Affordable housing crisis in Tahoe

It’s an employer's nightmare.

Help Wanted - image: Brenda Gottsablend, cc 2.0

Workforce housing at Lake Tahoe: It’s hard to find, it’s way too expensive, and it sometimes leaves 30 somethings stuffed together with a bunch of roommates like they are back in college.  Long term rental housing has been a problem for those who live and work in Tahoe for decades, but it was exasperated by Covid, and the subsequent real estate boom was caused when many Bay Area folks moved to the mountains because they no longer had to work in the city.

While the long term rental crisis surely affects those who can’t find a place to live the most, it also has a direct impact on businesses and the entire community. One type of business especially hit hard are restaurants which are limiting hours because they can’t find employees. This is during a time when businesses are facing losses incurred during Covid shutdowns, as well as the devastating impact of smoke and forest closures over the last two years. 

Chris Taylor is the general manager (and he says dishwasher extraordinaire) of the Tahoe Tap Haus at The Cobblestone in Tahoe City. The restaurant’s site just across the highway from Lake Tahoe should induce relaxation, but instead these days Taylor finds himself frequently fighting off panic attacks when he thinks about trying to find enough employees. While Taylor sees a steady supply of applications from out of the area people looking for work, he knows that an employee isn’t an employee until they have a place to live. In fact, the essential strategy at Tahoe is to find a place to live, and then you will have no trouble finding a place to work. 

“There is no fast way out of this situation we are in. It’s a long term struggle. I wake up and start thinking if one of my people goes down, what will I do?” said Taylor.  

In the meantime, Taylor’s response to the crisis is to cut back on hours and change the setup of his operation. Tahoe Tap Haus went to counter service instead of waiting tables, which reduces the flow of tickets to the back of the house. They also adjusted the distribution of tipping to provide a higher percentage of tips to the cooks and folks in the back, who are the essential cog and toughest people to replace.  

“It’s insane, the hardest part is having to work hands-on so much. I’m on the line nearly every single day,” said Taylor.  

Max Jones owns Tunnel Creek Cafe and Flume Trail Bikes at the start of the East Shore Trail in Incline Village. While he has had fairly good luck keeping employees for the bike shop, the restaurant is a constant struggle. 

“We’ve had a fair number of employees move to Carson,” said Jones. In fact, all but two employees live out of the basin. “You have to bump up the pay for the drive, but some have still left the cafe, they got jobs elsewhere.” That 45-minute commute over busy Highway 28 can get old pretty fast. In the winter there is the snow, and in the summer the road is crowded with beachgoers tightly parked on both sides of the road.  

Like Taylor, Jones says his biggest challenge is finding cooks. “If we had more cooks we could stay open more hours,” said Jones. Which is a problem since given the boom-bust cycle of business at Tahoe, you need to be open longer hours when the customers are there in the summer. Being right on the bike trail, the cafe is very busy in the summer but had to change the menu so they could get food items out quicker, and with less staff. 

While providing housing for employees is certainly an option for larger businesses, it is more of a challenge for smaller ones. “We almost bought a place a few years ago.  A little condo to offer to year long employees. It would have been a good investment,” said Jones. But that was before the price of housing went way up making that option much less affordable. Another idea he has looked into is carpooling or transporting employees up from Carson, but given the small size of his operation and the different work schedules of his employees, that wasn’t a feasible option either. 

Finding and keeping good employees is not only a problem for private businesses but public agencies as well. The Tahoe City Public Utility District has 53 full time employees, and adds on over 50 seasonal employees in the summer for their extensive list of recreational programs. “The last couple of years it’s been a challenge to find enough folks, primarily that is because of housing,” said Sean Barclay TCPUD General Manager. “People who used to work with us routinely have moved away.” 

“Housing is the most acute issue for our sailing program, which is popular,” said Barclay. “We have recruited sailing instructors from the east coast. It’s a nice place for them to come and stay the summer. But now, they can’t find a place to live. We have adapted our practices, and now ask right away, have you looked at housing before we get involved in the conversation?”

