Steamboat.
Finding solutions and moving on
This year, in an attempt to stay competitive with local wages, the resort increased its baseline wages for all of its employees from $12 to $12.50 per hour, according to Duke.
Managers at the Ponds also have been proactive in helping residents find homes if they are impacted by the three-year lease limit.
“Our team is happy to connect you with rental managers, point you in the direction of effective house hunting tools and provide references for housing applications,” they said in their initial email about the policy change in March.
Duke emphasized that Ski Corps. remains “the employer with the most affordable housing” in Steamboat.
But many believe resorts could do more to invest in affordable housing projects. In 2015, Vail Resorts pledged $30 million to fund employee housing projects in its resort towns in Colorado, California and Utah. Two years later, none of that money had actually been used for those projects, according to a report from Summit Daily.
Despite the challenges of living in Hayden, Clark now sees his eviction from Steamboat’s employee housing as a blessing in disguise.
“In all honesty, I’m glad to be out of the Ponds,” he said.
Similar to dorm life, he remembers frequent parties and irresponsible roommates who often got him into trouble. The little money he could have saved from his resort job he often spent on beer.
His new house has room for a garden that, come spring, will allow him to grow the peppers he puts into his homemade hot sauces. He also is in the process of getting a car to make his commute easier.
“Joe,” the anonymous Ponds resident, is planning to start classes at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs next year. Despite this being his last winter of a three-year chapter at the resort’s employee housing, he looks forward to what lies ahead.
“It’s going to work out,” he said. “It always does.”
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