White Salmon, one of the Gorge’s vacation hot spots, can’t operate its restaurants

White Salmon, Klickitat County – The White Salmon vacation spot in the Columbia Gorge attracts tens of thousands of visitors and weekend warriors annually. The town of about 2,600 sits on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River, 30 miles south of Mount Adams, and is a gateway to a hotbed for kayaking, windsurfing, whitewater rafting, mountain biking and skiing — as well as a thriving wine scene.

Good luck scoring a dinner reservation during the tourist season.

In bustling downtown White Salmon, a plethora of “Help Wanted” signs hang in restaurant windows, where many servers, cooks and other blue-collar workers have been priced out of town. As developers seek to attract vacationers with short-term units, affordable rentals — and housing in general — are becoming scarce.

Labor and affordable housing shortages are hitting cities and businesses throughout the Pacific Northwest. But the situation seems particularly tense in vacation destinations like White Salmon, where there are lots of tourists, but not enough servers and cooks to feed them.

Due to staff shortages, some restaurants have shifted from full service to counter service, asking customers to move their own tables. Other restaurant owners house their servers and cooks who can’t afford rent at White Salmon.

Alarmed by the housing shortage, the city has set aside properties to build more low-income, affordable apartments and homes — and the City Council even stopped one developer from converting a mobile home park into another expensive subdivision.

White Salmon restaurateurs have warned that the lack of affordable housing will decimate many small businesses and, in the long term, turn the city’s tourism industry upside down.

“Most of the people who work for us make $24 to $45 an hour after tips, and that’s not enough to live here,” said Sarah Morton Erasmus, co-owner of upscale restaurant Henni’s Kitchen & Bar. “Isn’t that sad?”

Welcome to white salmon

Downtown White Salmon has dozens of bars and restaurants, including tasting rooms, a mezcal bar, and the popular White Salmon Baking Company, which draws long lines at 8 a.m. In the past, businesses in the city could assemble a staff, workers attracting great tips from vacationers and the surrounding mountains and waters.

These lures don’t need much help in the kitchen when there is nowhere for workers to sleep.

For Ubaldo Hernandez, executive director of the Latino environmental and social justice organization Comunidades, the sockeye salmon crisis is a humanitarian issue.

While taking a walk around the city last month, he pointed out an apartment building across from City Hall. A group of families living there moved because they could not afford the rent increase. Some apartments have been converted into short-term rentals for tourists.

A few blocks away lies a vacant two-acre lot, once the site of the Washington Street Trailer Park. Hernandez said 20 working-class Mexican families were evicted in 2020 to make way for a planned housing development. He drove to another former mobile home park that had already been converted into a row of cottages.

“This is not just an issue for the Mexican community or the immigrant community, this is an issue for the working class who cannot afford to live here,” Hernandez said. “They’re moving further out as they have to drive 40 to 80 miles a day. It costs more money to come to work at White Salmon, so some find other jobs.”

Christina Lancaster, who owns and operates Rumors Hair Studio downtown, used to work as a waiter at Henni’s, in addition to two other jobs. She said it was so difficult to get apartments to rent for a year in White Salmon that she slept in a nearby public park for five days.

The studios and one-bedroom apartments she found in the city required “about 40 to 50% of my income just for rent, and that didn’t include utilities,” Lancaster said.

Last year, she bought a used 16-foot travel trailer to sleep in so she wouldn’t have to budget for a rent increase every time her lease was renewed — or worry about potentially turning her house into an Airbnb.

“I can’t imagine renting a one-bedroom in the area,” Lancaster said. “I won’t be able to pay for my car.”

Housing staff

At Henni’s, which opened in 2010, owners Morton Erasmus and her husband, Christian Erasmus, hire workers at their home in the city so they have enough help in the kitchen to run their restaurant.

Their sous chef lived in their spare bedroom rent-free for about four years; Another chef crashed on his couch one summer day. At one point, two other former workers slept in their car because they couldn’t accommodate everyone.

“I really hope some sort of solution can be found, but short-term rentals, inflation and a host of other things seem to be putting us all on an unsustainable path,” Morton Erasmus said. “I would say it’s reached a breaking point.”

Some restaurant owners Others in the community see short-term rentals as the reason this once-quiet city is suffering. Rentals that once went to seasonal workers and the working class are now reserved for Airbnb and other short-term rental services because landlords can make more in a week of renting to tourists than they can in a month of long-term rental to locals.

Shawn Simmons and Jenessa Vandy, the couple who own the downtown banquet Market & Delicatessen said at least 10 employees in recent years slept in their cars because they couldn’t find affordable homes or because they lost leases when units were converted to short-term rentals. The couple allowed another employee to sleep in their trailer.

Searching for a permanent solution, the owners of Eid purchased a modest mixed-use property downtown last fall. They installed an ice cream stand at the front entrance, but their main motivation for purchasing the property was that it had a 650-square-foot, one-bedroom unit in the back that they could rent to a valet who needed service. house. The couple plans to build a second unit to house another employee at below-market rent.

