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Keep Tahoe Local, Not Faux-cal

By Amy Westervelt

How Bay Area visitors and second-home owners can better support the community

Bay Area visitors to Lake Tahoe, and its “summer locals” should be mindful about their impact on the year-round community.

A friend of mine whose family all live in the Bay Area but own five houses in Tahoe (four in Truckee, one on the beach in West Shore) told me on a recent visit that she’s been coming to Tahoe most of her life and has never found the locals to be quite as salty as they are right now. “People are downright rude,” she said. “It’s becoming really unpleasant.”

She started talking about this a bit last year, too, and said she’d begun to feel like she shouldn’t admit to being from the Bay Area and had begun telling people in stores and restaurants that she was a “summer local,” so that she could differentiate herself from the tourists.

“Noooo,” I groaned at the time. “That’s so much worse.”

She gave mea look, which I probably deserved; my salty local side was getting in the way of my good-friend side. At any rate, this year, I decided to explain the problem to my friend, and to anyone else who loves Tahoe, and, last week, to the woman behind me in line at the Safeway, complaining to her friend about why that grocery store always has such long lines when her store in Marin works so much more efficiently.

“They can’t keep enough staff because no one who gets paid a grocery store salary can afford to live here anymore,” I explained.

“Oh!” she said, taking a step back. “I had heard that housing had gotten bad, but not that bad.”

It is, in fact, that bad. Housing has never been easy in Tahoe, nor has it ever been easy to live here year-round. Locals typically have more than one job to make ends meet, but figure it’s worth it for the chance to live in a transcendent place most people only get to visit.

In the past five years or so, it’s gotten noticeably worse. And no, not just because of the “Airbnb effect” that’s impacting every place people like to visit. That has, of course, had an impact here, as a handful of owners have opted to turn what once were long-term rentals into vacation rentals, but it is far from the only story.

A bigger part of the problem is the fact that of the 38,937 housing units (not including condos or hotel-condos) in the Truckee–north Tahoe area, 60 percent are second homes. That number is up 8 percent since 2000. More than 65 percent of homes in the area sit vacant half of the year or more. A similar trend is happening in South Lake Tahoe, where rundown motels have become de facto residences while many of the residences now function as hotels.

Many second homes in the region are being purchased by Bay Area residents who can’t afford a house in San Francisco, so they buy their vacation home and rent their primary residence. It’s not uncommon for second-home owners to use their homes one weekend a quarter or less. Some homes sit empty 100 percent of the time.

“When you hear the stories, it starts to make sense,” says Stacy Caldwell, executive director of the Tahoe-Truckee Community Foundation. “Oftentimes it was grandma or grandpa who bought the home in the early part of their marriage. They had their babies and they spent Christmases and vacations here, and then those babies grew up, and maybe they started a tradition with their children. Maybe they didn’t and now they’re older. And those third-generation children are now scattered around the country and that house is sitting there, unused. It might be an asset to them, or it might be a burden to them. We don’t know. So how do we begin that conversation of unlocking those homes and actually recognizing what those home-owners want? Empty homes aren’t good for anyone. They’re not good for a community and they’re not good as an asset.”

And yet second-home developments continue to be green lit, particularly those that sit just outside the Truckee town limits in unincorporated Placer County, which has essentially rolled out the red carpet for every second-home development proposal in the past few years.

Truckee has been trying to balance out those developments with residential developments aimed at long-term residents, including new condos as part of a hotel project, a community housing project down on the river front, and a redevelopment project at the railyard downtown. When the railyard project was passed, my friend’s brother complained to me that it would “make Truckee look like Emeryville. We come here to get away from that!

I asked him where he likes to go for coffee and meals around town. “Oh, Coffeebar for coffee and I like Moody’s for dinner and drinks,” he said. I asked him where he thought the servers in those places live and pointed out that there aren’t a lot of one- and two-bedroom homes or apartments around. “Huh. I guess I never really thought about that …”

And therein lies the proverbial rub: when you’re visiting a place, you rarely think about those things. But perhaps we all should, particularly those who own homes in communities other than where they live. Tahoe depends on visitors and its second-home owner community, and most frequent visitors prefer to feel like part of the community rather than have locals treat them with disdain

The solution is not to try to pretend you’re a local (a faux-cal), but to actually participate in the community; think about where the waiters who serve you live, persuade your family to downsize from five to maybe one or two houses, think a bit about where you’re staying next time you visit and what impact it might have. And if you’re really feeling ambitious, consider getting involved in some way and bringing solutions to the table.

Tahoe has never been an easy place to call home but it’s at a tipping point, and it’s getting dangerously close to becoming a place where no one can live. Which would make it a terrible place to visit.

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