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Resort Towns Need to Get Serious About Affordable Housing

The pandemic has made the shortage worse for both permanent residents and the workforce. Some towns are beginning to find solutions.

Downtown Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Downtown Steamboat Springs, Colo. The average price of a home in the ski destination increased by 71 percent from 2019 to 2022.
(Heidi Besen/Shutterstock)
For some of us, that first snowfall of winter conjures fun-filled days on the slopes and cozy evenings by the fireplace. But for the mountain towns, beach destinations and other resort communities we flock to, there’s a growing problem: The need to accommodate the increasing lodging demands of visitors has absorbed available housing stock. Between second-home owners and short-term rentals, little remains that is attainable for longtime residents, many of whom make up the workforce for these resort destinations.

The only solution is for these communities to find ways to build more housing at affordable prices. It’s not an insurmountable challenge, but it requires significant political will and proactive planning.

Much attention has been paid in recent years to the housing crunch in big cities, where prices are unattainable for low and middle-income people, pushing them ever farther from urban centers. But permanent residents of popular vacation destinations face an equally severe problem. Some are being forced to move away from communities they've known all their lives. Others must live far away from their jobs, commuting through snowy mountain roads or catching a ferry home after a long day of work. The effect on the local economies is dire, with businesses unable to hire or retain staff because there's nowhere affordable for employees to live.

Resort towns have always experienced seasonal ups and downs, with their businesses relying on making most or all of their income during the high season. Yet a new situation has arisen: With full-time remote work here to stay, relocation to resort towns is a growing trend. During the pandemic, while local service workers faced business closures and shorter hours, remote workers flocked from cities to traditional vacation spots — and in some cases never left. Beach towns, for example, saw a net in-migration of remote workers from 2020 to 2021.

As demand for homes in these typically small, quaint communities increased, rent and housing prices skyrocketed. In Steamboat Springs, Colo., the average price of a home increased by 71 percent from 2019 to 2022.

In addition, many vacation communities saw a dramatic increase in units being converted to short-term rentals made available on platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo. Airbnb’s listings outside of big cities increased by almost 50 percent between 2019 and 2022. In some cases, this took even more housing off the long-term rental market. Service workers have been forced to live in converted motels and RVs. Some lifelong residents have found themselves priced out of the area for good.

Unfortunately, those most burdened by the lack of attainable housing are people crucial to the localities’ economic viability and public welfare, such as public safety officers, service industry workers, educators and health-care professionals. When high prices drive them out, everyone hurts. What is Winter Park without ski instructors? Nantucket without waitstaff? Without the residents there to support the needs of both the community and the tourism industry, we all lose.

The acute nature of the problem means that failing to solve housing affordability threatens the very quality of life that makes these towns attractive destinations. If resort towns don’t confront it, they risk continued strain on employers and employees, lost tax revenue and increased transportation congestion from commuters.

Throughout Colorado in particular, some towns have started to implement solutions. Vail, for example, developed Vail InDEED, an innovative program that protects and preserves existing homes in the community from conversion to vacation homes through the purchasing of a deed restriction that limits occupancy to local residents. On the private-sector side, real estate developer Fading West is attempting to address the affordable-housing shortage in Buena Vista by producing modular workforce housing. This promising approach tackles the challenge of seasonal development cycles, speed and on-site construction.

New housing development can be controversial, but the demand is reaching a breaking point and communities need to accommodate a larger population. Most resort towns are already struggling to keep up, and development of new housing — from securing funding to construction — can be a time-consuming process.

This crucial process also requires careful consultation with all stakeholders, including members of the local community, to get it right. There are resources available, including federal grants, for communities concerned about escalating housing costs.

Americans are eager to spend their time and dollars on the slopes or playing in the sun, but it should not come at the detriment of those who make the mountains and beaches special places to visit.

Rodney M. Milton Jr. is the executive director of the Urban Land Institute Colorado. ULI’s mission is to shape the future of communities’ built environment.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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