With housing in short supply, some resort towns pay landlords to rent to locals
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Amber Kennedy worked at a pizza shop for the summer last year in Ketchum, Idaho. She was hoping to stick around in the resort town, but other seasonal workers told her and her roommates: “Don’t even try.”
“A lot of our friends worked and lived down here in the winters, and they were like, ‘No. It’s impossible to find housing,’” she said.
But they lucked out. They rented a 3½-bedroom log cabin right in downtown Ketchum, home to the Sun Valley Resort.
“We’re able to walk everywhere — the grocery store, wherever — which has been amazing this winter,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy found her rental through Lease to Locals, a program for property owners with empty houses or Airbnbs. It pays them to rent to local workers.
Now, Kennedy works full time at a real estate firm, while her roommates work at the ski resort in town, a bar and a nonprofit. Jim Slanetz is their landlord and also a City Council member.
“It’s hard to live in a mountain town,” he said. “It’s hard to survive, and it’s hard to find housing.”
Real estate prices in mountain resort towns skyrocketed during the pandemic. Now, these communities are trying to stop the bleed of local workers being priced out. Several are offering cash incentives to get property owners to rent to locals.
Ketchum is spending $500,000 to launch the Lease to Locals incentives. Since the program started last fall, 13 property owners have rented to 23 local workers for a cost to the city of about $3,700 per bedroom.
Slanetz’s home used to be listed on Airbnb part of the year. Now, by renting to four local workers, he gets the monthly rent plus $18,000 from the city. He said it’s a quick fix to the area’s housing shortage.
“You start the program and people are in there within a month or two,” he said.
It’s also cheap compared to building new housing. Ketchum is home to the Sun Valley ski resort, and second-home owners and remote workers flocked to the town when COVID-19 hit. Last year, the median sale price for a house or condo was $1.3 million.
“The common theme is COVID made things worse. We thought it might get better. It’s not getting better,” said Colin Frolich, co-founder of Placemate, the company that runs Lease to Locals.
Sixty communities that are thinking the same thing have asked Frolich about bringing Lease to Locals to their city since it started in Truckee, California, in 2020. Now the program is in five mountain town markets, including Ketchum, and Frolich said it could come to East Coast vacation destinations like Nantucket, Massachusetts, this year.
Even more cities have started similar incentive programs on their own.
Such strategies can be powerful tools for local governments seeking to address a crisis that’s happening right now, said Megan Lawson, an economist at Headwaters Economics. But they probably can’t make up for years of underbuilding.
“They also need to be thinking about long-term housing strategies — ways to increase housing supply for the people who want to live and work in these towns,” Lawson said.
That could include placing deed restrictions on existing housing, so rentals must be offered for longer terms or with price caps. Plus, the Lease to Locals incentives last only a year. Frolich said the hope is that once owners see renting long-term isn’t so bad, they’ll continue.
Slanetz plans to rent his house long-term for another year. He’d like to see employers pay into the program to keep it sustainable.
As for Kennedy and her roommates, they want to stay in Ketchum — as long as they continue to have housing.
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