Snow storm underscores dire need for on-site employee housing
In addition to highlighting our beautiful mountain landscape, this week’s snowstorm outlined, in stark relief, the community’s affordable housing shortage.
As the storm relentlessly pounded Park City early in the week and travel became treacherous, many local employers looked around their workplaces with alarm.
Key employees were missing.
For most of the day on Monday, Dec. 14, Interstate 80 over Parley’s Summit, was closed to vehicles without chains or four-wheel drive. Here at The Park Record four employees who live in Salt Lake City were unable to come to work.
Winter subsided briefly but returned with a vengeance this week. Tuesday, Dec. 22, at the end of the day, U.S. 40 between Park City and Heber — another major artery for local employees — closed temporarily due to drifting snow and slide-offs. That made it hard for hundreds of Wasatch County-bound day shift employees to get home and for evening shift workers to clock in.
Also, throughout the week, traffic has been significantly delayed during the morning commutes on State Roads 224 and 248 — Park City’s two lifelines to the outside world due to the sheer number of people trying to punch in at work or make the first chairlift.
As a result, businesses have been hamstrung trying to keep operations running smoothly during one of the busiest times of the year.
But traffic is just the visible manifestation of a larger problem. The increased volume of traffic is inextricably intertwined with the fact the community, as a destination resort town with a huge seasonal surge of visitors and voracious appetite for service workers, has failed to develop the infrastructure to house a viable workforce close to where it is needed.
In short, we snoozed. We paid for countless studies that warned about the need for worker housing, we talked the talk but did not walk the walk.
While there have been sporadic efforts to create employee housing (kudos to Park City Municipal for its housing project for transit workers and to developer Mark Fischer for completing an affordable housing project long before it was required), many businesses have found ways to skirt the inevitable housing shortage, mostly by importing workers from the Salt Lake Valley and Wasatch County.
The city and the county, too, have contributed to the problem. They have been lax in enforcing affordable housing requirements. That is due in part to the fluctuating economy but also to an unsupportive state legislature that has, in the past, challenged local authority to impose housing requirements on new developers.
As a result, local businesses have become overly dependent on out-of-town workers who, in severe weather, face dangerous commutes and for work and even in good weather add to the traffic congestion that may eventually dissuade visitors from returning to our resorts.
Here is what we need to do:
The city and the county should review and beef up affordable housing requirements for new commercial developments. That will entail lobbying the state Legislature to give our community more local control.
Local officials should also stop allowing businesses and developers to buy their way out of building onsite housing and instead create incentives for including diverse housing elements in all new projects.
New housing requirements should also address seasonal workers who compete for affordable slots with and threaten to displace equally essential year round employees. That should include on-site dormitory-style housing for resort workers.
Yes, making a commitment to create a full palette of affordable housing for year round and seasonal workers — is an expensive undertaking. But doing nothing could permanently hobble our vibrant, resort-based economy.