Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Glacier National Park reached out for employee housing, people responded

| June 28, 2023 9:15 AM


For the Hungry Horse News

Local homeowners answered the call from Glacier National Park officials earlier this year, leasing vacation rentals and apartments to National Park Service seasonal employees. Park officials say the program has allowed them to hire and house 18 additional people.

Glacier’s Chief of Facilities Jim Foster said the park has struggled in recent years to hire as many employees as officials would like. One of the biggest reasons is housing: seasonal workers can no longer find short-term housing that fits their budget. When a park employee is asked to pay $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, that constitutes the majority of their paycheck, he said.

“I’d say, pre-Covid, and maybe a little bit earlier than that, those temporary employees could come to the valley and they could generally find a place to live,” Foster said. “But you can’t do that anymore, the prices are absolutely astronomical.”

According to the online rental platform Zumper, the average one-bedroom apartment in Kalispell costs nearly $1,300 a month. For a two-bedroom apartment, the average price is around $1,800 a month.

Foster said park officials found out in February that they would receive $160,000 from Congress to put toward employee housing this season. This was right around when they were sorting out housing for potential hires.

“We were starting to develop our lists of who needed housing and what our supervisors needed for employees,” Foster said. “We did not have enough beds to house 23 people [in park housing]. So that was the motivation to go out there and beat the bushes hard to try to find something.”

He did a lot of cold calling, contacting people who had rental listings posted online.

“I would say, ‘Hey, I’m Jim, I work for the park. We’re looking to maybe rent some units. We have some parameters that you have to meet and so forth. Are you interested?’ And usually, they would say sure,” Foster said.

The process to register a home with the federal government for leasing purposes is a rigorous one, Foster said. According to the park’s advertisement, units could have been one-, two- or three-bedroom apartments or homes, and must include major appliances and laundry facilities. If park officials deemed a rental suitable, the property owner then had to register it through Sam.gov.

It’s a process that Foster described as onerous, but necessary for the landlord to receive payment.

Despite the red tape, Foster said they were able to secure housing for 18 people: two houses and multiple apartments in Columbia Falls and Kalispell.

Because a lot of the properties submitted were in other years vacation rentals, like Airbnbs and VRBOs, Foster was surprised that so many people responded to the park’s request.

“I think they were just extending goodwill to the park,” Foster said. “I thought that it was pretty neat that the community came in and helped us out.”

Inside the park, officials have the ability to house around 117 people. That includes occasionally doubling people up in bedrooms.

“It has to be big enough that you could fit two beds, two dressers and for people to be able to move around. So, it’s not like we’re trying to force them into a tiny little, college dorm,” Foster said.

Glacier National Park Public Information Officer Gina Icenoggle said for their seasonal employees, they mostly hire people in their late 20s and early 30s. She said these are professionals, who often are less interested in sharing rooms with other people.

It’s a competitive hiring pool regardless, according to Foster. At the same time Glacier National Park is hiring, so are all of the other national parks around the country.

“We’d love to hire the tribal folks, we’d like to hire the Flathead folks … if we could hire all locals, we wouldn’t have a housing problem,” Foster said.

Efforts for the leasing program were focused on employees working in the west side of the park. Foster said there isn’t as much of a need for housing employees on Glacier’s east side.

He said they would like to implement the program again next year if they are once again allotted the funds by the federal government. Hoping that is the case, he said they are working hard to make sure property owners leasing to the park have a good experience.

“My goal is to make sure every single property manager we work with, we treat them like kings,” Foster said.