More Park City homeowners are declining to rent to seasonal workers. That could be a big problem for skiers.

One couple found truckload of trash, thousands of dollars in damage and no easy fix.

Matt Farinelli was sitting on a chairlift in early April, enjoying some small talk and spring sunshine, when he realized something was wrong at the townhouse he was renting out.

The ski instructor next to him had mentioned that nearly all of the foreign seasonal workers — college students from places like Argentina and Australia who form the brunt of the workforce for Park City’s hotels, restaurants and ski areas each winter — had already gone home. It was April 1, and though the seasonal workers in Farinelli’s place were on the lease through April 15, he knew he hadn’t heard from them in far too long.

He reached out to confirm the exit walk-through he’d scheduled with his tenants for the next day. They replied that they’d been called out of the country for a “family emergency” — all five of the students on the lease — and had left the keys on the counter.

“‘That’s not great,’” Farinelli recalled thinking. “And that was Monday night. So I went the next morning and did a quick walkthrough and was, quite frankly, so pissed off, I just had to leave.”

A rotting pineapple, abandoned clothes, cigarette smoke and truckloads of trash contributed to the close to $20,000 hit Farinelli estimates he took after deciding last November to try to be part of the solution to Park City’s seasonal worker housing shortage.

The students may have abandoned his townhouse. But in the aftermath, Farinelli felt even more forsaken by the police and the local resorts and businesses that heavily rely on J-1 workers each winter. They call on area residents to house the students. Yet he said when he asked for their help, they shut him out. Farinelli won’t be renting to J-1s again anytime soon as a result, he said, and he’s not alone. Other homeowners have begun wondering if renting to foreign students is really worth the trouble. If they decide it’s not, where will all the workers live?

“It just feels like this thing no one wants to touch,” Farinelli said.

“There’s this very delicate balance of workforce housing in Park City,” he added, “and no one really wants to mess with it. It certainly seems like the burden falls on the private citizens at this point. And no one wants to back them up.”

Adding housing to the community

It felt like the right thing to do.

Farinelli and his wife have lived in Summit County for nearly 20 years. In that time, they’d borne witness to many of the issues that accompanied Park City’s rapid-fire growth into a well-known ski town. One of which is its reliance on J-1 workers.

Between high unemployment rates and more people able to work from home, seasonal workers have become increasingly difficult to come by, especially since the pandemic. And many Americans who prefer seasonal work are now pushing for higher wages and health benefits. As a result, resort towns like Park City have become increasingly dependent upon foreign students enrolled in the Summer Work Travel Program to provide ski resorts, hotels, restaurants, bars and ski shops a consistent source of labor.

Better known as J-1s for the name of their visa, the typically 18- to 23-year-olds who come to Park City usually hail from South and Central American countries. They sign $20/hour contracts to work no less than 30-hours a week, often starting Dec. 1 and ending March 31. Many also pick up second jobs as bartenders or bussers.

(Matt Farinelli) A bowl of cereal and an empty beer can were left on an ottoman in a Kimball Junction townhome that was rented to five seasonal workers from November 2023 to April 2024. The owner, Matt Farinelli, said he got no help from the workers' employers nor the police after they left the country prior to the exit walkthrough. He estimates they caused close to $20,000 in damage to the home.

It’s a win-win program, except for one thing. Finding a place to live in Park City is close to impossible. Only about 12% of workers live in the city, according to data from the Kem C. Gardner Institute, so there’s not much room for a transient student making $1,200 a month. This season, though, five students — though Farinelli now believes that number exploded to at least a dozen — found shelter in Farinelli’s three-bedroom Kimball Junction townhouse.

“We’re well aware of how much the town needs this labor,” Farinelli said. “Like, ‘Let’s be the good people and we’ll try it and hopefully it works out.’ That was kind of our reasoning. And now we’re like, ‘Man, that risk is definitely not paying off.’”

Finding tenants

At least 100 J-1s responded to their ad, Farinelli estimates. The group they selected knew someone in town who could look at the home in person. The Farinellis had rented the place out multiple times to longer-term tenants, and none of their initial interactions gave them pause. In fact, they offered a reduced rent since they required a six-month lease, which is longer than the tenants expected to stay. They held a month’s rent for a security deposit. Given the age of the tenants, they expected some wear and tear, but nothing like what Farinelli saw when he stepped into the townhouse the day after he learned they had all left the country.

