Judy Zachariasen, who manages her mother’s house in Tahoe Donner, recently decided to personally pitch in a housing option for local employees.
“I really care about this housing problem here. If I can do my one little thing to help one family stay here, it makes me feel like I’m doing something positive,” she said.
Last week she signed a contract with long-term tenants, becoming the first landlord to take advantage of a new town grant that encourages exactly this action: Take a house off the short-term rental market and put it into the hands of people who live here full-time.
“It was important to me that we rent it to Truckee locals, people who already live here and are already part of the community,” Zachariasen said. “… I didn’t want to rent to COVID refugees. It really mattered to me that it help members of this community.”
The topic of housing in Truckee/Tahoe remains ever-relevant, particularly as COVID-19 has brought more people to the region, further constricting affordable housing inventory. Social media posts from would-be residents read like personal ads, with hopes to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.
“Home sale prices have increased 7% per year since 2012 and now average over $1 million,” a recent housing study found (beginning on p. 5 at this link). The expense poses a major obstacle for many local employees seeking a stable home close to their place of work. Enough so that local agencies, governments, and private businesses in the Truckee/North Tahoe area are casting wide nets for workforce housing solutions, and reeling in uncommon options for those with ultra-low to moderate income.
Dave Wilderotter, owner of the Tahoe Dave’s ski shops scattered around Truckee and Tahoe’s north shore, compares helping his employees find housing to paying another utility bill. Lights, gas … and finding his workers a home. He’s been around the block for the past few years figuring out places for staff to live.
“It’s certainly necessary,” Wilderotter said. “It’s not out of the goodness of my heart. If I want employees, I’ve got to figure out where to house them.”
The shops have around 100 employees on their payroll during winter months, many of whom Wilderotter said are “ski bums” looking to work in the industry for the season. His offer to them, alongside a job, includes a place to stay during their Tahoe tenure.
He has his own database he relies on to find shelter — friends who are heading south for warm weather and leaving their homes locked up tight; others who might have extra rooms or an empty duplex. Wilderotter pays the deposit, pays rent for the season up front, and then can charge rent that employees can afford.
“There isn’t an average rent,” he explained. “Depends on how many people per unit and what size they’re getting. I try to make it so employees don’t have to pay any more than $500 to $900 depending on if there are roommates; studios usually are $750, one-bed with lofts $900 to $1,100.”
Wilderotter even purchased a trailer park on Donner Pass Road, dubbed it Old 40 Village, and began allowing his employees to live on-site alongside those who were there prior to his purchase. There are 25 units, with 15 of them currently occupied by employees or friends of employees.
“I have the responsibility, not the employee,” he added. “It adds pressure to how much I want to take on because I’m relying on my employees to be good people … [But] I’d rather invest in my employees than invest in Exxon and 401ks.”
In 2021, multiple affordable housing projects in the area will come online (Truckee Artist Lofts, Elements at Coldstream, Frishman Hollow II), ready to house folks who make under 80% of the Area Median Income. (In Placer County, those 80% of a one-person income amount to $48,350 for 2020; in Nevada County, $48,200.) These developments are needed (so say those with their fingers on the pulse of the region’s goings-on), and more are lodged in the pipeline.
But these affordable projects don’t accomodate the ‘missing middle,’ particularly folks in the 80% to 120% AMI camp, and that’s where local agencies are stepping up. The Tahoe Truckee Workforce Housing Agency, born in March of this year, is focused on home affordability for employees of the Tahoe Forest Health System, Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, Truckee Donner Public Utility District, and Truckee Tahoe Airport District — positions with decent pay, benefits, training, and upward mobility. This Joint Powers Agreement supports its member employees by seeking out its own workforce housing developments or contracts, as well as participating in and encouraging local housing programs.
“There isn’t another one in California where public agencies have come together [like this],” said Emily Vitas, executive director and sole employee of the workforce JPA.
Despite the seemingly secure jobs provided by the member organizations, the joint agency found in a recent six-month survey that 260 of their current employees (16% of those surveyed) “are considering leaving their employment at least in part due to the high cost of housing.”
Forty-three percent of respondents said finding a house the last time they moved was “very difficult”; 19% are dissatisfied with their current housing situation; and 30% of renters and 18% of owners pay over 30% of their income for housing.
“Some [of the survey] results are pretty concerning,” Vitas shared. “Not surprising, but a few of the items that came up have us feeling a revived sense of urgency.”
Currently, Vitas is focused on finishing a housing work plan that could include potential development and an expansion of current housing programs like master leasing of new and existing units, down payment assistance programs, workforce housing development on member agency-owned land, and working with real estate agents and lenders on a pathway to ownership program for agency employees; nothing, however, is finalized. Simultaneously, the workforce JPA has a house-matching program through Landing Locals (a private business coupling renters with long-term housing options) to connect employees of the four agencies with interested homeowners.
“What we’re finding is homeowners are really interested in providing housing for essential workers, especially during a pandemic,” Vitas said.
While the workforce JPA currently consists of the four agencies, it was legally created to allow any public entity that’s interested. Vitas explained, “That means our towns, our counties, all of our special districts … We’re starting to talk next year about how we expand, how we bring additional member agencies on.”
Landing Locals recently partnered with the Town of Truckee to create a three-year grant program ($3,000 for the first year, and other services) for property owners who rent their homes long-term to local employees.
