Pandemic invites ‘weekend warriors’ to live their best lives at Truckee Tahoe
Special to the Sierra Sun
The Sierra Sun continues its “Investigating the Impact” series to discuss how the community is coping with the COVID-19 crisis, focusing on the toll the pandemic has had on the economy, government services, education, the environment, health care, housing, nonprofits and arts & culture — and the situation each sector faces and what resources are available to help the community move forward.
Visit SierraSun.com for more in the series.
The physical landscape of the American worker has changed significantly due to coronavirus.
While many permanent Truckee residents risk their health to provide essential services, others, namely those employed by the tourism industry, are out of work entirely. Some companies have altered their policies and updated virtual platforms to enable their employees to work remote.
For beneficiaries of the latter, North Lake Tahoe may become more than a vacation destination.
Alison Elder, one of four real estate agents at Elder Group Tahoe working under the brokerage Engel & Zölkers, said the shift in workplace dynamic has given people more freedom to live their best life without sacrificing their city salaries.
“With such large organizations — Twitter, etc. — saying don’t ever come back, people have more flexibility on how and where they want to live,” Elder said, referring to Twitter’s announcement that its employees can work remotely indefinitely. “They don’t need to be in Menlo Park or Los Gatos. They can be wherever they want as long as there is connectivity.”
Elder, who once served the real estate needs of Silicon Valley, said people in the Bay Area have been pent up during the pandemic.
“There’s not a lot of room to breathe, if you will,” Elder said, adding Truckee’s access to the outdoors combined with its robust health-care system make an attractive option to metropolitans contemplating moving to a mountain town.
City dwellers have the option to live the dream they are normally a weekend warrior for, Elder said, and they are coming in droves.
“This past week was the largest volume of new escrows I’ve handled in my 20-year career here,” Elder said.
Elder said she recently brokered the sale of a house that received 15 offers on a $875,000 property.
“That, in our market, is unheard of,” Elder said. “There’s a huge, pent-up buyer demand. That demand has gobbled up inventory here.”
Although market prices have remained fairly stable, multiple offers on record low inventory may drive the prices higher, said Val Videgain of Coldwell Banker Realty. Low inventory is typical for the season, he said, but homeowners may be disinclined to sell given potential exposure to COVID-19 and the pandemic’s tempestuous economy.
Videgain also noticed the increased interest from urban families as tech company employees embrace the upside of their new normal.
“I don’t think the trend is specific to Truckee-Tahoe,” Videgain said. “It’s a lot of mountain communities, rural communities that are feeling the expanse of urban environment.”
Videgain said the local market is relatively small when compared to Auburn or western Nevada County. Because of that, even the addition of 500 people from the Bay Area would make a big difference in the community.
Truckee’s history with Affordable Housing
At present, over 50% of Truckee homes are unoccupied, said Jenna Gatto, Truckee’s planning manager.
“If you can imagine over half of the units in Truckee are not being lived in,” Gatto explained, “that fundamentally explains why we are where we are.”
Gatto said the high vacancy level is a main factor in Truckee’s struggle with housing affordability. She said second homeowners with more disposable income have historically driven up the cost of living for those who live — and work — permanently in the area.
Gatto said the issue is longstanding, but was exacerbated in the early 2000s by the dot-com boom which took place a convenient, three-hour drive from Truckee.
The longstanding tension between the region’s growing income inequality and available housing options has been partly addressed by two pieces of regulation the Town of Truckee imposes on market rate housing, Gatto said.
The inclusion housing ordinance requires that any time someone builds a market-rate subdivision, a portion of those units must be made affordable to lower rate households, Gatto said.
The workforce housing ordinance, as described by Truckee’s Municipal Code, requires that any time anyone develops a commercial or industrial complex they must also construct or contribute financially to the construction of workforce housing units that meet their particular workforces’ needs.
Gatto said these ordinances are meant to create a hospitable environment for all of Truckee, regardless of occupation.
“We have a wide range of earners,” Gatto said. “The service-based and tourism-based industry offers low wages, resort wages. We also have high-wage earners who make triple digits and beyond.”
Because of that, it’s hard to characterize the typical Truckee family, Gatto said.
“We have a lot of families with one income,” Gatto said. “We also have folks who have multiple jobs.”
Gatto said the Town of Truckee perceives available and affordable housing as a community health issue. She also said having low-income workers nearby also alleviates climate change by minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.
“We want people who work in Truckee to be able to live in Truckee if they want to,” Gatto explained. “It’s a quality of life issue — the amount of time people commute to and from jobs, how much time they can spend with themselves, their families, in the outdoors, recreating.”
The Mountain Housing Council of Tahoe Truckee was created with those needs in mind, said Stacy Caldwell, the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation CEO.
“We pulled together all these institutions — realtors, the Chamber of Commerce, a handful of nonprofits — and dedicated ourselves to a three-year initiative to accelerate housing for our local community,” Caldwell said.
The first iteration of the Council, concluded this year but was approved and financed by the Town Council mid-April to relaunch on July 17.
The 2.0 version will continue to consider Council’s goals, set long before the pandemic, while taking into account the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the region’s workforce, Caldwell said.
Caldwell said efforts to provide housing have only grown more comprehensive since the council was formed.
“Three years later, the amount of institutions that have housing on their agenda now is impressive,” Caldwell said, citing the formation of the Truckee Tahoe Workforce Housing Agency, a Joint Powers Authority comprised of Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, Tahoe Forest Hospital District, Truckee Tahoe Airport District and Truckee Donner Public Utility District.
Gatto said although no affordable housing projects have been approved since, 193 affordable units were already underway at onset of the pandemic.
Of the three projects contributing to that, Gatto is particularly excited by the 77 units made available by a project in the Railyard Master Plan area in downtown called the Artist Lofts.
Entrepreneurs Kai and Colin Frolich received seed money from the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation to launch Landing Locals, a start-up focused on helping locals find housing, that’s now spread to other states and resort towns.
Caldwell said development, vertical or horizontal, will be an essential part of meeting the region’s ever-growing housing needs.
“Community planners, development folks like me know that a thriving ecosystem has biodiversity,” Caldwell said of Truckee officials’ concern for its low-wage earners. “The same goes for the economy.
Rebecca O’Neil is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Sierra Sun.
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At 90,000 sq. ft., Market Square Truckee is just one mixed-use components of the Railyard Project, and its entitlement will be considered by town authorities this spring.