Park City official tells of J-1 couple living in utility closet with no heat
January 2, 2019
A couple arrived from Argentina recently, obtaining a federal visa popular among Park City's foreign seasonal workers through the State Department-overseen Exchange Visitor Program.
Foreign workers across Park City are enrolled in the program, which grants them what are known as J-1 visas. The workers are seen as important to the ski season economy as they increase the pool of potential employees while businesses prepare for the busiest times of the year. Some of the workers holding J-1 visas arrive in Park City from countries in the Southern Hemisphere, following winter to the Northern Hemisphere.
But housing is always tight in Park City during the ski season as the crush of workers arrives, leaving some of the foreigners scrambling for a place to live as they begin work. There has long been a danger of falling victim to some sort of housing scam, sometimes before they even arrive in the U.S.
Lynn Ware Peek, a member of the Park City Council, recently described a case involving a suspected scam that targeted the Argentinians, as it was recounted to her. Peek, speaking during a City Council meeting, said the couple started the search for a rental in June. She said they worried some of the listings were scams and did not forward a deposit on those places. They eventually found housing and moved to Park City.
"They settled on a house that was promised, you know, a bedroom, and it's very quiet and cleanliness is very important. And when they arrived it was 14 kids in three bedrooms in the basement. And the bedroom that this couple got was actually a utility closet that had no heat," Ware Peek said she was told.
The couple became sick after moving in, she said. Ware Peek said she found a place for the couple to stay, with a friend of hers who was leaving for the holidays. Ware Peek said she described the scenario to others, prompting them to wonder about the business that employs the foreigners. She said the couple works for an unspecified business that Ware Peek described as one of the largest employers in Park City.
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"These people who are coming, sometimes for the first time leaving their own country, they've never even been to this country before. They're showing up as 19-, 20-year-olds on their summer break. And they get here and they get scammed," she said.
Seasonal housing in Park City has long been one of the business community's challenges. Park City's housing market, the most expensive in the state, makes it difficult for many rank-and-file workers to live locally. The employers must then offer wages that are enticing enough to attract commuters from the Heber City area and the Salt Lake Valley. Some of the largest employers may offer housing benefits or incentives, but medium and smaller businesses — the vast majority in Park City — typically do not offer such benefits.
"I went out to my community of people and told the story, And each time I told the story, they said, whoever I was talking to, they said who are these kids working for and why aren't their employers helping them," she said.
The comments from Ware Peek spurred a brief discussion by the other elected officials about housing, the danger of housing scams and the broad ideal of the responsibility of providing housing. The elected officials at the recent meeting were not scheduled to discuss the topic in any depth. The City Councilors, though, indicated they want to address the topic again with a detailed discussion. It appears a future discussion could touch on City Hall's own housing programs and any efforts that are made to guard against housing scams. Ware Peek acknowledged it is not City Hall's responsibility to solve housing issues but questioned what steps businesses are taking. She also wondered how many seasonal workers are employed in Park City. Ware Peek also said City Hall's programs address year-round housing issues rather than seasonal ones.
"How many rooms can we guarantee are safe, sound, actually there, not a scam? What are we doing as a community?" Ware Peek also said.
Another member of the City Council, Tim Henney, noted City Hall itself has developed housing for seasonal transit workers. He said the municipal government is "trying to show by leadership and set a good example for other employers." He did not appear to support a broadened municipal role, though.
"But I think this is a huge issue. And if we take it on it won't be borne by the people who should actually be responsible for it, so we need to make sure that message is heard loud and clear," Henney said.