What is affordable to you?
TAHOE CITY – As real estate values rise, fewer families can afford to live in Tahoe and many are moving away to buy bigger homes for less money.
Workers spend several hours a day commuting from places like Carson City, Loyalton and Reno, which makes for reduced back-up for emergencies, declining school enrollment and an anemic business environment.
“The cost of trying to live up here priced us out of the market,” said Tahoe City Postmaster Ted Stinson, who in 2002 sold his Homewood house for $285,000 and bought a larger one in Dayton for $175,000. He commutes 62 miles to work.
“It’s kind of sad – we’re basically working class people trying to survive up here and it’s getting harder and harder.”
The median North Shore home price last year was $477,500, according to Agate Bay Realty agent Brett Williams. That means if people make less than $75,000 a year at current interest rates, buying a home in the area is pretty much a pipe dream.
Of the Tahoe City Post Office’s 14 employees, half live in Truckee, where homes are slightly cheaper, or in Soda Springs and Nevada, Stinson said. Of the half living on the North Shore, only a few have been able to buy homes. The salary range for U.S. Postal Service workers is $30,000 to $62,000.
Ten years ago, North Tahoe firefighters were required to live in the basin so they could respond to big fires while off-duty. But in 1992, the district had to drop the rule because the lack of affordable housing made it an “unfair requirement,” said North Tahoe Fire Protection District Chief Duane Whitelaw.
One third of the district’s firefighters commute, the closest from Truckee and the farthest from Graeagle and Gardnerville, which means there are fewer nearby if a big fire requires a larger-than-usual response.
“Our reliance on people like we used to have is gone,” Whitelaw said. “It’s not because they don’t want to live here; they just can’t.”
Firefighter/paramedics earn between $47,000 and $58,000 a year, he said. Placer County Sheriff’s deputies make between $42,000 and 52,000, while captains bring home $68,000 to $84,000.
Placer County Sheriff’s Capt. Rick Armstrong, hired last year, commutes one hour to work from Gold Run.
“I can’t afford to buy a house here and I’m the highest-paid guy here,” Armstrong said. Of 35 North Shore deputies, more than half commute because they can’t afford to buy a home here, according to the captain.
“If we have a major incident … in the old days they all lived in the basin, now they’re hours away, we really suffer,” Armstrong said.
Additional problems are created when deputies police communities they don’t live in, he added. Being part of a community where they coach and belong to clubs helps law enforcement officers connect with locals, which according to Armstrong makes them more effective in their work because they know residents’ backgrounds.
“One of the things we really push is being a member of your community, but it’s tough when you have to drive up here,” he said.
The housing crunch affects a range of professions, not only law enforcement.
Tahoe Forest Hospital recruiter Cathy Lodge said the lack of affordable housing, even in Truckee, poses the greatest challenge in hiring new people.
“We’re in a really desirable area, but the housing market is very difficult,” she said.
High real estate values that drive year-round residents away from the area leave a community of owners of second homes and tourists, making it more difficult for businesses to survive the off-seasons.
School officials say the combination of steep housing rates and a weakening business climate has been the main reason for the schools’ declining enrollment and resulting loss of funding. Schools receive money for each student, and less money makes it more difficult to maintain staffing levels and course offerings.
North Tahoe High School counselor Penny Burney said roughly 30 families that had lived in the area for years left in the past year, most due to financial strain during the economic downturn. NTHS was forced to reduce electives and eliminate one full-time teaching position this year due to declining enrollment.
Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s number of students dropped from 4,700 in 2001 to 4,502 this year, a 2.4 percent decrease, according to district figures. Enrollment has declined steadily since 1998, at between 1 and 2.6 percent a year.
Like hospital staff, NTHS Principal Bill Frey said the lack of affordable housing also makes hiring difficult. One teacher the school interviewed last year ultimately turned down the district’s job offer because of the high cost of living, he said.
Facing fewer students and less funding is particularly difficult in the context of California’s budget crisis, Frey added.
This mix of financial strains has increased NTHS’ average class size to 29 students per teacher this year, up from 28 last year. Some classes reach the district cap of 34 students per teacher, according to staffers.
“If the state budget were healthy, we may be able to maintain current staffing with lower enrollment,” Frey said. “But since it’s not, there’s no money for over-staffing.”