HAILEY, Idaho — Near the private jets that ferry billionaires to their opulent Sun Valley getaways, Ana Ramon Bartolome and her family have spent this summer living in the only place they have: behind a blue tarp in a sweltering garage to two cars.
Without a fridge, the extended family of four adults and two young children keep produce on plywood shelves. Without a sink, they wash the dishes and themselves in the nearby park. Without a bedroom, the six of them sleep on three single mattresses on the floor.
‘I am very anxious, depressed and scared,’ said Ms Bartolome, who makes a living tending to the homes of wealthy residents but can’t even afford the cheapest accommodation in the famous ski and golf course. .
Resort towns have long sought to house their workers, but in places like Sun Valley, those challenges have become a crisis as the chasm widens between those with two homes and those with two jobs. Fueled in part by pandemic migration that has swallowed up the area’s limited housing supply, rents have soared over the past two years, leaving overpriced workers living in trucks, trailers or tents.
It’s not just service workers who are struggling to hold on. A program director at the YMCA lives in an RV on a slice of land in Hailey. A high school principal in Carey lived in an RV but was later upgraded to a small apartment in an industrial building. A Ketchum City Council member bounces between the homes of friends and family, unable to afford a place of his own. A Sun Valley small business owner spends every night driving dirt roads in the wilderness, parking his van truck under trees and settling in for the night.
The housing shortage now threatens to cripple what was a thriving economy and a cherished sense of community. The hospital, school district and sheriff’s office each saw potential employees bail out job offers after realizing the cost of living was untenable. The fire department that covers Sun Valley has launched a $2.75 million fundraising campaign to build housing for its firefighters.
Already, restaurants unable to hire enough service staff are closing or reducing their hours. And the problems are starting to spill over to other businesses, said Michael David, a Ketchum council member who has worked on housing issues for two decades.
“It’s kind of a house of cards,” he said. “He’s close to reversal.”
Built as a destination ski resort to reflect the iconic winter appeal of the Alps, the Sun Valley region has become an exclusive enclave for the rich and famous, attracting Hollywood celebrities, Washington political elites and business titans from Wall Street, many of whom gather each year for Allen & Company’s annual media finance conference, known as “Billionaire Summer Camp.” They picked up desirable vacation properties nestled next to winter ski lodges and summer golf courses, far from the wondering crowds of their hometowns.
With the onset of the pandemic, the area has seen an influx of wealthy buyers looking for a work-from-home destination with plenty of amenities, and migration has driven up housing costs even further. In nearby Sun Valley town of Ketchum, officials found home prices have climbed more than 50% in the past two years, with the median hitting around $1.2 million. Two-bedroom rentals have gone from under $2,000 per month to over $3,000.
The shake-ups came after two decades of minimal residential construction in the city and a sea change in recent years that has converted tenant-occupied housing into one that was either left largely vacant by landlords or used as short-term rentals.
Similar trends are occurring at Rocky Mountain West resorts including Jackson Hole, Wyo., Aspen, Colorado, and Whitefish, Mt. Although some large employers, including the Sun Valley Company, have developed dormitory-style living options for seasonal workers, these have done little to change housing trajectories for larger communities.
People walked into a regional food bank in Bellevue, Idaho on a recent afternoon, ordering boxes of food from a warehouse full of Idaho grains, produce and potatoes. A family said they were being kicked out of the trailer park where they lived because the land was going to be redeveloped. They had been unable to find a new place and were afraid of what was to come.
The food bank has seen an increase in demand over the past two years, serving about 200 families each week to nearly 500 and the number continues to rise, said Brooke Pace McKenna, leader of the Hunger Coalition, which runs the food Bank.
“More and more we see teachers, police officers, firefighters,” Ms McKenna said.
Kayla Burton had grown up in the Sun Valley area and moved out after high school over a decade ago. When she returned last year to take up a job as a secondary school principal, she and her husband, who is a teacher, were shocked at how difficult it was to find accommodation. Home prices were spiraling out of control, she said, even for places in desperate need of repair. When rentals became available, properties were inundated with applicants. The couple considered trying to build their own home, but found the cost was out of reach.
Ms Burton and her husband moved into a trailer on her parents’ property. The couple have since managed to find a unit inside an industrial building with no air conditioning, leaving them to wonder if this is the kind of place they would want to start a family.
“We’re in this weird place of limbo in our lives right now,” she said.
With some job seekers unwilling to relocate, the area school district now has 26 job openings, some of which have gone vacant for months. The district is working on plans to develop seven affordable housing units for employees.
Gretchen Gorham, co-owner of Johnny G’s Subshack sandwich shop in Ketchum, said while finding housing for firefighters, teachers and nurses was vital, she was also concerned about the many people who maintain vehicles, l equipment and houses.
This year, Ketchum officials asked voters to approve a tax hike to fund affordable housing for hundreds of working people over the next 10 years. It did not work.
“We live in a Wizard of Oz town,” Ms Gorham said. “People say one thing, then behind a closed curtain they do another.”
Officials in the region have sought band-aid solutions. In Hailey, city rules prohibit RVs from parking on private property for more than 30 days, but council members have agreed not to enforce those rules at this time; therefore, RVs can be seen in city driveways and side yards. In Ketchum, officials considered opening a tent city for workers, but decided against it.
Thus, in a region whose main asset is its spectacular wilderness, some have taken refuge in the woods.
Window washing business owner Aaron Clark, 43, lost his long-term tenancy this spring when the landlord sold the property well beyond what Mr Clark could afford. Knowing the exorbitant cost of all the other options around him, Mr. Clark moved into the box truck he uses to transport his ladders and washing equipment.
Inside the truck he has a bed and cabinets, and he recently added amenities like a sink with running water and solar power. He also got a refrigerator, so he no longer needs to restock a cooler for his food. In the back is a shower hose with heated water.
Every night when he’s finished working, he drives out into the desert to park for the night. On a recent day, he found a place at the end of a rutted dirt road, next to a stream, where he spent some time evaluating the cryptocurrency market on his computer, then played to search with his dog. Mr Clark said he found joy in the lifestyle, which at least allowed him to save for his eventual return 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 leave work, you’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re dirty, and now you have to decide what you’re going to do next.”
For the region’s many Latino workers, about a quarter to half live in dire circumstances, said Herbert Romero, co-founder of the Hispanic LatinUS Leadership Task Force of Blaine County, a group that works with the community. He said he saw up to 10 people living in two-bedroom mobile homes. Others live on sofas. Some live in vehicles.
Ricky Williams, 37, grew up in the area before moving and starting a career in firefighting. A year ago, he and his wife planned a return to the Sun Valley area, anticipating a high cost of living but still unprepared for what they would find.
He remembers checking out a dilapidated house that was on the market for $750,000 – well over their budget with him as a full-time firefighter and his wife as a small business owner – and there was a rush of potential buyers the day it was available to view. He said the couple were lucky enough to get one of the fire department’s existing homes, paying reduced rent to live next to a fire station in exchange for being on call out of hours normal work.
Mr Williams said he feared what was to become of his hometown as he watched people sell out and walk away.
“It 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 kind of see it slowly diminishing. It’s quite heartbreaking.