Solving the Employee Housing Problem – Another Modest Proposal

[As we busily get ready for the season, the Door County Half Marathon, and the mailing and distribution of the new issue of Door County Living magazine, I went back into my archives to a column that ran in the Door Reminder back in 1999: the timing seems appropriate and I still think my idea has merit. Okay, the last part of that statement isn’t true, but this is still timely, since the problem of employee housing has never really been solved.]

If you pick up any of the local papers, you can’t help but notice all the “help wanted” advertising filling the back pages. It happens every year around this time, and has for years and years. Nonetheless, based on the number of ads and conversations with local business owners, the problem seems more acute.

Last Friday’s edition of the Door County Advocate filled out almost four and a half pages with “help wanted” ads and last week’s Door Reminder had more than five pages. Indeed, the situation is such that the Advocate recently ran a front page story detailing the efforts of local businesses to recruit employees from overseas for the summer months (this practice has been going on for years at many of the larger businesses in the county).

The main problem, of course, is not a lack of people willing to work in Door County. The peninsula offers the same attractions to would-be employees that it offers tourists: the water, the scenic beauty, the arts, etc. The main problem is that once an individual is hired in Door County, they have to find someplace to live.

There are some businesses that provide housing for their employees. These businesses tend to be the larger employers, if not in sheer size then in their volume of business. But the reality of the situation is that providing housing for employees is extremely costly, despite the fact that (in most cases) the housing provided is modest and tends toward a dormitory environment regardless of the building used.

At this point in the peninsula’s history, lodging of any sort for seasonal employees to rent has largely vanished. Those property owners who have a cottage or an apartment prefer to rent to tourists based on economic reality. A small cottage rented to a summer employee (employees is the more likely scenario) might garner the landlord $3,000 for the three months of the summer season. If the same cottage is rented to tourists on a weekly basis during the same period of time, the landlord could realize slightly more money in one month charging the relatively economical price of $800 per week.

In other words, Door County’s popularity is bringing more and more tourists, which is resulting in more and more businesses needing more and more help. The increase in tourists, however, is leaving less room for employees and that is crippling the businesses that have opened to earn money from the tourists. This, folks, in the immortal parlance of Joseph Heller, is a classic Catch-22.

Indeed, Door County’s situation might amaze even Mr. Heller. You see, Door County doesn’t simply suffer from the Catch-22 I outlined, we are also handicapped in finding employees by the fact that we are a peninsula. Unlike the Wisconsin Dells or Cedarburg, to use two other popular tourist destinations within our state, Door County is unable to draw employees from surrounding communities. While employees can commute, with relative ease, from Madison and the surrounding areas, to the Dells, and Cedarburg can draw employees from Milwaukee, Mequon, Grafton, etc., Door County can only draw employees from the south.

Compounding the problem is that the nearest community of any size to the south is Green Bay – 75 miles south of Sister Bay and a much longer commute than the mileage indicates during the busy traffic of the tourist season. So the fact that Door County is a peninsula, the key feature that lures so many tourists to our small communities, is one of the key problems in finding adequate staff to run our businesses. In other words, folks, we have a Catch-22 times two.

So what is Door County to do? Well, folks, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, allow me to venture “A Modest Proposal.”

In what is certainly the first time (and almost certainly the last time), I think we should follow the lead set by California. As housing costs have rocketed skyward in the Silicon Valley area, employees have taken to renting floor space in homes. In the report I read, one individual was renting the corner of a living room in San Jose for eight hours each night at the cost of $180 per month. Folks, my living room has four corners that are completely unused from 11 pm until 7 am each day. The math on four tenants at $180 per month for three months results in a gross of $2,160 for the summer. Hell, I’ve got an old chicken coop in the backyard that, with a minimal amount of work, could probably hold six more, meaning an additional $3,240.

If this idea isn’t palatable, perhaps there is another solution. In northern Door where the lack of employees can reach the point of desperation there is one virtually untapped resource during the summer months that we have plenty of: boat barns. Imagine several of these mammoth structures filled with row upon row of triple-decker bunk beds and several dozen chemical toilets stationed just outside the main doors. They’d be virtual villages unto themselves!

Folks, the solution is within our grasp, or, more aptly stated, under our feet. We can’t change the fact that Door County is a peninsula. And we can’t stop (nor do we want to stop) the tourists from coming to vacation. And, as long as the tourists are coming, businesses are going to be desperate for employees. But as long as the tourists are coming, there won’t be enough room – in any conventional lodging – for employees. So the answer must be unconventional.

Boat barns as employee lodging are the great resource just waiting to solve one of our abiding problems – we just need to act!