Trash. In a 10-minute video Farinelli took of his initial walkthrough, he uttered some variation of the word “trash” at least 30 times. A bowl of cereal drenched in milk sat on a coffee table next to an empty beer can. Banisters bore long scars as if someone had slid down them on cafeteria trays. Holes had been punched into doors. Jackets, shirts, even skis had been abandoned on beds and in closets, along with bags and tags. Farinelli said it took three trips for a junk service to haul it all away.

Before the cleanup began, Farinelli called the sheriff. He knew officers couldn’t do much to help him since his tenants had left the country. Still, he hoped to get the damage on record in a police report. Maybe, he thought, a warrant could be issued so if they ever returned to the United States, they couldn’t do the same to someone else.

Instead, he said he couldn’t even get a case number.

(Matt Farinelli) A collection of empty alcohol bottles occupies a shelf in a Kimball Junction townhome that was rented to five seasonal workers from November 2023 to April 2024. The owner, Matt Farinelli, said he got no help from the workers' employers nor the police after they left the country prior to the exit walkthrough. He estimates they caused close to $20,000 in damage to the home.

“It was pretty frustrating,” Farinelli said. “They legitimately just were like, ‘We’re not going to come talk to you.’”

Sgt. Felicia Sotelo, a spokesperson for the Summit County Sheriff, said someone from the agency had taken Farinelli’s call and a case number had been issued. She said more urgent matters can keep a deputy from making a site visit. However, she also expressed surprise that Farinelli had been told he had no case.

“If someone is renting and property is damaged, we can absolutely look into it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a criminal matter and sometimes it’s a civil matter.”

Farinelli said he felt similarly dismissed when he asked one of his tenants’ employers for assistance. He said through the course of conversation early in the rental period, some of the tenants said they worked at Park City Mountain. Yet when he contacted Park City Mountain seeking a permanent address or, ideally in his mind, the garnishment of their wages until they could resolve the dispute, he said he got no response.

In a statement emailed to The Tribune, Park City Mountain communications director Sara Huey emphasized ways in which the resort is participating in “community solutions” for the seasonal worker housing deficit. She did not address whether employers have an obligation to intervene in conflicts between landlords and seasonal workers.

“We are committed,” she wrote, “to helping to address affordable housing in our community — including through our master lease for employee housing at Slopeside Village, our commitment of $250,000 to Mountainlands Community Housing Trust toward the Holiday Village and Parkside Apartments affordable housing redevelopment, and other important community solutions.”

Technically, employers are not responsible for helping J-1 workers find housing. That burden falls on the student’s sponsor. Sponsors are Department of State-approved agencies that receive money both from the students and employers to match the two, provide visas and oversee the cultural and logistical aspects of a student’s stay.

They tend to take a very hands-off approach, those familiar with the process say. Rather than directly connect students with landlords, they more often refer them to sites like Zillow and Trulia. Check-ins are done via monthly email surveys. Still, few students speak up about inadequate housing, advocates say, for fear of having to return home early.

For this reason, Megan McKenna, a housing advocate for the nonprofit Mountainlands Community Housing Trust, said workers are more likely to be taken advantage of than landlords.

(Matt Farinelli) A drawer is torn off a vanity in a Kimball Junction townhome that was rented to five seasonal workers from November 2023 to April 2024. The owner, Matt Farinelli, said he got no help from the workers' employers nor the police after they left the country prior to the exit walkthrough. He estimates they caused close to $20,000 in damage to the home.

“It’s really not very common that we hear about situations like this,” she said of Farinelli’s predicament. “It’s often the other way around, that we hear about seasonal workers being taken advantage of or misled by a landlord or online scams, which seem to be getting more common.”

If property owners like Farinelli get burned while trying to treat J-1s fairly, and more rooms are taken off the market, that more broadly opens up the market to bad actors. One example of that was exposed last year when The Tribune reported on a group of 12 seasonal workers who, with the landlord’s apparent permission, were living in a one-bedroom apartment and paying $12,000 a month in rent. Conversely, those bad actors, McKenna said, are probably why Farinelli found mail, IDs and a sleeping chart indicating at least 12 people had called his townhouse home over the winter.

“The housing situation, it’s really tough. And so I imagine there were a lot of tenants in the home and that’s likely what led to the damage,” she said. “And I think it just is more evidence of the housing crisis that we’re in and that people are finding themselves in less than ideal living situations. And that goes for the landlord and the tenant.”