Colin Frolich, co-founder and CEO of Landing Locals, compares this program to carrots and sticks. South Lake Tahoe chose the stick approach, which banned vacation rentals in parts of the core tourist area, shut down rentals earlier this year due to COVID-19, and is now considering capping the number of vacation rentals allowed.
“We’re taking the carrot approach to try to pull people away from short-term rentals with the long-term rental grant,” Frolich said. “So a homeowner has options now … ‘I can go long-term and I was thinking about that anyway, but I don’t know, I’m hemming and hawing about it.’ This $3,000 and free matching services and free screening from Landing Locals, it’s all incentivized as carrots to get you to do the right thing.”
Interested employees are required to work at least 20 hours per week for an employer within the geographic boundaries of the TTUSD. Remote work is not allowed and participating households can’t make more than 120% AMI.
On keeping the rent affordable, Frolich explained the thought process: “We don’t want to tell the owners you can’t rent at a certain dollar amount per month. Rather, we’re saying if you’re going to try and go after the grant, by nature you have to rent to people who are the missing middle. They can’t be making $250,000 per year, so you can’t charge $5,000, $6,000 per month. We had to pick one; do we want to cap rents or cap income, and we chose income.”
There’s certainly a lot left on the table for those with short-term rentals who could earn over $3,000 each month — for example, in 2018, the average monthly revenue for an Airbnb rental in Tahoe City was $3,408. The grant program, though, has considered that.
“The short answer is that the $3,000 is geared toward houses on the lower end of the short-term rental market, and we’re hoping to peel away owners who are grossing about the same as they would get from short term versus long term, but with more consistent stable monthly income from a long-term rental,” Frolich said.
There are, of course, other fees short-term rental owners have to consider, too: The hiring of a property manager; additional cleaning, extra supplies; Transient Occupancy Tax collection complications with Airbnb; and slow periods.
“Also,” Frolich added, “we are open to increasing the one-time grant to either a larger amount or more of a monthly/ongoing stipend … year one is all about experimentation!”
Zachariasen was the first Truckee homeowner to qualify for the grant program. She’d rented her mother’s Tahoe Donner home as a short-term option on and off over the past couple of years, but it turned out to be a demanding gig for little benefit (the cleaning service she hired took most of the money earned).
“I was on the Facebook Truckee renters page and I put out a post and said, ‘Hey, what’s the deal if you want to switch your house to a long-term rental?” Zachariasen recalled. Someone commented about Landing Locals, and the rest was history.
The tenants, she added, aren’t just seasonal folks: “They raised a family here. Their kids graduated from Truckee High or a local school … so they’ve been here 20 years. They have a small business. They’re real locals, year-round.”
Seana Doherty, Truckee’s housing program manager and the one overseeing the grant program from the town’s side, told Moonshine it will be funded from the town’s general fund and, with town council’s approval, Transient Occupancy Tax. (The recent passing of Measure K bumps up TOT for overnight and short-term rental guests from 10% to 12%.)
Year one, which kicked off Oct. 15, is the pilot phase The goal is to acquire 25 new long-term rentals — an ambitious target, Doherty admitted, but allowing adjustments in years two and three.
“[A] metric of success is people that continue to long-term rent after the one-year grant period,” she wrote in an email. “We will measure this. Our hope is that people have a good experience with Landing Locals and their tenants and continue to long-term rent long after the initial grant investment from the town.”
Similarly to the workforce JPA, Frolich said this grant program is also unique in its own sense: “It’s really a government program run by a private company and no one’s really done this before. We’ve done a lot of research on mountain towns and counties across the country and nothing has been really tried like this before, so it’s a great experiment and we think the parameters are really solid.”
With workers pouring into the community for the winter season, finding housing becomes a certifiable issue.
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows offers its Residential Rewards program to incentivize local homeowners to rent to Squaw Alpine employees. Those who participate can receive a $600 resort gift card and must register before Jan. 1, 2021. If interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 452-7112.
Northstar California Resort, meanwhile, shares resources for its employees who are seeking living arrangements.
“Securing housing in mountain communities, including those where Vail Resorts as a whole operates, has emerged as a real challenge — one that we are continuously working to solve for our employees across all of our resorts,” stated Russell Carlton, senior manager for Vail communications in the Tahoe region, in an email. “We know more needs to be done; affordable workforce housing is a complex community issue that requires strong collaboration between employers, community members, and developers, and it needs to be a priority for everyone involved.”
At this time, he wrote, Northstar is working with community partners in the local area to “spur additional workforce housing projects.”
While there is always room for improvement, Vitas and Wilderotter each commended the region as a whole for taking steps, however small, toward filling the need for employee housing.
“Any little bit here and there,” Wilderotter said, “but boy, all those extra condos and apartments being built out in Truckee are phenomenal. We’re having such a difficult time on the North Shore because we’re thinking in terms of big affordable housing projects … We can still do it, we don’t need 400 units or 100 units … What they did in Kings Beach [referring to the Domus affordable housing apartments] was phenomenal.”
“I did not expect to be this supported in this work,” Vitas said of the JPA. “A lot of times it does feel like lip service … [so] I’m extremely fortunate that these four member agencies are so passionate about this.”