As housing shortage hits northern Idaho, some employers are looking to build their own housing for their employees as another way to find staff | Local News | Spokane | Interior of the Pacific Northwest


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Rendered courtesy of Schweitzer

Ponderay Apartments are expected to start taking in tenants by summer 2023.

JHere’s a similar story that aired in the American West: A quaint little mountain town is discovered by wealthy patrons, drawn to the natural beauty and opportunities for winter recreation. These wealthy customers buy second homes and short-term rentals that can be used as Airbnbs. Real estate prices are skyrocketing and the inhabitants are being put at a price. All of a sudden, the restaurants, ski resorts, and other amenities that used to attract those wealthy customers can’t find workers anymore, because those workers can’t afford a house.

The story is not new to major mountain towns like Aspen and Vail, which have struggled with sky-high real estate prices and scarce labor for more than a decade. But in recent years, the crisis has spread to smaller mountain communities like Bonner County in northern Idaho, home to the Schweitzer Ski Resort.

Dennison Webb, who runs a nonprofit outdoor leadership program in Bonner County, says rising prices have had a significant impact on local families and the businesses that employ them. Webb’s nonprofit, Selkirk Outdoor Leadership and Education, raised salaries nearly 40% in a single year and is still find it difficult to fill vacancies.

“More and more people are becoming aware and concerned about what’s going on because it’s going to turn into Aspen,” Webb says. “It’s not going to be good if we don’t get this under control.”

Local leaders in Bonner County have explored various solutions, including Culver’s Crossing, an affordable housing development project designed specifically for residents who have been left out of the market. In the short term, some companies have sought to tackle the problem head-on: if your employees can’t find housing, why not just build it for them?

Ski stations in major cities like Aspen and Vail have been building employee housing for decades. It’s only recently that rising rents have forced smaller resorts like Schweitzer to also invest in employee housing, says Scot Auld, Schweitzer’s human resources director.

Over the past two or three years, Auld says the station has seen regular employees leave because they couldn’t afford housing, and some new hires have been forced to turn down offers because they can’t. found nowhere to live.

In 2020, Schweitzer repurposed a former assisted living facility in Sandpoint to create dormitory-style accommodations for 16 seasonal and full-time employees. This month, the station announced plans for a $22 million, 84-unit apartment complex that will provide living quarters, full-service child care and other amenities for Schweitzer employees and their families.

It’s a significant investment, says Auld, and a sign of the urgency of the problem.

The labor shortage has affected other industries in Bonner County, and some businesses are considering housing for Schweitzer employees as a potential solution.

“Other employers and recruiters in the Sandpoint area are very interested in doing something similar because everyone feels the same pinch,” says Auld.

The Schweitzer employee housing complex will be built in Ponderay, just north of Sandpoint, which serves as the gateway to Schweitzer Mountain. Steve Geiger, the Mayor of Ponderay, owns a painting business which typically employs 20-25 people. Even with good benefits and salaries, he says the lack of affordable housing has made it difficult to retain workers.

Geiger owns a property and considered turning it into something he could rent out to employees. But with building materials and construction costs nearly three times what they were three years ago, Geiger says the idea no longer makes fiscal sense.

“It’s really tough,” Geiger says, “even for a guy who has property like me.”

Geiger is not the only one to hesitate. In a July survey by the town of Sandpoint, several local businesses said they had considered buying a house to rent to their employees, but were unable to because of high prices.

“We considered building a small apartment complex, but the cost of land, permits, impact fees and materials is too high,” wrote one business owner.

“If we could afford a small rental complex, the company would consider buying one to help house employees at reasonable rates,” said another.

“If employers want to be competitive, I think they have to have housing as one of the arrows in their quiver.”

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Bonner Community Housing Agency has worked on a variety of programs to alleviate the area’s housing problems. One tool, says executive director Rob Hart, is the employer-led workforce housing program, which involves meeting with employers and showing them the benefits and process of building housing for rent to employees.

It’s a program he’s worked on in other cities across the country, and he says it can be a huge benefit to employers and employees.

“If employers want to be competitive,” Hart says, “I think they have to have housing as one of the arrows in their quiver.”

Hart acknowledges that employer-sponsored housing has the potential to complicate the relationship between bosses and employees. He evokes the company towns of the 1800s, where entire communities were owned and operated by employers, resulting in poor working conditions and exploitation.

“We have to be careful [because] there’s a negative track record with that, but we’re in a housing crisis right now,” Hart says.

Auld says Schweitzer is talking with other ski resorts about best practices for managing employer-sponsored accommodations.

“Anytime employers are also involved in the housing aspect of people’s lives, there will also be challenges,” Auld said. “We know that, but we also understand that it’s something we have to do because of the current situation.”

Hart met with many local employers in northern Idaho, but had a hard time convincing them to take the plunge and start building. The main problem is the lack of land, but there are also tax obstacles that make many companies hesitate.

Webb, the director of the nonprofit outdoor education program, continues to seek solutions to his employee’s housing issues. His long-term vision is to purchase land near his organization’s headquarters and build a campus on the land to house staff and students. But for an organization of its size, the costs of land and materials are still out of reach.

Webb says he’s glad Schweitzer is building housing for his employees, he just wishes it was something his organization could afford.

“Must be nice,” he said. ♦


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