Lots of jobs, no workers

Tahoe housing crisis affects local businesses

Simon Jankunas, 25, came from Lithuania to work a summer restaurant job in South Lake Tahoe.

Simon Jankunas, 25, came from Lithuania to work a summer restaurant job in South Lake Tahoe.

Photo/Terra Breeden

When Fourth of July draws near, Tahoe businesses beef up their staffs in anticipation of a busy season. But, as the housing crisis escalates, Tahoe’s workforce is disappearing, and businesses are struggling to fill summer positions.

Millions of people visit Lake Tahoe annually, and in the summer, restaurants, hotels, resorts and retail shops hire personnel to handle the wave of tourists. According to the Tahoe Prosperity Center, 50 percent of all Tahoe jobs are tourism related, but since 2008, the region has lost over 6,500 workers from the labor force. This is due in part to the lack of affordable housing. Homes and rental prices have skyrocketed in recent years, pushing local people out of the area, and Tahoe businesses are discovering that they can’t operate without them.

“Normally, I would have 30 to 40 experienced locals apply every summer, but now there’s nowhere to live, and I only had five qualified people apply this year,” said Marcia Mendlick, general manager of Stateline Brewery.

Serving and bartending jobs used to be highly competitive in Lake Tahoe. A Craigslist ad could entice hundreds of applicants to apply for only a couple of job openings. Not so anymore.

“I usually receive over 100 applications, but this year, I only received 12,” said Chris Sidel, owner of Sidellis Lake Tahoe Brewery.

Tahoe land is limited, and there is little room to build new homes. With the economy on the upswing, an estimated 65 percent or more of the existing Tahoe houses have been snatched up by second-home owners. Long-term rentals have become obsolete or so overpriced that locals can no longer afford them, and many landlords who do rent to residents are raising those rents.

Nicolle Oullette, a 27-year-old server, has lived in a studio apartment in South Lake Tahoe for five years. Her monthly rent was $500 when she moved in, but, in the past four years, her landlord has raised the rent as often as California rent control stipulations allow.

“It’s been consistent,” Oullette said. “My landlord has raised my rent by 10 percent every six months. With all of the AirBnbs and VRBOs, why would anyone want to rent to us?”

With local workers getting pushed out of Tahoe, businesses are hiring from abroad to fill positions. Young people from all over the world come to Tahoe on J-1 visas (a work and study exchange program) to work seasonal jobs.

But for J-1 workers, even finding temporary housing is a challenge.

Simon Jankunas, 25, came from Lithuania to work a summer restaurant job in South Lake Tahoe. He lives at the Roadway Inn in a hotel room with three other J-1 workers. The room has two queen-sized beds and costs $1,600 a month.

“When I came here, everything was booked, and I couldn’t find anything else,” Jankunas said. “I live with three guys, in one room, with no kitchen. It’s very crowded.”

Jankunas said the Roadway Inn is a temporary home for many other J-1 workers—people from Macedonia, Poland, Serbia and other countries. It’s crowded, but Jankunas counts himself lucky to have found a place to live.

“I saw on Facebook that other J-1s are struggling to find housing in Tahoe. Prices keep going up,” he said. Ω