No Room at the Inn For Ski Resort Workers

PAULA LASHLEY blew into this Colorado ski town with the idea of viewing 14,000-foot mountain peaks from her living room window. She never imagined she'd have to climb over half a dozen roommates to do it.

Ms. Lashley spent her first year in Breckenridge in the only housing she could afford, as one of seven tenants in a four-bedroom, $1,600-a-month condominium.

In the eyes of Breckenridge's land developers, Lashley is one of the little people. She takes home less than $25,000 a year as manager of a shop on the town's Main Street, where land sells for $40 to $50 a square foot. Three blocks away, carpenters are finishing condos priced at $389,000 and up.

In the last two years, low interest rates, combined with an influx of new residents, have driven up the already pricey housing here. In fact, the jet-set gentrification of Colorado's ski towns poses a serious challenge for area businesses and their employees: Cheap housing has become almost as scarce as Sasquatch.

The mystique of living in the mountains, along with the lack of flat land to build on, ensures that ski-town housing costs continue to climb. Hardest hit is Aspen, where a 2,000-square-foot house sells for an average $1.3 million. When developers can command prices like that, they have few reasons to build low-cost housing for workers.

But Lashley and her fellow workers are vital to the economy of this town, built 135 years ago by gold miners and rebuilt in the 1960s by tourism. Local newspapers carry a page and a half of ads looking for people willing to work for an average of $7 an hour.

Many local employers find the only workers willing to put up with sleeping four (or more) to a room are illegal immigrants. Lashley says her store, which employs seven, has a complete turnover every season.

Breckenridge doesn't have enough permanent residents to keep the town's economy operating during ski season. But so far, illegal workers have not been as prevalent in Breckenridge as in the resorts at Vail and Aspen.

Ryan Malloy, former manager of Aspen's Chart House Restaurant, estimates the number of illegal laborers in Aspen at 40 percent. He says the town that locals derisively dub "glitter gulch" is not only attractive to Mexican and Central American workers, but Europeans and Australians as well.

Last year, Gov. Roy Romer (D) called for tying ski resorts' expansion plans to a requirement to build employee housing also.

Aspen is one of the few Colorado ski towns with such a stipulation. Twenty-five percent of Aspen's 6,500 residents make less than $25,000 a year. The housing office not only buys land and constructs housing but is also backed by an army of regulations.

For instance, Aspen has a metro area affordable housing zone district, where some 60 low-income units are built each year.

Housing office executive director Dave Tolen says that more than 300 people have applied to buy into a new development with 11 studio apartments priced at $65,000 each and 16 one-bedroom apartments offered at $125,000. The homes may only be sold to employees who work at least 30 hours a week and nine months out of the year.

Despite the efforts, Aspen is able to house only about 40 percent of its employees in town, Mr. Tolen says. The rest commute as many as 30 miles along icy mountain roads.

Breckenridge and the other towns began seriously addressing the lack of employee housing two years ago, when they decided to fund a housing authority. But its budget is relatively small. The problem, says housing authority administrator Ellyn Jackson, is that her office is more of a facilitator than a builder.

Breckenridge Town Manager Gary Martinez says his town is trying to make construction of low-income housing more attractive to developers by offering water and sewer hookups at reduced costs. Breckenridge is also overseeing construction of a low-income housing project on town land. The 74-unit complex is scheduled to be ready for occupancy next fall.

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