In the Western wilderness, crowds of vacation renters are pricing out locals
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Tiffany Hopkins grew up in a few of the small towns that dot the remote landscape near Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. She’s worked in the local service industry for years — bartender, restaurant manager, server. Hopkins loves the wild beauty of the desert.
“I always tell people, ‘Drive into the national park and literally look up at midnight … there’s no sky like this sky,’” she said.
At work, she talks to a lot of tourists, who’ve come to hike in the boulder fields and Instagram the cactus gardens and shaggy Joshua trees. Visitors have arrived in record numbers in many of the last few years.
But all those Insta likes have side effects for locals like Hopkins. This fall, Hopkins got notice that her lease wouldn’t be renewed. She and her 12-year-old son have to move out of their triplex in Yucca Valley. That will cost her.
“Oh, my God, what am I going to do? What am I going to do?” Hopkins said. “I have no savings. I have to save $2,200, essentially, to move out. And I have about $600 in my bank account.”
For years, affordable housing near many national parks and other outdoor destinations has been hard to find. But since the pandemic began, shortages of long-term housing in some of these rural communities have gotten worse. That’s in part because many long-term rentals that once housed locals have been converted into short-term rentals for vacationers.
It’s a trend happening in recreation wonderlands across the West — from Moab, Utah, to Bend, Oregon, and Joshua Tree. Hopkins has heard that her triplex will become a short-term rental after she moves out. Hopkins’ son, Kutter, is autistic, and she said change is hard on him. She’s a single mom, doing this alone; her ex-husband and the father of her son died last year.
Joshua Tree relies on tourism dollars, but the vacation rental market is pricing some locals out of long-term rentals.
“We’re not against tourism,” Hopkins said. “What we’re against is us getting overran and then having no options because people want to just cash in. It’s not fair to people that have been here for their whole lives.”
Short-term rentals on the rise near many national parks
Marketplace analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau and from AirDNA, a website that provides short-term rental data and analytics.
In and around Joshua Tree, there are about 4,000 housing units — with more than 1,100 short-term rentals in the area. That means roughly a quarter of all local housing stock is now set aside for vacationers.
Marketplace also looked at communities near the most visited national parks in the Western United States and saw an increase in vacation rentals between 2019 and 2021.
“There was a significant shortage of affordable rental housing in these areas, even before the pandemic,” said Andrew Aurand with the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Aurand said the shortage is acute in tourist areas that rely on low-wage service workers. “There's not the housing that's affordable for people working in those jobs.”
Airbnb is the listing service for the majority of the vacation rentals near Joshua Tree. In an email to Marketplace, Airbnb called short-term rentals “a tool for economic empowerment that helps families participate in these regions’ long-standing tourism economies.”
Some communities now regulate the licensing or density of vacation rentals — like Bend, Oregon, or Summit County, Colorado. San Bernardino County, where Joshua Tree is located, regulates things like noise and management. Joshua Tree itself, a community of about 8,000, is unincorporated — there’s no town council or mayor, which is common in rural areas.
“In many rural communities there is not as much regulation,” said Lance George with the Housing Assistance Council, a nonprofit focused on rural housing. “Which, in many respects, is probably going to mean less protections for renters.”
George added that housing affordability is as much of an issue in rural settings as it is in urban ones. Housing supply in rural areas can be limited, for one. Wages also tend to be lower. “And those combined can ... oftentimes lead to affordability pressures for rural renters," he said.
So in Joshua Tree, some locals are taking things into their own hands.
“This is the Wild, Wild West,” said one Joshua Tree resident and local business owner who has a small compound of retrofitted airstreams and trailers that he rents to five locals at below-market rates — from $350 to $500 a month.
Marketplace is not using the property owner’s name, because he says these dwellings are not legal. They’re situated on his property down a sandy dirt road, next to his own cabin, an elaborate cactus garden and composting toilets.
The property owner says he was lucky to buy this land for cheap decades ago, and he now wants to give back to help preserve the unique character of this place. “It just solves, you know, a small piece of the housing problem, but I'm doing what I can do,” he said.
Back in Yucca Valley, after a stressful couple of weeks, Tiffany Hopkins heard from a former landlord who got word about Hopkins’ predicament.
“Super sweet lady,” Hopkins said. “And she was like, 'Hey, I have a unit coming up open if you want it.'”
If she didn’t have strong local connections from all the years she's lived here, Hopkins believes she wouldn’t have found a place.
Hopkins will pay more rent, but she said it means everything to be able to stay in this valley. Her son loves his teachers, and Hopkins has had a rough year after the death of her ex, so friends check in.
“That's what we do here — we watch out for each other,” Hopkins said. “The community is amazing.”
That’s what’s at risk when the rental market caters to people who are just passing through, she said. In this beautiful, wild landscape, it’s her neighbors who make it home.
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