Park rangers meet in front of Yosemite Falls. (David Calvert/Getty Images)
Short-term rental websites are changing the communities near Yosemite National Park.
The booming vacation rental market is creating a shortage of places for locals to rent for the long-term, and in some cases it's contributing to the area's homeless problem. And now the growing lack of long-term rentals is causing a hiring issue in Yosemite.
It takes an army of people to keep Yosemite National Park’s facilities tidy from the constant barrage of tourists -- 4 million people are expected to visit this year, with the majority in the summer months. This spring Ron Borne, with the maintenance division of the park, was on track to hire a full custodial staff.
“Of 30 seasonal custodial workers that we had positions, with funds, we were only able to fill 17 of those positions,” say Borne.
He couldn't fill 10 percent of his workforce of about 300 people -- custodians, trail crews, maintenance crews -- when they chose to not work in the park because of the lack of rentals in the area. One of his employees was recently in the process of trying to rent a house in Mariposa County.
“They were negotiating and the owner came back and said, ‘No, I’m sorry. I can’t rent to you because I can make my mortgage as an Airbnb. So, I’m sorry, I cannot do a long-term rental agreement.’”
Borne himself commutes from Merced to Yosemite. After he sold his home in the area, he wasn’t able to find a long-term rental close to the park.
That gap in hires left the park vulnerable and a bit dirty this summer. During busy months thousands use the restrooms daily at Lower Yosemite Falls.
“We’re seeing that it’s dirty,” says Yosemite National Public Information Officer Scott Gediman as he shows me one of the busiest restrooms in the park. “There's some litter I see. Somebody left some gloves and there's toilet paper. We would like the public to see a cleaner restroom.”
The Lower Yosemite Falls restrooms have multiple stalls and sinks. Gediman says one tour bus full of visitors can make it look like no one's cleaned it in days.
“In the middle of the summer we’ll get 50 to 60 tour buses a day,” Gediman says. “With the staffing shortages that we experienced this summer there were times when I walked in personally and it would just be a lot messier than it is now.”
Gediman says potential employees can’t find places to live because so many long-term rentals are being converted to vacation rentals, like Airbnb and VRBO, in the communities that lead into the park. In Madera County there are more than 300 short-term rentals and over 600 in Mariposa County. Both counties have established guidelines for short-term rentals, but aren’t discouraging them because they stand to make a lot of money from taxes they bring in.
So far this year Madera County has collected over $3 million in taxes from hotel and short-term rental visitors.
'After a while it takes a toll on a person'
Patty Radanovich-Sousa is a property manager in the gold rush town of Mariposa. She gets calls daily from people looking for long-term rentals.
“We’ve been turning away people since the first of the year consistently,” says Radanovich-Sousa. “We have had one or two homes come up and surprisingly they were large expensive homes and they surprisingly rented within a month.”
She says it's almost easier to buy a home in the mountains near Yosemite than it is to rent a spot. Radanovich-Sousa says there’s a long waiting list for rentals here and she wishes she could rent to more park employees.
“You also then have an opportunity as a business person to weed through your applicants a little bit more,” says Radanovich-Sousa. “You can get good applicants, which means long-term applicants. The other thing is park service people are one of our best customers.”
Still it's not just low-paid short-term employees that are saying it’s hard to find rentals in the area.
“Our permanent workforce is making good money, but they’re not making enough to afford some of the better homes in the area,” says Kathleen Morse, division chief for strategic planning with Yosemite National Park. “It hits everybody fairly equally. It’s not like the permanent job and the permanent salary gives you that much of a leg up.”
The park employs around 450 long-term employees and around 600 short-term employees, but only has about 400 beds for them. At the height of the summer the park needs about 200 more, but Morse says NPS has no plans to build more at this time. Morse says many who take jobs end up having to live further and further away in places like Merced. She says hires then have to decide if the long commute and cost to travel into the park are worth it.
“After a while it takes a toll on a person,” say Morse. “So we’ll have people for a while and then they’ll fall off, they’ll disappear and then they’ll quit. And then we’ll have to go through the hiring process again. So you lose efficiencies.”
In response Morse joined a new taskforce in Mariposa County to come up with ways to increase housing opportunities here.
“I don’t think [the county] feels like they have their arms around the problem,” says Morse. “So this committee is designed to examine the different opportunities out there. Is there a way the county can be more effective in gathering resources and directing them towards this problem?”
Morse anticipates the problem will get worse next year and that means she and her team are going to have come up with a solution pretty quick, but at this point, she admits, she doesn’t have one.