Mountainlands and other organizations have set up resources to help J-1 workers find housing and navigate life in Park City. One of the most prominent ones is the International Student Housing Task Force. Originally organized by the Christian Center of Park City in 2019, it encourages residents to open their homes to foreign students.

Mountainlands also created the Workforce Employer Rental Incentive Program (aka, WE RIP), which provides extra motivation for locals to rent out spare rooms or basements. Currently, Deer Valley Resort is the only business to participate in the program. Anyone who rents a room to a Deer Valley employee for the season can receive a season pass or 10 one-day passes. However, as an added benefit, program participants know they can reach out to Mountainlands if tenant issues arise, McKenna said. If Mountainlands can’t resolve it, she said, they’ll enlist the services of the Mountain Mediation Center.

McKenna pointed out that landlords tend to have more leverage than tenants in Utah. She said anyone looking to rent to seasonal workers can find resources and sample leases at a local Housing Resource Center or library. If issues do arise, she encourages them to also seek guidance through Mountainlands or the Mountain Mediation Center. If sponsors aren’t responding, McKenna suggested reporting the issue to the state department.

She cringes at the idea of losing more housing for seasonal workers.

“The effect of fewer local landlords renting to seasonal workers would be devastating to seasonal workers and the economy,” she wrote in an email. “It would mean fewer jobs filled and more commuters. It’s already such a low number [who rent to J-1s], which is why we’re trying to incentivize more to participate in the WE RIP program and provide more preventative education/ resources to landlords, tenants, employers, and sponsors.”

For Farinelli, the issue wasn’t so much mediation as just re-establishing communication once his tenants left the country. He said he regrets not taking down a list of their sponsors as well as collecting their permanent addresses. Those were his rookie mistakes.

Yet even some longtime J-1 landlords and advocates have grown weary of rolling the dice on seasonal renters.

Hosting young people and making connections

Becky Yih, a founder of the International Student Housing Task Force, is one of them. She has rented the basement apartment and, more recently, the guest room in her Kimball Junction townhouse to seasonal workers for more than a decade. She’s made some connections she treasures in that time. Still, her last batch of tenants — three young women — tested her mettle. They were slovenly, she said, and consistently broke house rules.

“I have just been such a proponent for so long. But after having that bad experience myself, I don’t feel like I would encourage anyone to do it,” she said. “I mean, I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing it. But I don’t want to feel like I talked somebody into it and then what if they had a bad experience?”

Still, Yih doesn’t believe the students are the problem.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Becky Yih walks through her basement that she has rented to foreign seasonal workers, known as J1s, in her home in Park City on Friday, May 10, 2024. Yih and her husband have rented out their basement for more than a decade but are now considering calling it quits after difficulties with recent tenants.

Through her advocacy work, she has pushed for the city and county to look at how other resort towns are handling the situation and adopt some of their policies. Changes to fire codes and other laws could dissuade bad actors — including those woven into the system, such as sponsors and employers. She also believes more support is needed for community members who want to help, like Farinelli.

So far, she said, she hasn’t found an audience.

“I think other places have tried to be more conscientious about it,” she said. “And I just feel like there’s no will to do that. I mean, we’re still just getting by.”

A happy ending

In the end, it was the students’ sponsors who came through for Farinelli.

He had to use all his contacts to track down which sponsors usually worked with Vail Resorts, since he said Park City Mountain’s people stopped returning his emails. Once he narrowed it down to three, he sent them messages explaining the situation and the names of his tenants.

One responded and offered to help. Within a half day, Farinelli said, one of the students reached out.

“All of a sudden, they went from radio silent to all of them willing to pay us last month’s rent,” Farinelli said. “That’s how they got back. in touch with us. So we’re fairly certain, though I can’t say for sure, that the company reached out to them and was like, ‘Hey, if you ever want to go back to America, I strongly suggest you re-engage.’”

After a few weeks of negotiations, Farinelli said he was able to recoup most of what the episode cost him. Yet the damage had already been done. He and his wife swore they wouldn’t go through that again and have since sold the townhouse.

“Our honest advice to people if they came to us now and said, ‘Well, would you rent to a group of J-1s?’” he said. “I’d be like, ‘No, absolutely not.’”

Yih hasn’t jumped off that cliff yet. She is, however, peering into the precipice.

“I think about it a lot. It’s just been such a part of our lives,” she said. “Could I do this again or have I just reached my tipping point?”

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