Idaho employers building resort housing

Catie Clark//March 29, 2022

Idaho employers building resort housing

Catie Clark//March 29, 2022

Some Idaho employers are building, leasing and renting housing for their employees who are priced out of the state’s runaway housing market. This phenomenon is currently taking place in Idaho’s resort communities, since local businesses cannot survive without clerical personnel, ski lift operators or housekeeping staff. The Idaho Business Review (IBR) uncovered one unexpected result while documenting this trend, namely that there even some highly paid professionals who cannot find affordable housing in Idaho’s resort areas.

Artist's rendering of the Bluebird Workforce Housing project in Ketchum.
Artist’s rendering of the Bluebird Workforce Housing project in Ketchum. Image courtesy of the City of Ketchum.

Resort areas losing labor

Because both houses and apartments are now too expensive for most low-income and middle-income households, some of Idaho’s resort area employers are providing housing for their employees. This trend extends beyond the hospitality and tourism sector to other resort area employers. Even before the pandemic, Teton County documented workers turning down jobs with the local hospital, school district, fire district and county government due to a lack of affordable housing.

Another example: the resort area facilities of the St. Luke’s Health System, which is the largest hospital operator and the largest employer in the state. St. Luke’s responding to the housing crisis gained national coverage in Becker’s Hospital Review, the nation’s leading hospital publication.

The IBR asked Amber Green, chief operating officer and chief nursing officer (COO/CNO) of St. Luke’s McCall Medical Center (SLMC), how many people had turned down offers to work at the hospital because of housing. Green replied that: “It’s honestly hard to determine how many people, as they don’t always give us an answer for declining a position…I would say one to two offers per week that we make to individuals could potentially be related back to the housing difficulties and the inability for them to find housing or affordable housing in McCall.”

We asked the same question to Scott Turlington, CEO of Tamarack Resort. He answered: “I don’t know the exact number, but I can tell you it’s happened more than folks think. In fact, in the last 30 or 45 days, we ran into that exact scenario where they couldn’t afford it. We’ve also had a scenario where we had employees that were renting units out in the community. And the owners of those units came in and said, ‘We can sell this and make more money, so we’re going to terminate the lease and then sell this place.’ And that created (a) problem for the renter. So we’ve seen both of those examples.”

The Wood River Valley, home to the resort communities of Ketchum and Sun Valley, could be the poster child for losing local labor due to housing unaffordability. Joy Prudek, public relations manager for St. Luke’s Wood River (SLWR) in Ketchum, outlined how the problem even extends to temporary health care professionals known as “travelers.”

SLWR has had to hire travelers to fill gaps in its care provider staff. As Prudek explained: “Given the recruiting difficulties at SLWR, we are now routinely extending traveler contracts for additional time. Furthermore, we are seeing an increase in our travelers declining work offers due to lack of housing as well.”

Almita Nunnelee, COO/CNO of SLWR, expanded on how the impact of housing unaffordability has extended beyond the Wood River Valley and involves even the best-compensated professionals: “We do have some candidates accept positions and then realize they cannot find a place to live and consequently rescind their acceptance. If candidates are not local, we are experiencing them declining interviews or decline coming on site because of housing. We don’t get a large number of candidates for positions in (the) Wood River (area), so the numbers aren’t ‘high,’ but the impact is substantial.”

Nunnelee added: “The same problem exists in Twin Falls/Jerome; actually, across our entire health system. Cost and supply of housing is an issue…It has been challenging for RN’s (registered nurses), managers of clinical and non-clinical departments, respiratory therapists, etc., to relocate here because of the cost of housing or lack of available housing. Now we are beginning to see physicians decline to interview or come here as well.”

Innovating housing solutions

Some employers are building their own housing for staff members. Grand Targhee Resort opened dormitory-style housing in Driggs for its employees in 2020 in response to the disappearance of affordable rentals in Teton County. Another resort building its own housing is Tamarack Resort. Turlington told the IBR: “We’ve always known that we needed to build the housing for employees, so it’s been on our radar…We were going to start with only 64 beds, but we understand there’s a greater need now. So we’re going to double that and go with 128 beds for phase one.”

Brundage Mountain Resort near McCall took a different approach by working with other area businesses to make housing available. April Whitney, the marketing and communications manager at Brundage, related: “We first started providing employee housing in 2017 through a partnership with Shore Lodge. They have a considerable amount of housing and they use more in the summer, less in the winter. So we created a partnership with them for them to house some of our employees in the winter, in their facilities. And since that time, we’ve been adding housing in additional locations, some of it owned; some of it rented.”

Brundage currently houses 40 employees every winter but is looking to expand that to 100. Whitney said that the resort has several plans in progress to provide more housing both in the long-term and the short-term. “You can’t afford not to invest in employee housing,” Whitney stated. She also indicated that the resort plans to announce a new housing initiative sometime in the near future.

SLWR also followed a partnership route with the ARCH Community Housing Trust, and the SLWR Foundation. The partnership is building 12 units of housing in Hailey and Bellevue, with SLWR and the SLWR Foundation funding the construction and ARCH providing the land and the construction supervision. In contrast to the dorm or bunkhouse style accommodations at seasonal resorts, the SLWR housing will all be single-family homes that the health system will lease to its employees.

Green told the IBR that SLMC recently bought a duplex to help address housing concerns. SLMC has also leased a house close to the hospital. “We currently own another home in which we’ve divided those rooms out. It gives us 12 rooms that we use for employee housing that can be used for travelers or agency staff that are here for 13-week contracts,” Green explained.

Green added that SLMC is pursuing more ways to provide housing in the McCall area: “Currently, we are looking and talking to other local stakeholders about buying land or buildings or other opportunities where we could potentially build, rent or purchase buildings…to provide opportunities for better employee housing. Those options are always on the table for us, and we’re actively pursuing them.”