Christen Johnson moved to Jackson,Wyoming, so she could spend as much time as possible on her snowboard. She’s lived in Jackson off and on for the last two years, but she had to leave town recently. When I met her, she was living in Curtis Canyon, a free campsite a few miles outside of Jackson.
Johnson works in town as a cocktail waitress, but her home is an old Econoline van. She’s always looking for a place, but her housing budget is $650 a month. Around here, that doesn’t buy much.
“There are options that come up, but most of the time they are too expensive,” she says.
Even if she found a place she could afford, she might not be able to keep it.
“I’ve had a lot friends move out of their places because the landlord wants to up rent now, because there is such a high need,” Johnson says.
Struggling to find a room is pretty common in Western resort towns like Jackson, Sun Valley and Aspen. But lately, a stronger economy and the popularity of house sharing sites like Airbnb make finding a place almost impossible.
For seasonal workers like Johnson, that means a summer in Jackson is a summer outdoors. For local business owners, it means a whole lot of “help wanted” ads.
“Friday is usually our busiest day of the week,” says Chris Hansen, owner of Caldera’s Pizza in downtown Jackson. “And right now, every day is Friday.”
Hansen is sort of the old model around here — he came west as a ski bum after college in the ’90s and stuck around. He says when he needed to grow his staff over the summer, he used to rely on college kids. Lately, that’s been difficult.
“Anytime somebody gets in touch with me who isn’t here already I always ask them, ‘Do you have housing right now?’ If their answer is ‘No,’ I always say ‘Come see me when you have housing,'” Hansen says.
This search for staff at Caldera’s Pizza has taken Hansen all the way across the Atlantic to the countries of the former Soviet Union.
“A little tiny small country between Romania and Ukraine,” is how Nina Maico describes Moldova, her home country, over the din of Caldera’s.
Maico is one of Chris Hansen’s top servers this summer. To be fair, she’s a college student, too — that’s why she was able to qualify for the J1 Visa program, which brings international college students to the U.S. to work for a season. Crucial in a place like this, J1 students’ contracts almost always include housing as part of the deal.
Maico says she loves getting to work in the States, even if waiting tables here is a little different than in her home country.
“You don’t even introduce yourself. ‘Hi, what do you like? OK, bye.’ Done. Here, you kind of have a dialogue, because its in your interest, you know? Otherwise you are not going to make money.”
Robin Lerner helps oversee the J1 Visa Exchange Program at the State Department. She says the reason you usually see Eastern Europeans when you’re checking out at the grocery store or grabbing a drink is because their summer break generally aligns with ours. Lerner says big resorts in towns like Jackson love the program.
“Any place where you have one season you are going to see such a need that it goes beyond what can be fulfilled by the local population,” Lerner says.
Back at her campsite, Christen Johnson is packed up and ready for work. She says that car camping is good for now, but it isn’t really a choice.
“If I just decide I don’t want to do it anymore: tough luck, you know?,” says Johnson with a shrug. “I don’t really have another option other than leaving.”
Johnson says she might not come back next year. That would leave one really great summer job open — if you can find a place to stay.
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