Tahoe’s housing crisis is so bad ski resorts are lodging workers in campsites

With winter approaching and scant housing options for employees who hawk lift tickets or concessions, Palisades Ski Resort in Tahoe tried a daring experiment last year.

The company opened a campground near Highway 89, where workers could park their vans and brave the snowy months with no heat, water or electricity. Palisades operated and maintained the campsite, which boasted single amenity: waterless toilets with holding tanks underneath.

It was perhaps the most powerful illustration yet of a housing crisis gripping mountain towns in the Sierra, which rely on tourism to fuel their local economies — even as tourists squeeze the housing stock and generate demand for low-wage workers.

Palisades secured a special use permit to lease the campground from the U.S. Forest Service, hoping to promote van living as an alternative for people with nowhere else to go.

“The idea was in part, can we tap into this ‘van life’ lifestyle?” U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Jonathan Cook-Fisher recalled, noting how Palisades drew inspiration from a social media trend when it launched a “pilot program” with six campsites on the paved surface of Granite Flat Campground.

Yet if van living seems romantic on Instagram, the reality at this campsite was considerably less glamorous. Crews struggled to plow snow from land previously unoccupied in the winter months, while a site “host” was assigned to keep campers safe in harsh conditions.

Dave Wilderotter and Francesca Santos joke with one another in a tiny home community in Truckee.

Tracy Barbutes/Special to The Chronicle

“The fact is, winter camping can be hugely challenging,” Cook-Fisher said, calling the Granite Flat camp “indicative of the lengths communities are going to come up with solutions” to the dearth of affordable housing.

A spokesperson for Palisades said many employees were living in vans or mobile homes already and needed a “steady, predictable, safe place to park without having to move frequently.”

“We saw the campground as a viable solution,” spokesperson Kat Walton said. The resort tried pursuing other forms of housing for its workers with limited success. According to Walton, Palisades bought eight units to house 24 employees at Kings Beach. Last month a Superior Court judge quashed its plan to build out the Olympic Valley ski area with a new village, hotels, condominiums and lodging for up to 300 employees.

Now, as Palisades and the Forest Service plan to expand the program to up to 26 campsites this winter — possibly with electric hookups, Walton said — other employers are seeking to replicate it.

A few are also eyeing dormitory housing, while one business owner filled an RV lot with tiny cabins for his employees. Placer County is trying its own piecemeal solutions, ranging from mortgage down payment assistance, to a cap on short-term rentals, to, most recently, grants for landlords who rent property on seasonal or long-term leases — a way to free up homes that otherwise sit vacant when tourist season ends.

Taken together, these measures reflect the desperation to sustain a local workforce, in a region where real estate prices are soaring much faster than wages, and rising demand for vacation homes is constricting the housing supply.

But while local officials contend they are trying to be creative in the face of a daunting problem, pro-housing advocates say the predicament won’t go away until Tahoe leaders start pushing for dense apartments or deed restrictions to reserve housing for workers.

Dave Wilderotter chats with Cassie Wiggins in a tiny home community in Truckee.

Dave Wilderotter chats with Cassie Wiggins in a tiny home community in Truckee.

Tracy Barbutes/Special to The Chronicle

Otherwise, they’re merely “nibbling around the edges,” said Matthew Lewis, a spokesperson for the statewide group California YIMBY, which advocates for increased housing development statewide.

“(Placer) County and the town of Truckee have always had the ability to work with the rest of the development community” on more far-reaching measures, namely, setting aside land for workforce housing, and subsidizing it with fees on other development, Lewis said. “The fact that they’ve waited so long to really get serious about those measures has put them in a really tough spot.”

Some mountain towns are starting to build affordable housing: Mammoth Lakes funded and is currently constructing 466 affordable units, but other communities don’t appear to be considering development. Cindy Gustafson, chair of the Placer County Board of Supervisors, argued that Tahoe can’t build its way out of a housing scarcity due to regional restrictions on height and development.

“There’s limitations to protect Tahoe’s lake environment,” she said, citing rules set decades ago and overseen by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which controls land in California and Nevada. Gustafson sits on the agency’s governing board, and said its members are currently revisiting those standards.

A COVID-fueled boom in remote work exacerbated the situation. Median home values in Tahoe City skyrocketed during that time, from $964,000 in Jan. 2020, to $1.51 million in June 2022, according to the the real estate listings site Zillow. In eastern Placer County, property owners converted more than 65% of the single-family home stock into second homes or vacation rentals, a 2021 study by the Mountain Housing Council found. As a side effect of that short-term rental boom, many residences stay empty most of the year, in spite of all the residents who need a place to live.

“Vacation rentals have been part of our culture for 40, 50 years,” Gustafson said, noting, however, that the rental conversions got out of hand during the pandemic.“Homes became full-time occupied by so many short term renters.”

As rents climb and properties remain uninhabited, businesses are struggling to hire and retain workforces. Many restaurant and hospitality workers can’t afford to live in Tahoe, and even government employees commute from as far away as Roseville, Meyers or South Shore, where housing is cheaper. Cook-Fisher said he drives 50 miles one-way from his home in South Shore to his job in the Truckee Ranger District.

Gustafson, who has lived in Tahoe City for 40 years, said she sees signs of housing crunch everywhere, from the proliferation of “Help Wanted” signs in store windows, to the number of people who are driving staggeringly long distances to get to work, to the seasonal workers who opt to sleep in cars or vans, rather than pay to rent a cabin or studio apartment. She’s seen businesses sputter or cut their hours. The post office pared back its counter service, she said.

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