METHOW VALLEY — Cold didn’t faze Molly Starcher as she hauled 20-pound bags of confectioners’ sugar barehanded from Winthrop’s snow-covered boardwalk into The Little Dipper Café and Bakery on a zero-degree late December day.
Starcher, 27, graduated from a business incubator program and opened the sweet shop in September to showcase her Nutella-stuffed cookies and what she claims are the only macarons within a 100-mile radius. But she also took the entrepreneurial plunge as a financial strategy to secure a stable place to live amid a nationwide housing shortage that has manifested more acutely in small towns with plentiful outdoor recreation, like this remote corner of North Central Washington.
“I never thought I could buy unless something changes,” she said. “I’d like to put down roots.”
Starcher’s aspiration is butting up against a brutal reality for workers whose livelihoods are tied to the constellation of trails and towns — Twisp, Winthrop and Mazama — nestled along the burbling Methow River that flows out of the North Cascades and into the Columbia.
“There is nothing for them to buy or even rent,” said Anne Eckmann of Blue Sky Real Estate, a brokerage serving the valley. “Appreciation has been significantly faster than wage growth, and at the price point under $550,000, no one who lives and works in the local Methow Valley economy can compete.”
Housing prices are up significantly nationwide, but places like the Methow Valley have born the brunt of runaway appreciation more dramatically as even just a small number of second homeowners and remote workers relocating from larger metropolitan areas like Seattle can tip the scales. When Starcher moved to the Methow Valley in 2016, the median house price was $270,000. Five years later, that figure has nearly doubled to $500,000 (and is still rising), according to data from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service analyzed by Blue Sky Real Estate.
The rapid escalation prompted the Winthrop Town Council to declare a “housing crisis” in November. The declaration was part of a wake-up call that the Methow is no longer a well-kept secret. “We are not an alpine ski area, which tends to reek of more money, and we don’t have an airport with commuter flight service,” Eckmann said. “I thought we’d dodged a bullet. We are coming to this crisis later in the game than other mountain towns.”
The Methow’s experience tracks with its peers across the West like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Sun Valley, Idaho. “Recreation destinations on average have seen larger price increases than nonrecreation destinations,” said Megan Lawson, a housing economist with Bozeman, Montana’s Headwaters Economics, which studies the West. “Pretty consistently, it is the lowest tier that has increased the most in percentage terms, which puts a fine point on the crisis that a lot of these communities are facing with workers not being able to live anywhere nearby so businesses can’t hire or stay open.”
Mountain towns across the West are buffeted by the macroeconomic trends that have led to a savage housing market with existential implications: Is a place still a mountain town if residents whose livelihoods are tied to the mountains can no longer afford to live there? The close-knit Methow Valley thinks it can buck the trend and is leaning on its wildfire-recovery mentality to tackle this latest challenge.
“We aspire to be the mountain town that gets it right,” said Jason Paulsen, executive director of environmental nonprofit Methow Conservancy. “We’re going to continue to envision the best future we can and then work like heck to figure out how to get there.”
Starcher, originally from Chelan, moved to the Methow Valley in late 2016 from Crested Butte, Colorado, where she had reached a breaking point trying to survive on local wages in a mountain town beset by short-term rentals and second homeowners. A summertime tent city of priced-out workers threatened local water quality in 2015. Starcher lived in a closet for a spell, then in a tent in a friend’s yard.
When she arrived in the Methow, Starcher immediately found a three-bedroom apartment for $800 per month that she shared with two roommates. “It was much more down-to-earth and affordable [than Crested Butte],” she said.
But living in the Methow quickly grew harder. Over three years, Starcher cycled through four housing arrangements, including housesitting and briefly living out of her car. In 2019, she spent $17,000 to buy and renovate a shed into a tiny house with a composting toilet and no running water. She rented land for $100 per month, then later for $300 per month.
The same month that Starcher opened the bakery, she moved into a one-bedroom apartment outside of Winthrop for $900 per month to secure more living space while running her new business. At 400 square feet, the bakery is twice the size of her tiny house.
Not that a one-year lease guarantees much stability. “I can’t imagine going to next September and having to move during the crazy summer season,” she said. As for buying? “I’m crossing my fingers the market crashes,” she said, though economists like Lawson see no signs of a bubble as all-cash buyers drive up mountain town real estate.
As business owners like Starcher barely hang on in the rental market, other valley employers are struggling because their workers are left out entirely.
Jonathan Baker runs eqpd, which makes reusable bags out of industrial vinyl that are popular for hauling a day’s necessities like ski boots, hats, gloves and thermoses from house to car. An industrial designer by trade, he relocated to Twisp 10 winters ago after a career with large outdoor gear companies. His goal is to provide year-round jobs paying $17-$20 per hour without extensive skill or education requirements and untethered from the seasonal tourism economy.
The company has cycled through 29 employees in eight years. Although sales have doubled in the last two years, Baker can’t find the labor to grow his business.
