Park City housing remains a frustrating problem
James Norris had been in the United States all of three days when he walked into the Christian Center of Park City’s Roommate Roundup last week. A 22-year-old New Zealander, Norris said he came to Park City for one reason.
"To ski, ideally," he said. " But obviously I’ve got a job, which means I can afford to come and ski here. But yeah, I’ve just heard it’s a good place to come and ski. And it’s a good area to be based in for the skiing all around this area. That was it, really."
Norris said he has experience with seasonal work, having done it three times before — two seasons in Canada and one in Japan. Park City is different, though.
"Most places I’ve gone to housing has been quite easy," he said. "I’ve never had anything like this before. Employee housing has always been available. But often, you don’t even need it. Employee housing is your backup because you can get better housing on your own if you want. Whereas Park City, it’s just yeah."
Norris said he stayed in Salt Lake City his first couple of days but quickly realized that would be untenable. The bus to Park City does not fit with his work schedule.
"I’d have to get up here early but I don’t start work until three o’clock," he said. "And then I finish work at, like, 10, so I won’t be able to catch the bus home. It’s tricky."
Even as someone without housing and used to better accommodations in other ski towns, Norris said he was sympathetic to Park City’s business community.
"I understand they can’t all afford to have housing for their staff," he said. "I imagine the real estate must be pretty expensive here."
Of course, none of this is news to Jenny Mauer, who runs the Roommate Roundup for the Christian Center. Every Tuesday from mid-November through the end of December, the Christian Center hosts a gathering of seasonal workers looking for housing and landlords looking for tenants. Mauer, director of programs and volunteers at the Center, said the issue of finding housing for seasonal workers gets more complicated the more you dig into it. In addition to American seasonal workers, you also have foreign workers on J-1 "cultural and educational exchange" visas. Often they are South Americans here on their summer break, Mauer said.
"They are here for an experience," she said. "A lot of them are going to school to become doctors, or engineers, and they’re here for their summer. So yeah, they are here to work, but ultimately it’s not really about making money. It’s just about having a good American experience.
"They want to practice their English, they want to ski – I think there is a misconception there. Because a lot of our American seasonal workers, they come here to ski. And they will live in their car. They just want to ski."
Mauer said J-1s are usually only here until about mid-March, whereas Americans might be willing to stay six months or even decide they like it in Park City and want to stay.
"There are a lot of different reasons people come, and I say all that to make the point that with housing, you need a diverse range of options to fit all those needs," Mauer said.
When the Christian Center staff heard about Vail Resorts’ pledge to build housing for its employees, she said they were hopeful. They even have a wish list.
"In an ideal world you have dormitories, on the bus line, furnished," she said.
Mauer said demand for housing from seasonal workers has remained steady in the three years she has been involved with the Roommate Roundup, though she added they are trying to attract more homeowners with rooms — or even entire homes — to rent to help meet that demand.
"We’re reaching out to homeowners, saying, hey, rent a spare bedroom," she said. "People just need a safe place to sleep. We also have a lot of second homeowners here. So, we might get five girls from Turkey here and they all want to live together. Well, if we can secure them a house and split the rent five ways it will work."
What is really frustrating, Mauer said, is when foreign workers show up at the Christian Center without housing already arranged. They are supposed to have a room secured before they arrive, she said, but that is often not the case.
"They are supposed to place J-1s in housing before they come. On paper, that is supposed to be how it works," she said. "What we’ve seen, and what we’re trying to get across to the State Department, is that’s not what is actually happening. The workers are somehow showing up a week before their job starts, and they have nothing, and they don’t know where to start.
"We’ve had people show up in our lobby directly from the airport, suitcases in hand, and say, ‘I’m here. They told me to come here.’ Who? Who told you that?"
It’s a frustrating few weeks every winter, Mauer said, because all the parties involved know about the problem but not much seems to be getting done to improve it. Deer Valley Resort offers employee housing, but they can’t accommodate everyone, Mauer said. Deer Valley Director of Human Resources Stacey Taylor said the resort maintains two properties in Park City and one in Heber City, for a total of 340 beds. Taylor said new employees are told about the difficulty of finding housing in Park City.
"We make it very clear to staff that they should line up housing prior to arriving," she said. "We also encourage them to apply for our employee housing even if they hope to find someplace else, as it ensures that they have a place to sleep in case that ‘someplace’ doesn’t pan out."
Taylor said Deer Valley’s employee housing has sold out the past two seasons.
"We anticipate that the need for additional employee housing will continue," she said.
Some of the fault, Mauer added, lies with the workers themselves, many of whom come to Park City unprepared.
"I think people get frustrated because they expected it to be easier," she said. "Every week we do this it gets a little more panicky. And now we’re in December, and the housing inventory that was there a few weeks ago is for-sure rented.
"One of the first things I tell people is, get the idea that you’re going to find a studio apartment on Main Street for $500 out of your head."
After mingling a bit at the Roommate Roundup, talking with other people looking for rooms or roommates, Norris said he is optimistic he will find a place.
"Something will come up," he said. "I think it’s one of those things where people who have houses have lots of options, so they don’t want just anyone to come live with them. And that’s fair enough, I suppose. So that’s why it’s good to come here and meet people, so they can see you and say, ‘oh, this person might be reasonable to live with and whatnot.’"
Norris said he is happy to take whatever he can find. He even snuck in a pitch for himself as a model tenant.
"I’d be happy to stay with a family or something. Anything, really. I’m not fussy," he said. "I’m also pretty good around the house. I wouldn’t be too much of a burden to live with for somebody who does have a small room. I could help with the house.
"I’m sure it will happen. It’s just a matter of how long it takes."
For more information on the Roommate Roundup, visit CCofPC.org or call 435-649-2260.
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The people at the second part of the Park City Future Summit were nearly unanimous in indicating they have some level of concern.