Park City might get into the rental game to increase housing for workers

Hourly employees must often make long commutes to work in the mountain resort town.

(Sara Tabin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homes in Park City are unaffordable to many hourly workers, so the city is proposing to build rental housing affordable to people who work in the mountain resort town and don't want to commute.

Park City • When Nolan Murray, 25, moved to Park City for a job on the ski patrol, he hoped he would find a place to live near his work.

But as soon as he saw the prices for rental housing, he realized he wasn’t going to be able to afford anything locally. Murray said he considered moving to Salt Lake City, but felt that the daily commute would be dangerous in his old car if there were snowstorms or bad road conditions.

Instead, he has been sleeping in his car. It isn’t the first time Murray has lived out of a car — he previously slept in his vehicle while living in Arizona and fighting forest fires — but Park City’s cold winters make the situation uncomfortable. He tries to make it work by bundling up in a sleeping bag and comforter while parked in an empty business parking lot. He showers at his gym and brushes his teeth when he gets to work. Mornings are the hardest part, according to Murray.

“Once you get out of the sleeping bag, it gets cold,” he said.

Murray’s housing troubles are not unique.

After they clock out, hourly workers in Park City often face a long drive home, as few can afford to live in the mountain resort town. City leaders are hoping to improve the situation by building housing to be rented to such workers. Park City has built affordable housing in the past, but those units were sold instead of being rented.

If the city goes forward with the idea, it might be implemented in the city’s new Arts and Culture District project, where housing is planned on city-owned land along with space for art venues, according to Deputy City Manager David Everitt. He said construction will take at least two years, but there should be 50 to 70 new units when the project is complete. The proposed units will likely be targeted to people who make 60% to 85% of the area median income. Summit County’s median income for a family of four is $95,900.

“[City] Council could adjust those as it sees fit, but that is what we are proposing to hit: the [income and] rental revenue sweet spot,” said Everitt.

Several members of the Park City Council said at a meeting Thursday that they think the plan to build affordable housing units in the Arts and Culture District is too expensive. The cost per unit, accounting for infrastructure like parking and sidewalks, is projected to be $600,000, which would bring the total cost of the housing-related component of the project to just over $30 million. Councilman Tim Henney said he can’t support the project at that price.

Park City currently has $25 million in savings to invest in affordable housing.

Everitt said creating rental housing instead of for-sale housing will help the city get back more money to invest in future housing projects because rentals provide a continuous revenue source.

Housing prices in Park City have skyrocketed over the past few years. City numbers show that the median listing price per square foot was under $675 in July 2016 but close to $850 in September 2020. The pandemic has increased demand for Park City real estate in recent months, driving up housing prices even more, according to Everitt. Home sales rose 62% in Park City in July and August compared to sales at the same time the previous year.

The average hourly worker in Park City makes about $43,000 and would be able to buy a home if it cost $250,000, according to city data. But the average condo in Park City costs $600,000 to $700,000 and the average single-family home costs about $1.8 million, putting ownership far out of reach for hourly workers.

But affordable rental housing is tough, if not impossible, to find.

Along with residential demand, tourism has also reduced the rental housing stock. Park City Affordable Housing Manager Jason Glidden said long-term rental inventory has decreased in Park City because of demand for short-term rentals like those through Airbnb, which often mean bigger profits for landlords.

Scott Loomis, executive director of Mountainlands Community Housing Trust, which runs several affordable housing complexes in Park City targeted to people making 25% to 60% of the area median income, said there is a waiting period of about a year for a unit.

The city hopes that the proposed rental units will be accessible to hourly workers who can’t afford to purchase even subsidized homes.

“No workforce lives in town, not any managers or below because there just aren’t rentals and people are being forced to leave town right now,” said Councilwoman Becca Gerber at a Dec. 15 meeting where the council discussed the idea. “They just move further and further and then you lose them.”

Employees being priced out of town because of housing is a problem for restaurants, according to Allen Galeano, owner of El Chubasco.

“There is not enough housing for employees,” he said. “It’s too expensive for them and they keep on moving away. They move to Heber, which is expensive now, then they move to Midway, where the rents are going up too, so they have to move further and further away to be able to afford the rent.”

One person who has struggled with housing is Park City Christian Center employee Roberto Sosa. He has lived in Park City for five years and currently rents one small room in a house. He said the space is too cramped when his kids come to visit on Fridays and Saturdays, but he can’t afford something bigger.

Sosa said he thinks offering government-owned apartments would be very important for helping more people find affordable housing.

Mayor Andy Beerman said turning the city into a landlord comes with its own set of potential complications. He said at the Dec. 15 meeting that people will come to the city with complaints about their rent, neighbors and other issues and that right now the city would probably be giving free rent to everyone because of the pandemic.

While he recognizes more rental housing is “sorely needed” in Park City, Beerman told The Salt Lake Tribune that he thinks it might be better if another agency like Habitat for Humanity helped manage the city-owned rental units. He said he is nervous about the city’s role as a landlord in a time when resources are already stretched thin.

Another ski resort town has already had success with a rental program similar to the one Park City is proposing.

George Ruther, director of Vail’s Housing Department, said the Colorado town has rented out affordable homes for city employees and other residents since the 1980s. It currently owns and operates 200 such homes and views them much as it does other community assets, such as roads, bridges, utilities and schools.

Research suggests Vail receives $4.81 for every dollar put into housing because of factors like increased household spending, decreased carbon emissions from commuters, fewer job vacancies and less worker turnover.

“The program works out very well,” Ruther said.

Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said Park City’s woes are shared by tourist destinations across the country. He said since the city has expensive land, no developer is going to be able to build true affordable housing and there is only so much a city can do through planning and zoning.

“If the market can’t produce low- and moderate-income housing units for the workforce that the city relies on for its economy, you need additional governmental assistance,” he said.