One might think that in the wake of Propositions 1 and 2 passing in November, with a combined funding power of $6 billion for housing programs, we’d be able to breathe a sigh of relief. As substantial as the funding might be, though, there remains a clear and present need to act quickly on the housing supply throughout California. A personal moment recently threw this into sharp focus for me. Housing in a ski town is like the gold dust that brought people to the Sierra Nevada in 1849 – rare, and once you get it, you hang onto it for dear life. Seasonal employment swings and tourist influxes give the average renter a run for their money, with the local rental market shorn through by the short term rental boom.
There’s a house three doors down from me that has sat empty since I moved in. It’s a large house, featuring a big wraparound porch and a double car garage; in fact, it’s very similar in profile to my own house that I share with two roommates. Every time I drive by it, I look to see if there are cars in the driveway, and I haven’t seen one yet. During a recent snowstorm, it could not have been clearer the house was empty. The driveway sat unplowed, no tire tracks in or out, and no footprints to the door.
I know now the house is a short term rental. Out of morbid curiosity, I went on AirBNB and looked up what houses near me were short term rentals. I had heard that my neighborhood was roughly 80% year-round residents, a relatively high number for the Truckee-Tahoe area. The inverse of that is the Town of Mammoth Lakes, where 70% of the housing stock is second homes, or non-permanent residents. And I was curious. So I looked it up. And there was the house, going for $240 per night, with room for 6-8 people. No pets.
A few weeks later, I found myself sitting across from my new friend Valerie from Peru, a J1 visa recipient, working for Northstar California full time for a whopping $12.25 an hour. With a very matter of fact look, even a bit of a laugh, she told me that she and five other J1s, from Peru and Argentina, were homeless for Christmas because their rental term had expired and their follow up rental had fallen through. My heart dropped. All I could think about was this short term rental house, that I knew would be sitting empty for Christmas, and how if that homeowner made a different choice, they could give these kids (none of these J1s are over the age of 22) a home for the season, a home for Christmas.
I can’t give Valerie and her friends a home – our house is already crowded with four other people and a dog. I can, however, carry her story with me, and find out more, and learn what it is that makes housing so expensive throughout California. So this is the beginning of a three-part series. I’m digging into California’s housing crisis, specifically exploring it from a rural lens. My hope is that there is an answer within the triple bottom line approach, the understanding that our communities, economy, and environment work best when working together. A quadruple bottom line approach, if I may; the fourth element being a concern for collective humanity, and wanting to make sure that no one who is 4300 miles away from home has to spend Christmas without a place to call home.
Note: House in image is for illustrative purposes only, not the home described