America’s hollow paradises
People with working-class jobs in U.S. beach towns and ski resorts are getting pushed away by exorbitant housing costs.
Think back to your favorite vacation. Wouldn’t it be delightful if that trip never ended?
Imagine moving to that fantastic destination town, finding a job and a house, and living the dream. Even if you had to wait tables or stock store shelves, who needs a desk job when you live in paradise?
That’s how many of us view the lives of the working class in beach towns or mountain resorts – an endless vacation.
If only. Barbara Ehrenreich popped that bubble in her book This Land Is Their Land.
As destination towns get more popular, she explains, more people flock to them. That creates more jobs, but it also causes housing prices to spike, making it nearly impossible for ordinary workers to find a place to live. This scenario is playing out in just about every town in America that people like to visit.
I grew up on sunny Cape Cod, a Massachusetts peninsula known to vacationers as a quaint getaway with sandy beaches and bountiful seafood. What it’s not known for is affordable housing or high-wage, year-round jobs. This leaves businesses scrambling to find enough workers during the year’s busy months and workers struggling to find housing they can afford.
Or take the case of Vail, Colorado. Low-wage workers, who can’t begin to pay the skyrocketing rents around the expensive ski resort, are being forced to move farther and farther away from their jobs, as The New York Times recently reported.
In short, the Cape Cods and Vails of America are turning into hollow versions of their former selves. They’re losing the culture, vibrancy, and authenticity that comes from real people living there – not just second home owners commuting in from the cities on weekends and holidays.
Addressing this problem is going to take action on two fronts: raising wages and cutting housing costs. These problems are felt in nearly every burg and burrow across the country. But destination towns have one key advantage – a steady flow of tourist revenue.
The only problem is it’s going into very few hands.
Ski resorts are an excellent example. While some mom and pop resorts are barely getting by, mega-resorts like the one at Vail are profitable enough to pay their executives seven figure salaries. Yet most of the folks who keep the resorts running – many of whom, like ski patrollers and instructors, do dangerous work – toil for sub-poverty wages.
Now, though, many of these workers are organizing to raise their wages through labor unions and collective bargaining. Ski instructors at Beaver Creek, a resort owned by Vail, recently won collective bargaining rights, as did ski patrollers at Telluride. These inspiring efforts offer a glimpse at a solution for what ails America’s many hollow paradises.
Reducing housing costs is harder. Wealthy urbanites have more cash to drop on second homes than local workers have to buy their sole residences. That drives up the cost for everyone.
Yet innovative solutions like community land trusts are gaining popularity. These trusts take land out of pricy real estate markets and often enforce year-round residency requirements. That creates a way for communities from Lake Champlain, Vermont to the San Juan Islands in Washington State to ensure housing for low- and moderate-income families.
Vacation towns aren’t immune to the inequality that’s been festering in this country for decades. But if they can invest in a more equitable future for their workers, then maybe living there really will be a little more like paradise.
Josh Hoxie is the director of the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies. IPS-dc.org