Jessica Entsminger’s dog, Leah, stands guard in front of the tent where they live on East Hill Road. (Photo courtesy Jessica Entsminger)

Jessica Entsminger’s dog, Leah, stands guard in front of the tent where they live on East Hill Road. (Photo courtesy Jessica Entsminger)

Short-term rental boom exacerbating the summer labor shortage

Jessica Entsminger is back to living in a tent.

She had a brief stay in a small dry cabin out East End Road where she paid $100 per week, but left for an opportunity on a commercial fishing boat. When that job unexpectedly fizzled a week later she returned to Homer. Her tiny cabin rental had been filled, and so she drove her truckload of belongings to a friend’s property on East Hill Road, back to where she had been living for most of May and June.

Entsminger’s camping set-up isn’t ideal — little privacy, exposure to the elements — but it’s typical of the current conditions summer seasonal workers can expect when they look for housing in Homer, particularly if they are on a tight budget.

A lack of affordable housing directly contributes to another problem: labor shortage. When it comes to the shortage of available workers, housing is not the only factor to consider; it also ties in to concerns ranging from public transit to childcare. When asked to comment on this issue, however, both long-time Homer residents and seasonal transplants cited housing as one of the biggest forces at play.

With inhospitable housing conditions keeping seasonal workers away, a slew of business owners have been left desperate to fill job openings even as the summer season nears the half-way mark.

The shortage of summer workers in Homer is nothing new or unexpected; it’s an annual reality that plays out in small tourist-centric towns from here to Cape Cod. Yet, for understaffed business-owners and over-stretched employees alike, the need feels a little more acute this year.

This is the first summer of open business for Lynsey Stow, owner of the Stowaway Café on East End Road. Even as a new business owner, she senses that hiring is more difficult than it used to be. Finding staff to fill shifts has been a constant worry, even as she manages the day-to-day business.

“I’m in my head, trying to hire, trying to hire, trying to hire,” she said.

Not only does this burden business owners through endless job recruitment and fewer income hours, but strains employees as well. Workers are being asked to pick up extra tasks to keep businesses humming as if nothing is amiss. This extra pressure is something that Christina Brooks has experienced as a barista at La Baleine.

“You can make more money in tips,” she said, “(But) you are overworked and that can affect customer service. Staff may be pushed to quit and it’s near impossible to find replacements.” Under these conditions “it can be hard to keep up morale and have a good time.”

Originally a transplant from Washington State, Brooks is experienced in Alaska’s seasonal work scene; before Homer, she spent three summers at a lodge in Bristol Bay. And while she expects to work hard during the summer season as an important source of income, there are limits to the quality of life she — and others — are willing to sacrifice.

“No one wants to work 14 hours only to go home to a tent,” Brooks said.

Debbie Speakman, executive director at the Homer Chamber of Commerce, quickly identified Homer’s hot short-term rental market as a driving force in Homer’s workforce shortage.

“There’s been an explosion of VRBO,” she said, referring to the Vacation Rentals by Owner online platform.

When looking at the data, “explosion” is an apt description. As reported by Aaron Bolton of KBBI in April, Homer-area Airbnb listings grew by 500 percent since 2014.

With tourism booming and short-term rentals in high demand, there are simply fewer places for summer seasonal workers to stay.

Homer’s geography only exacerbates the housing pinch because, as Speakman pointed out, “we are at the end of the road.”

Nationwide, short-term rentals have been cited as a central factor in housing crises from small tourist destinations like Homer to large metropolitan centers. This has put platforms like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway in the middle of fierce debates over how to preserve affordable housing for both locals and seasonal workers.

In June the Boston City Council approved one of the country’s most comprehensive responses to the short-term rental boom. This came after the city examined local data demonstrating a clear a clear correlation between short-term rental availability and housing costs.

The approved ordinance calls for, among other things, a ban on using Airbnb and HomeAway with respect to units that an owner doesn’t live in (so-called “investor units”). These regulations are one of many municipal attempts around the country to strike a balance between the tourism industry and affordability for long-term residents.

Other cities have taken on short-term rental with a variety of regulatory approaches. Last December Seattle passed new limits on Airbnb, capping the number of rental units per property owner and taxing these rentals on a per-night basis. In February the Charleston City Council approved an ordinance mandating, among other things, that most properties must be at least five years old before units can be put up on Airbnb or similar platforms. And just this Tuesday, the San Diego City Council voted to place major limitations on home sharing.

The regulatory landscape, however, looks different in a smaller economy like Homer’s.

As far as Speakman’s knows, there is no local plan to try and limit VRBO and Airbnb.

“How could we tell people to stop if they’re making $30,000 during the summer instead of $30,000 for the entire year?” she asked.

Meanwhile, as the housing problem continues to worsen, some business owners have taken matters into their own hands.

Jon Faulkner has owned Land’s End Resort on the Spit for 30 years. Three years ago, recognizing the acute difficulties of finding affordable summer housing, Faulkner bought a six-plex to offer reduced-price housing for employees. The building has space for 18 workers, a little more than half of the seasonal workforce he employs. But, as Faulkner stated, subsidized housing is “not a magic wand.” Recruitment at Land’s End continues to be difficult, and many small businesses simply can’t afford to invest in housing for employees.

The housing shortage not only affects seasonal workers, but year-round employees as well. This is something that John Carrico, director of human resources at South Peninsula Behavioral Health Services (or “The Center”), knows all too well.

For highly specialized positions like many of those at The Center, the hiring pool is smaller and drawn primarily from outside of Homer. In these cases, housing is a determining factor in whether or not care-providers chose to move here at all. It is in looking for this long-term housing that Carrico notes obstacles not only in the quantity of housing, but the quality as well. For people coming from outside rural Alaska, “often what’s available is not what people are accustomed to. They’ve never heard of dry cabins, they’re not used to hauling water,” Carrico said.

And even this housing isn’t cheap.

“When you see housing that doesn’t normally look like it would be housing going for five or eight hundred dollars (a month), that’s a shock for most people,” he said.

When The Center struggles to hire workers — both seasonal and long-term — it impacts how much they are able to provide to the Homer community.

“We get by,” Carrico said. “But we lose our flexibility to adapt to clients’ needs at times.”

For Corrina Pariyar, a long-time Homer resident, the housing situation should force Homer to examine how to build an economy of mutual support.

“Our community needs stability in yearlong housing, our community needs an economy to support those of us who do want to live here longer than say four months of the year,” she said. “It is our job to help one another the best we can. A place to call home, that seems like a good start.”

Mira Klein is a freelance writer living in Homer. You can contact her at mira.r.klein@gmail.com.

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