12 seasonal workers charged $1,000 each to share one Park City 1-bedroom

Argentinians’ experience sheds light on Park City’s lack of resources, protections and housing for its winter workforce.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Numerous mattresses cover the floor where 12 foreign students from Argentina who came to Park City to work on J-1 visas describe their living conditions for the past two months on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Because of lack of housing, they have been living in a one-bedroom apartment, paying $12,000 a month in rent.

The occupants of a one-bedroom unit at The Lodge at Mountain Village at the base of Park City Mountain Resort held a lottery every Tuesday. The winner would get his choice of bed for the week, the consensus best being the twin mattress on the floor in the farthest corner of the condo. They called the mattress “Exile” because it was the only bed that offered any privacy for the 12 men living in the 1,062-square-foot home.

Then they would go down the line: pick No. 2 got second choice, then No. 3, then No. 4. The last two, Nos. 11-12, got the double mattress in the center of the living room. Though he would have no privacy, the second to last would at least have the luxury of being next to an electrical outlet.

For eight weeks, the 12 Argentinian college students who are in Park City on Summer Work Travel visas, better known as J-1s, rotated not just beds but chairs — of which there were three, plus three more stools — and forks, of which there were four. They bought their own linens and made shelves out of storage boxes.

For the privilege, they paid $12,000 per month in rent.

A high demand for seasonal workers and a housing crisis mixed with laissez-faire visa sponsors and predatory landlords has made overcrowded apartments and double-bunked beds a common problem for the thousands of J-1 workers who form an essential cog in Park City’s economy each winter.

And the city has few mechanisms in place to keep abuse from happening — by renters or landlords.

“You know, this program is called Work and Travel,” said one of the men, all of whom asked not to be named for fear of retribution from the property management company or their employers. “It’s more like Work and Trouble.”

Who is responsible?

Kimball Junction resident Becky Yih, who started the International Student Worker Housing Task Force in Park City a few years ago, has heard multiple stories like this one. Yih said she was told of nine people sleeping on a concrete basement floor on their own air mattresses and sharing one bathroom while paying almost $400 per month each. Another group of 14 people squeezed into three bedrooms and a stair landing, she said, for which each paid almost $500 per month.

Last year, a Peruvian couple made news reports after they resorted to going door to door in Park City to find a place to stay when they landed in a house that had up to seven people per room.

In 2019, 36 student workers from Peru were allegedly swindled out of a total of $27,000 when the deposits each put down on a room weren’t returned by a Park City landlord after he told them his lodging was full. Yih said she spoke several times to a special agent from the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of State about that case. It was dropped because the students were hesitant about speaking to the investigator, she said.

“I think it’s so normal for them,” Yih said, “that they either think, ‘This is how it is and I just have to put up with it,’” or they’re afraid to speak out.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) In order to maintain a semblance of fairness, 12 foreign students from Argentina on J-1 visas who have been crowded into a one-bedroom apartment working in Park City for the past two months, use a lottery app to pick which mattress they get to sleep on for the week, pictured on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023.

J-1s are a vital source of seasonal labor for Park City, which becomes home to more than 2,000 of the seasonal workers each winter — some of the most in the country. While they drive demand, employers like PCMR owner Vail Resorts and Deer Valley owner Alterra Mountain Resorts aren’t responsible for finding housing for their transient workers.

That task instead falls to their visa sponsors, which are go-between agencies that charge each student about $3,000 to coordinate employment, cultural experiences, transportation and housing. They are licensed by the Department of State, which requires them to “consider the availability of suitable, affordable housing” when making placements in a town or city. They also are charged with monitoring the location of J-1 workers.

Local advocates say those sponsors rarely perform those duties and that there is not enough oversight to fight against predatory practices. That fosters crowded or sub-standard living conditions for seasonal workers.

”I think it’s a pretty common occurrence here,” Megan McKenna, a housing advocate with the nonprofit Mountainlands Community Housing Trust, said. “We have inquiries every day. We have J-1s and employees looking for housing every day. Unfortunately, we don’t have much to offer them.”

Neither Park City nor any of the sponsors have a liaison on the ground to serve as point person for workers facing housing issues. Instead, students often get information from Facebook forums. The city also has no people-per-room restrictions like other resort towns, other than its fire code.

J-1s can also make easy targets because they are young — a J-1 visa can only be held by someone who is no more than a year out of college — and Yih said many choose to keep their plights quiet.

Even when workers do seek help, there are limited options for them.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mattresses and personal belongings for 12 foreign students from Argentina crowd the one-bedroom apartment they have been sharing in Park City for the past two months on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Working at Park City ski resort on J-1 visas, the living accommodations they encountered were less than ideal.

Mountainlands started an incentive program this season to nudge more homeowners into renting out spare bedrooms and basements. Deer Valley Resort is the only participant so far, and it is offering a season pass or 10 day passes to new hosts. The city has a website with resources and last fall Mountainlands also opened a resource center to help seasonal and year-round workers find housing, but McKenna said the well is basically dry. Less than 15% of Park City’s workforce lives within the city limits, she said.

“I don’t think they would choose to live 12 in a home if there were other options available,” McKenna said. “It goes to show how bad things are.”