“I could buy an extra sewing machine but I don’t have the person to put behind it,” he said. “I’ve narrowed down the problem. It isn’t the pay. The housing doesn’t exist or it’s only available for three months. We need something other than single-family homes. We need apartments.”
“Snuck in the back door”
On a brisk December morning, Chris Moore loaded Nordic skis into his car before making the five-minute drive from his house at the foot of Lucky Jim Bluff to his winter job as a cross-country ski instructor in Mazama. Some days he skis the 3.5-mile commute.
Moore, 34, owns the house with his partner Keri, which makes the couple a rarity among Methow Valley residents with jobs tied to the region’s outdoor recreation economy. Moore walked off the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016 and hitched a ride to town with a grizzled miner. He fell so head over heels for the valley that he signed a lease within hours, then called Keri to invite her to join him. For three years, the couple lived in a 440-square-foot studio for $450 per month. Keri taught sex education at a valley health center while Chris worked 80 hours per week in a slew of jobs: summer arborist, raft guide, bartender, ski instructor.
The couple saved aggressively to afford a down payment, but even pre-pandemic prices felt slightly out of reach. As a potential Plan B, they joined the waiting list at the Methow Housing Trust, a community land trust. In 2019, the trust finished construction on a three-bedroom, 1,350-square-foot home with mountain views and easy trail access. With a household income in the high $50,000s, about 120% of area median income, the Moores were eligible to buy the $160,000 house. During those less frenzied days in the local housing market, they had the luxury to pass on it at first, but later circled back and plunked down a deposit.
The catch? They don’t own the land underneath, the trust does. The couple is guaranteed 1.5% annual appreciation, well below the double-digit year-over-year price growth on the open market, but in exchange the house will be kept affordable in perpetuity for buyers like the Moores.
“Now it would get eaten up in one phone call,” Moore said. “It feels like I snuck in the back door.”
The Moores’ home is one of 21 sprinkled across Mazama and Twisp that the Methow Housing Trust has built since its founding in 2017, with two 8-acre parcels currently under development in Winthrop. Their goal is 70 new homes by the end of the decade. The waitlist for a trust home has doubled every year and now stands at 40 families.
“We want to maintain an integrated community,” said the trust’s executive director Danica Ready. “If you work here, you should be able to live here. We don’t want to bus people in like in Jackson Hole.”
Wildfire silver lining
While many other Western mountain towns are scrambling to play catch-up, the Methow got an unexpected pre-pandemic jump-start by way of a tragedy. The Carlton Complex fire burned some 350 housing units in 2014. In the wake of the wildfire, a group of civic leaders calling themselves Methow Valley Long Term Recovery began plotting the valley’s future. A consultant hired by the group recommended establishing a community land trust as a low-hanging fruit. The valley’s concentration of wealthy retirees and second homeowners contributed millions of dollars in funds and land to get it off the ground.
“The Methow Housing Trust was a silver lining of Carlton Complex,” Ready said.
In the same vein as the post-wildfire recovery group, a group of valley nonprofits formed the Housing Solutions Network last year to research and advocate for a suite of potential responses to the housing crisis. Among the network’s findings: House prices have outpaced wages 5.6 to 1 and the valley’s rental vacancy rate is less than 1%. They also found that Summit County, Colorado, had raised the issue’s profile with a crisis declaration, which a grassroots coalition of working class residents calling themselves Methow Housing Perseverance and organizing under the banner #WeMethow had been agitating for since earlier in 2021.
“There are still people in any community who don’t understand the magnitude and seriousness of the housing crisis and this puts a punctuation mark on that,” Ready said. “You can’t miss it if a town says, ‘This is a crisis.’”
But the housing trust is just one arrow in the Methow’s quiver and can’t solve all of the pressures facing the valley.
Legal wrangling over water rights in this arid corner of the state curtails new residential subdivisions in the Methow River watershed. Winthrop, with its urgency to act on the housing crisis, covers a small footprint compared to the surrounding land in unincorporated Okanogan County. Twisp has not yet declared a housing crisis, and business owner Baker is frustrated at what he perceives as inertia on pushing for apartment buildings from otherwise lauded long-term Mayor Soo Ing-Moody.
“Due to the great need for all types of housing, particularly affordable housing in support of our workforce, the Town has not officially pushed for any one type of housing, instead focusing on working collaboratively in support of local efforts underway to meaningfully, and intentionally, address the particular and unique housing needs of our greater rural community,” Ing-Moody wrote via email.
Even as remote workers ferrying six-figure salaries across the Cascades outbid local residents, Eckmann insists there is no hostility. “We were all new here once,” said the real estate agent, who moved to the valley in 1983. (Several sources noted that the Methow are the original inhabitants of the valley.)
Instead, there is remarkable optimism around newcomers, for all of their outsized impact on the housing market. “Historically people drawn to this community are drawn by idealism,” Ready said. “Those who have come forward really want to be part of the solution.”
Ready says well-heeled new arrivals are not the villain in this story. “The villain,” she said, “is apathy.”