It’s hard to understate the negative impact on our communities caused by the shortage of employee housing. While everyone is talking about the problem, solutions have been hard to come by. But it turns out one of the quickest and most effective solutions for the problem is something that employers used to do all the time in remote mining communities in the western United States: provide the housing themselves.
Mike Schwartz, owner of The BackCountry, decided to do just that. He went out and purchased several homes so that he could provide housing for his employees.
A ski, bike, and mountain gear shop in Truckee, The BackCountry has been in business since 1993 and most of the staff are avid bikers and skiers and longtime locals who have constantly faced the challenge of finding and keeping housing.
To provide housing for as many of his 35 employees as he can, Schwartz, who also owns the Olympic Valley Ski and Bike Shop, bought a 1,000-square-foot house in the Armstrong Tract neighborhood of Truckee in 2018. Just a few months ago, he purchased another house, an 800-square-foot A-frame in a flood zone near Donner Lake. Both houses needed a lot of work, which Schwartz says was the only reason he could afford to buy them.
“It doesn’t make any financial sense to be doing this,” said Schwartz. “It was an emotional thing to do to keep your best people, and it was to keep the business going.”
Buying properties for your employees to live in has its challenges. First, in the lower end of the market (Tahoe/Truckee’s low end now is where the middle end of the market was a few years ago) you must compete against corporations that are buying homes sight unseen as investments.
“The only way I could buy the first house was [because] a friend sold it to me,” Schwartz told Moonshine Ink. “It is essential that when locals sell their house, they sell it to someone local.”
Another issue was that “there are no good loans to buy a house for affordable housing,” said Schwartz. The loans for rental properties are geared toward investment property which require a larger down payment and the lenders charge a higher interest rate.
Now 10 of Schwartz’s employees live in the two houses that he owns — 10 employees who would probably have had to move out of the region if he had not been able to provide them a place to live. The housing market is so dire, says Schwartz, “There is no point in looking when your lease is up; you move.” He believes that as an employer, it is imperative to provide housing for your employees, or else you will lose them. It’s as simple as that.
While purchasing properties, Schwartz also spent several years searching for a long-term rental house, which he officially rents but sublets to several employees. But even three properties are not enough. Schwartz says that before he purchased the homes, “only five of my employees had secure housing. As soon as their leases run up, they are probably not going to find something. I want to help these people because they are like my family. And I don’t want my business to go under because I don’t have employees.”
In addition, as another incentive to keep employees happy, Schwartz hired chefs to bring a daily home-cooked meal to the shop for all the workers to enjoy. “We feed them every day,” he said. “It’s one less stress in life for employees who are wondering why they are living somewhere where they could never buy a house.”
Eventually Schwartz envisions turning his business over to the employees and renting out the houses he now owns to those same employees. Until then, he has a business to keep running and the only way it will run is if employees have a place to live.