As housing shortages hit North Idaho, some employers look to build their own employee housing as another way to secure staff

click to enlarge The Ponderay Apartments are expected to start taking tenants by summer of 2023. - RENDERING COURTESY OF SCHWEITZER
Rendering Courtesy of Schweitzer
The Ponderay Apartments are expected to start taking tenants by summer of 2023.

There's a similar story playing across the American West: A small, picturesque mountain town gets discovered by wealthy patrons, drawn by natural beauty and opportunities for winter recreation. Those wealthy patrons purchase second homes and short-term rentals that can be used as Airbnbs. Real estate prices skyrocket, and locals get priced out. All of a sudden, the restaurants, ski resorts and other amenities that drew those wealthy patrons can't find workers, because those workers can't afford homes.

The story is nothing new for larger mountain towns like Aspen and Vail, which have struggled with exorbitant home prices and a scarce workforce for more than a decade. But in recent years, the crunch has spread to smaller mountain communities like Bonner County in North Idaho, home of Schweitzer ski resort.

Dennison Webb, who directs a nonprofit outdoor leadership program in Bonner County, says the rising prices have had a significant impact on local families and the businesses that employ them. Webb's non-profit, Selkirk Outdoor Leadership and Education, raised wages by almost 40 percent in a single year and is still having trouble filling positions.

"More and more people are becoming aware and concerned about what's happening, because it's going to turn into Aspen," Webb says. "It's not going to be good if we don't get a handle on it."

Local leaders in Bonner County have been exploring a variety of solutions, including Culver's Crossing, a proposed affordable housing development designed specifically for locals who have been priced out of the market. In the short term, some businesses have looked to address the problem head on: If your employees can't find housing, why not just build it for them?

Ski resorts in larger towns 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 invest in employee housing as well, says Scot Auld, human resources director for Schweitzer.

Over the past two or three years, Auld says the resort has seen regular employees leave because they couldn't afford housing, and some new recruits have been forced to turn down offers because they couldn't find anywhere to live.

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

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

The workforce shortage has hit other industries in Bonner County, and some businesses are looking at Schweitzer's employee housing as a potential solution.

"There's a lot of interest from other employers and recruiters in the Sandpoint area to do something similar because everybody is feeling the same pinch," Auld says.

Schweitzer's 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 that usually employs around 20 to 25 people. Even with good benefits and wages, he says the lack of affordable housing has made it difficult for him to retain workers.

Geiger owns property and has considered developing it into something he could rent to employees. But with construction materials and building costs almost 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 that has property like I do."

Geiger isn't alone in his hesitation. In a July survey administered by the City of Sandpoint, several local businesses said they had looked into buying a house to rent to employees, but were unable to because of high prices.

"We have looked into building a small apartment complex, but the cost of land, permits, impact fees and materials is too expensive," wrote one business owner.

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

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

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The Bonner Community Housing Agency has been working on a variety of programs to alleviate the region's housing woes. One tool, says Executive Director Rob Hart, is the employer-directed workforce housing program, which involves meeting with employers and showing them the benefits and process of building housing to 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 both employers and employees.

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

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

"We have to be careful [because] there is some negative history with it, but we're in a housing crisis right now," Hart says.

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

"Anytime that employers are also involved in the housing side of people's lives, there are going to be some challenges as well," Auld says. "We know that going into this, but we also understand that it's something we have to do because of the current situation."

Hart has met with numerous local employers in North Idaho but struggled to convince them to take the plunge and start building. The main problem is a lack of land, but there are also fiscal hurdles that make many businesses hesitate.

Webb, the director of the nonprofit outdoor education program, continues to look for solutions to his employee's housing problems. His long-term vision is to buy land near his organization's headquarters and build a field campus to house staff members and students. But for an organization of his size, the costs of land and materials are still far out of reach.

Webb says he's glad Schweitzer is building housing for their employees, he just wishes it was a solution his organization could afford.

"Must be nice," he says. ♦

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