Barclay says he is fortunate in regards to full-time hiring, as they have a good pool of local candidates, that have worked at the district for years. But still “over 50% commute from Reno or surrounding areas. I commute and have been doing it for 14 years.” The PUD has had to adapt to this reality. Barclay says they invested in equipment that allows for a longer response time for emergencies because so many of the people who need to respond live an hour away. 

Melissa Siig is one of the owners of the Tahoe Art Haus Cinema in Tahoe City. She has had success finding local high school kids to work part time at night, but it has been more of a challenge finding employees over 21 that can sell alcohol. Like all of the people I spoke to, she said you are not sure you have an employee until they have a place to live. “It’s a crisis here. There is not a business here that is not feeling it. But there are no easy solutions. We have to think creatively and out of the box,” Siig said. 

Local governments and non-profit organizations are aware of the problem. One group, the Mountain Housing Council, has been working on solutions for several years. “Our local employers are struggling to hire and retain employees due to the housing crisis”, said Tara Zuardo, Program Director for the Mountain Housing Council. “We’re seeing businesses reducing their operating hours and/or days because they don’t have all of the employees needed to operate on a regular basis. As a result, we’ve formed a working group of Mountain Housing Council partners to strategize solutions, and we plan to meet regularly every month, in order to provide the attention this issue deserves.”

Aside from employers and small businesses we all feel the lack of housing. You feel it when a restaurant you want to go to has more limited hours and had to change the way they do business because of a lack of employees. You feel it when the prices those restaurants charge have increased because they are having to pay more for labor. You feel it when service businesses you count on close because they can’t find employees and the owners are just too burned out to work seven days a week anymore. 

Here in Tahoe City, last summer one visible impact of the housing crisis happened when the main pharmacist left CVS, the only pharmacy in town. For several months there were days with no pharmacist or they were so backed up it caused long delays, which of course could have a dramatic impact on people who depend upon medication. The problem was not finding pharmacists, it was finding places for them to live. 

In many ways we not only feel the impact of the problem, but we are part of the problem. While I was waiting in line for a prescription at CVS I heard griping from the second home owners here for the summer complaining that they have to wait in line, and why can’t they get employees. Well the answer is because there is no place to live because so many homes are occupied by new residents who don’t work in the community, second-home owners, and vacation renters. 

Here are a few ways people in the Tahoe region can help. This is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote for the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation: 

Give to the TTCF Housing Solutions Fund. It will leverage your resources to create projects such as the Artist Loft and other on the ground housing solutions, providing badly needed housing for those who work in our communities. Link: ttcf.net/impact-areas/housing/

Convert your second home or vacation rental property into a long term rental. Then choose a local resident as your tenant. 

Are you a long term renter? Keep your credit in order and take extra good care of the property you are renting. Not only will this give you the good reference you need to find a new place if the property you are living in sells, but in recent years some precious long term rentals have been taken off the rental market after they have been poorly treated by tenants. 

If you are an employer and have the wherewithal to do so, consider providing housing for your employees. For larger companies creating on-site housing projects can ensure that you will have satisfied employees. For smaller companies, investing in a house or duplex can allow you to keep a key employee. 

Could a portion of your home or garage be converted to a long term rental unit? Many Tahoe locals are tired of cramming into a three-bedroom house with five friends and would love to rent a small studio or one bedroom. 

Are you a developer or builder? Consider creating smaller, less expensive residences for your next project. 

And finally, urge your local government agencies to make affordable housing a top priority in their decision making. While funding is great, equally important is eliminating onerous bureaucratic red tape that can add so much cost and time to a project it makes it infeasible. 

https://www.ttcf.net/housing/how-we-can-get-ourselves-out-of-this-housing-crisis/


Tim Hauserman is a nearly life-long resident of North Lake Tahoe. He wrote the official guide to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the recently published 4th edition. He also wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children and writes frequently on a variety of topics. In the winter, he runs the Strider Glider after school program at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area. Support his work in the Ally.


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