If you can’t provide housing for employees, you may not have employees, Simmons said.

These words will be prophetic.

On a recent weekend night, one server, short-handed, blocked off part of his dining room so one server could keep up with orders. The next day, during lunch, VanDeHey was moving between workstations, mixing an Old Fashioned and a French 75 cocktail behind the bar before rushing to the cash register to take sandwich and cheese orders for hikers looking to hike the nearby Spirit Falls Trail.

Feast has on its payroll half of the 20 bartenders, cooks and servers the restaurant needs to operate at full capacity.

“If two people report being sick, we have to close the restaurant,” Simmons said. “This is madness.”

The challenges of this trendy city’s food scene are familiar in popular Pacific Northwest playgrounds from Lake Chelan to Hood River, Oregon.

In Hood River, just across the Columbia from White Salmon, the owners of the critically acclaimed restaurant and bar Celilo bought a three-story house to rent to some of their chefs, servers and other support staff, charging the rented staff about $400 each each month. Otherwise, your bistro may not have enough front and back assistance to stay open.

Campbell Resort on Lake Chelan reported it was short about 100 workers, roughly a third of the 330 employees it typically employs at the beginning of the summer. The resort converted two houses into shared living spaces for seasonal workers.

On Orcas Island, restaurateurs in the Eastsound tourist area have purchased trailers or built butcher units in their own yards to house employees.

Sun Mountain Lodge in the Methow Valley, one of Washington’s leading luxury lodges, also opened its dining room only three nights a week throughout half the summer because management couldn’t find enough workers. Chefs and servers with families can’t find housing or afford to live in the overpriced local market, said James Beard Award-winning Chef Jason Wilson.

Finding solutions

These issues concerned the White Salmon community enough that the mayor and City Council, at one point, called for a temporary moratorium on construction projects, as well as permits for short-term rentals, to address the shortage of affordable housing. Since then, the city has set aside land to build more affordable housing.

But long-term solutions take time. And in White Salmon, the housing crisis comes with an additional challenge: This scenic city has no room to grow.

The city has an area of ​​about 1.5 square miles and has 117.5 acres of developable land, according to the Klickitat County Buildable Land Inventory Methodology Report. Some developers suspect less is the case, since some of the parcels are located on steep, rocky terrain, where it would be too expensive to run residential sewer and water lines.

Like many ski towns and backcountry areas that have become vacation destinations, White Salmon limits the number of homes that can be used for Airbnbs or similar rentals, announcing last year that no more than 10% of homes in any neighborhood can be used for short-term rentals. City records show White Salmon has 41 homes designated for short-term rentals.

According to AirDNA, a research company that tracks vacation rentals, the average cost of renting a vacation home in White Salmon was $268 per night in July, according to the latest numbers. The number of short-term rentals has risen by 55% in the past five years, according to the research firm.

Low housing inventory has led to bidding wars. Zillow estimates that the median home value in White Salmon has risen 62% in the past five years, to $715,051. While the number may be inaccurate, because outliers can skew the average, the increase in housing prices in White Salmon reflects the exploding prices throughout the Gorge tourist area.

Middle-class buyers are having a hard time buying a home, too, as over-bidden investors look to take advantage of lucrative short-term rentals, and higher-paid aerospace engineers and technology workers have settled in for drone company Insitu, based in nearby Bingen. In the region.

Mayor Marla Keithler said her family would not have been able to afford to live in White Salmon had she and her husband not purchased their home in the city in 2019.

“The median sales price is $690,000,” she said, referring to real estate projections from the Regional Multiple Listing Service. “I don’t see how anyone, as a first-time homebuyer, can afford a $690,000 home.”

Since affordable housing is the city’s No. 1 priority, the Mayor and Council have designated one property for use in a future zoning that will include at least 10 affordable townhomes. The council has reserved another plot of land to build an apartment complex for low-income families, and the dilapidated 36-unit complex designated for low-income residents will undergo a facelift this winter.

In its most aggressive move, the council changed the zoning code to prevent a developer from converting a mobile home complex on Washington Street into a big-money subdivision.

In 2020, about 20 families from the trailer park asked the council for help after receiving eviction notices from the property owner, Brookside Development, who wanted to build homes on the valuable land. The council could not prevent mobile home owners from being evicted, but it changed the building code to prevent the developer from starting construction unless the project includes low-income housing.

Brookside Development could not be reached for comment on what it plans to do with the parcel. According to minutes of the March 2020 public hearing, the developer said in a statement: “Although we are one of the property owners most affected by the proposed repeal, we fully support the city’s goals.”

Hernandez, the community activist who organized the protest, praised White Salmon Council for allocating land to build more affordable housing, but said the city had no choice to do so.

“They need us,” he said of the working class. “Who’s going to clean those rentals or work in those restaurants if we’re not here?”

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