New Orleans In the popular ski resort and playground towns of the mountain west like Vail and Breckenridge, Colorado or Jackson, Wyoming, home of former vice-president Dick Cheney and many of the mega-rich, housing prices are as steep as the mountains themselves, sometimes soaring to $5 million a pop. Average home price sales increased by almost a quarter in the last year in Jackson to $1.2 million a house.
Who cares, because that’s the problem for the rich, and they can afford it, but what about the serfs on these snow mounds where the classic contradictions of American inequality are rampant. There are more service sector jobs on offer than there are workers who can grab them and many of them are forced to pay more than the minimum wage, but workers can’t afford to live in these towns that draw immigrant and itinerant labor like magnets. The stories of workers’ commutes throughout the mountain west and their desperate living conditions are now commonplace in feature stories in High Country News, published in Colorado and even The New York Times.
Nothing new about all that, but what is it about a town with a permanent population of hardly 5000 people like Vail that has this peanut sized city becoming the owner of 3200 units of affordable worker housing with plans to spend $30 million more to add to it? Other cities have converted motels into worker dormitories, build condos, and hired city employees to make sure that affordable city rental units are not being re-purposed as vacation rentals on the scam.
Two questions come to mind?
First, why are the ski resort businesses not being forced to provide more decent and affordable housing for their workers?
Secondly, and more importantly, if these small, rich towns can saddle up and build and maintain affordable worker housing, why can’t more cities around the country accept the same responsibility?
For more than thirty years the federal government has been disinvesting in the housing markets in urban American and slimming down their public housing inventory. Other than some few exceptions, like New York City, that prove the rule, most cities do not take the initiative to support or build affordable housing for workers that would also temper some of the housing shortages that have made housing costs and rent payments equal more than half of many worker’s living costs. This is true in many of the executive cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston, but it is also true in places like New Orleans as well that endure a disconnect between wages and rents.
In post-Katrina New Orleans there were numerous proposals for worker housing, but none of them got built and none of them were sponsored by the city or any level of government. There are now even private developer proposals for co-housing developments in the iconic Lower Ninth Ward.
We need cities and states to step up and shoulder a bigger share of the responsibility to provide affordable housing for lower waged workers and their families before we wake up and find all of urban America is Vail without the mountains, pricing out workers, while becoming playgrounds for the rich without a care or concern for the workers that make it all possible.