12 anxious men

The group of 12 Argentinians said they put down a $7,000 deposit on the condo in November. A combination of two sets of high school friends, the men had been searching for an apartment since June but hadn’t been able to find anything big enough or cheap enough. By the time they accepted they’d have to pay at least $800 each per month, they said most places were gone.

Then one of them saw an ad for a one-bedroom condo on the real estate website Trulia. It was advertised for $6,000 per month but had the benefit of being right at the base of the ski hill and close to a bus line. Plus, for an extra fee, they could all live together.

“Will you allow us to be 12?” one of the men wrote in an email sent to the property management company, Summit Key, and later shared with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Their Summit Key contact responded, “It’s your decision. You can decide what works best for you but please remember you will be sharing only two bathrooms, so 6 per bathroom.”

The men said they asked for additional pictures of the space but were not given any. Still, they said, they thought they could make it work, especially if they could get bunk beds.

The property management company provided eight new mattresses to supplement the king-sized bed and pull-out couch that came with the furnishings. In addition, the men said, it offered to let them add a 13th roommate for an extra $1,200 per month.

Then the first few members arrived and realized just how cramped it would be. They said the dryer didn’t work well and one of the stove burners didn’t work at all. The sink leaked. A few days in, the refrigerator handle broke.

The final straw came, however, when the pipes clogged a couple of weeks ago, rendering one of the bathrooms unusable. The men said Summit Key told them they were responsible for paying for a plumber.

“When the bathroom got clogged, it was like, this is it, the 12 of us have to look for another place,” said one of the men. “And if not, we’re sleeping in the streets, but not here.”

A representative of Summit Key told The Salt Lake Tribune in a voicemail that only five of the men had signed a lease and that the others should not have been living at the property. Subsequent voicemails left on the Summit Key answering system were not returned.

In emails between Summit Key and one of the men that were shown to The Tribune, however, he made it clear that they planned to have at first 10 and later 12 people in the unit.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Property management checks the lease arrangement for 12 foreign students from Argentina on J-1 visas who came to Park City to spend the winter working in Park City, Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Because of lack of housing they have been living in a one-bedroom apartment, paying $12,000 a month.

On Nov. 4, one of the men wrote, “Before making the deposit, we would like to confirm if the house fits 10 people because there is only one bedroom.”

The Summit Key contact responded the same day, “The hone [sic] can fit up to 12 people.”

Dave Thacker, the city’s chief building official, said it cannot fit that many. Given International Fire Code parameters that limit residences to no fewer than 200 square feet per occupant and the size of the condo, he said it seemed as though no more than five people should have been living there.

Knock at the door

When the knock at the door came Monday morning, everything in Apartment 146 stopped. The men knew who it was: city code enforcement officers. Their visit had been at least a week in the making.

When the plumbing stopped working, the men took their plight to their managers, who turned to Yih and a few others in the community for help.

They couldn’t break their lease or risk losing their $600 per person deposit, which they said could pay their expenses for several months in their beachside hometown of Mar del Plata. If they could prove the lease was in violation of Park City’s municipal code, though, they believed it might be enough to get them out of their lease.

The process took nearly a week, but all were rehomed, temporarily. Vail Resorts made arrangements to house the eight who work at Park City Mountain in its new Slopeside Village employee housing at the base of The Canyons. A spokesperson for the resort said it now has use of 348 of what will eventually be 400 employee units. The other four men, who work for Jans Sports at Deer Valley, the Montage and various restaurants, have a lead on a unit that opens Feb. 15 and plan to piece together housing until then.

Once they had places to go, Yih called the city to lodge a complaint.

Thacker said in cases of over-occupancy, the city typically tries to work with homeowners and property managers to bring the number of occupants back to code. He said the city’s goal is “not to put anyone out on the streets” and that fines are only levied if compliance is not ultimately met.

“The owner [in this case] has been extremely responsive,” he said.

A representative from Compass Property Management, which runs the Lodge’s HOA, said 12 people in a one-bedroom condo “would not be allowed.”

Making an escape

The lack of resolution regarding their deposit and rental obligations after the city officials left put the 12 men on edge. Still, as they began to peel the socks and shorts off their makeshift clothesline and stuff their suitcases full of tchotchkes and T-shirts, they couldn’t hide their glee that at least they were breaking out. The eight going to the Canyons said they were guaranteed either a room to themselves or with just one other person in a 12-person pod for about $600 per month.

“I couldn’t sleep last night,” one said. “I couldn’t believe we were escaping from Summit Keys.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sharing tight quarters for the past two months, 12 foreign students from Argentina on J-1 visas came to Park City to spend the winter working in food and beverage at Park City Mountain Resort, at the Montage hotel and restaurants and retail in the area, as they describe their experience on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Because of lack of housing, they have been living in a one-bedroom apartment, paying $12,000 a month.

Yih said she hopes their saga sheds light on a persistent problem for the Park City community and serves as a warning for those who want to take advantage of seasonal workers. She said the city needs to do more to protect them.

The situation the 12 men found themselves in isn’t, she emphasized, anything out of the ordinary — except that they spoke up.

“Despite my harping on this, because none of the students up until now would open up while it’s happening,” Yih said, “people think it’s a one-off.”

Fifteen years of anecdotes have convinced her it’s not.

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