Living the dream has never been easy in the West’s most beloved adventure hamlets, where homes are a fortune and good jobs are few. But the rise of online short-term rentals may be the tipping point that causes idyllic outposts like Crested Butte, Colorado, to lose their middle class altogether—and with it, their soul.
Brian Barker was living in Portland, Oregon, with a well-paying union job as a spokesperson for the fire department. But despite having “a job you don’t leave”—he had an itch. “I wanted to go live in the mountains,” he says. “I didn’t want to sit in traffic all the time. I was tired of living in the city.”
“This is a great place to raise kids,” Barker, a divorced father of two young children, tells me one evening, wearing a baseball cap, a vest, and a hint of stubble. We’re seated at the Brick Oven, a locals’ hangout on Elk Avenue, the town’s main spine, where tidy wood-frame buildings in a rainbow palette glow beneath the snow-capped mass of the eponymous mountain.
Barker’s life seems enviable. He rents a “beautiful” place a mile south of town. He had his kids on skis practically before they could walk. He has a job he loves, as marketing manager for the town’s Adaptive Sports Center, a nonprofit that gives people with disabilities the chance to participate in outdoor activities. “They ski down that mountain,” he says, “and now they realize they can ride the bus to the grocery store.”
This postcard existence comes at a price, though. The cliché about remote adventure-town idylls is that people either have a second home or a second job. Barker has three jobs. “I produce videos on the side—I just shot my first wedding. Oh, and I drive an ambulance,” he says, laughing. “As a single parent”—his ex-wife lives 35 minutes away, in Gunnison—“you pretty much have to work multiple jobs.”
Not long ago, Barker stopped by the property-management company that oversees his rental to talk about a water heater on the fritz. “The manager said, ‘I know you have kids, but the owners are thinking about turning your place into a VRBO. You should probably start looking.’ ”
Barker suddenly found himself in the eye of a gathering social and economic storm, caused by the rise of the online short-term rental. From Barcelona to Boston, the world has been grappling with the arrival of home-sharing platforms. Amid any number of skirmishes—neighbor against neighbor, tourist against townie, lobbyist against legislator—cities have scrambled to get a handle on this “wild west” (one of the most common descriptors of the new home-rental landscape) and rushed to enact regulations. Everywhere you look, the battle is raging. In Flagler County, Florida, just north of Daytona Beach, 150 people turned out for a March meeting over a bill, backed by home-rental companies, that would limit how local governments can regulate short-term rentals, or STRs, as they are now frequently abbreviated. In Asheville, North Carolina, the issue proved so contentious that, late last year, a task force created to study STRs publicly splintered, according to the local Citizen-Times. In March, the city of San Diego—where residents of neighborhoods like Ocean Beach have decried the loss of local identity as rentals have proliferated—had to move a meeting on STRs to a bigger venue because of overflow crowds.
In Bozeman, in Ketchum, in Jackson, in just about every destination or gateway town, one hears a similar murmur: not only are short-term rentals squeezing the last drops out of the housing supply, but more profoundly, they are threatening the very character that drew in locals—and tourists.
This is precisely the drama playing out in Crested Butte, and Barker has found himself cast in an unwanted walk-on part. “I’m literally losing sleep over the fact that I don’t know where I’m going to be living in a few months,” he tells me. He has tracked down countless leads and joined multiple waiting lists for deed-restricted housing reserved for local workers, which comprises 21 percent of the town. He does not own a dog, despite his kids’ pestering, to make himself a more attractive tenant. He has talked with the Regional Housing Authority about Section Eight housing, the national program providing assistance to low-income renters. “Which I qualify for,” he says pointedly. “It’s pretty humiliating, at age 41, to ask the federal government for help with housing.” He does not want to leave the area, for fear of putting his child custody in jeopardy. “I’m scared,” he confesses. “I’m kind of trapped in paradise.”
Later, as I walked back to the place I had rented—via Airbnb—a few blocks away, I thought of a line I had seen on the site: “Live like a local.” But what happens when locals can’t afford to live like locals?