Rentals tough to find for seasonal workers

Right on schedule, successful job fair applicants are filing into South Shore to fill ski resort positions and take advantage of some of the best snowplay in the country. But this year, it's predicted that many won't be so successful at finding a place to live.

Property rental companies are reporting a significant drop in availability this season, leaving hundreds of people scrambling to find shelter before the snow flies.

"We don't have anything. Well, we do have one little studio available right now," Lake Tahoe Lodging's Internet page designer Linda Hess said Tuesday, "but the summer people didn't leave this year."

Hess said 90 percent of the inquiries for rental properties are coming from young people who have recently been hired at ski resorts. Most of them are being turned away.

"I'm not in panic mode yet, but if I don't find something by the end of November I might be," said Ben Harrold, a new addition to Sierra-at-Tahoe's marketing department. "I really don't need a place until mid-November, and people want to rent right away, so that's been hard." Conducting a long-distance search has presented additional problems for Harrold, who lives in San Luis Obispo. "A three-bedroom house would be ideal, but worst-case scenario is sleeping on someone's couch until I can find a place."

Harrold spends much of his winter recreation time at Lake Tahoe and has contacts in the area, but other new recruits, some from as far away as New Zealand, aren't so lucky. They're looking for housing sight unseen and relying on rental agencies to find it.

"I'm trying to work with as many people as I can. We're working with them hourly," said Suzi Browne, Coldwell Banker McKinney and Associates' rental department manager. "If they wait, there's not going to be anything. Right now it's pretty slim pickin's."

Between the area's three major wintertime employers - Heavenly Ski Resort, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood - more than 2,000 jobs have been offered for the upcoming season. Kirkwood is still looking to fill about 100 positions. No one could say how many of those new hires will need local lodging, but most agree that there are fewer housing opportunities this year than usual.

"We recognize that some people are having problems finding housing," said Monica Bandows, communications director for Heavenly, "but it depends on what you're looking for."

Heavenly provides employee housing in an apartment-like setting near the resort. At present, all of the 70 beds are occupied or reserved. Kirkwood houses about 20 percent of its employees in a variety of accommodations, from private rentals to an onsite hostel.

Bandows said preseason occupancy at resort accommodations is typical and not necessarily indicative that there's a housing crisis. But those trying to place the newcomers say there's a significant lack of long-term rentals.

"We're looking everywhere," Browne said, "and it's not just Coldwell Banker. We're checking with everyone, and I'm actually making calls to other companies myself. There are people coming from a long way away to work here, and we're even asking tenants if they'd like to take a roommate."

Mountain View Management property manager Charlie Hamm said the 1999-2000 season may prove to be difficult for area resorts.

"If they can't find a place to live, people just aren't going to come (to work)," Hamm said.

Sierra-at-Tahoe's marketing director Ben McLoud said he won't be surprised if the resort loses some of its new hires to lack of housing, but said the resort anticipates some loss each season.

"We hire X amount of people and lose Y amount of people every year. It's not a new thing to the ski industry," McLoud said.

Some of that loss can be attributed to the fact that many applicants are offered jobs at more than one resort, but lack of housing probably plays a role as well, he said.

Despite its onsite housing, Kirkwood is also anticipating some recruitment loss due to lack of housing. "It's possible that it will be more of a problem this year because there are fewer houses available than usual," said Tanya Magidson of Kirkwood's marketing department. "We've had a lot of calls from Realtors checking references, so we know people are out there looking, but we do anticipate some problems."

Renters who got an early start on the season have had more success than those who waited until now to begin their search. Mike Bower and Mike Decker, recent college graduates looking to spend the winter skiing, found a two-bedroom house on the Internet. Both were offered jobs at Heavenly and began looking for accommodations in September. They moved into their cabin-style find in October.

"We took care of it before we made the move," Decker said.

"We lucked out," Bower added.

Rental agencies agree that availability is in decline, but there is little consensus on why.

"The economy is so good, everyone's making good money and no one wants to leave," Hamm speculates. "The demand is increasing because the economy is booming."

He also said there has been a recent increase in the number of rental homes for sale.

Browne attributes the lack of seasonal housing to a growing interest in Lake Tahoe Community College."So many students are attending the college that they've taken up the housing that is available," she said. "We used to have a lot of notices, people leaving, in September and October. Now everyone is staying."

And the year 2000, blamed for everything from predicted computer failure to worldwide chaos, likely plays its own role.

"A lot of owners would have given up their homes for rent this winter, but a lot of them decided to turn them into vacation rentals over Christmas and the millennium. A lot of them are looking for big, big dollars," Browne said.


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