They just kept coming. The day-trippers, Airbnbers, second-home owners, and unmasked revelers. Unleashed after California’s first statewide COVID-19 lockdown ended in late June of last year, they swarmed Lake Tahoe in numbers never before seen, even for a tourist region accustomed to the masses. “It was a full-blown takeover,” says Josh Lease, a tree specialist and longtime Tahoe local.
July Fourth fireworks were canceled, but that stopped no one. August was a continuation of what Lease called a “shit show.”
The standstill traffic was one thing; the locals were used to that. But the trash—strewn across the sand, floating along the shore, piled around dumpsters—was too much. Capri Sun straws, plastic water-bottle caps, busted flip-flops, empty beer cans. One day in early August, Lease picked up a dirty diaper on a south shore beach and dangled it before a crowd. “This anyone’s?” he asked.
Lease was pissed. He couldn’t believe the lack of respect people had for this beautiful area, his home for two decades. Plus, they’d invaded during a pandemic, bringing their COVID with them.
That day, after the diaper incident, Lease went back to his long-term rental in Meyers, California, a few miles south of the lake at the juncture of Highways 89 and 50, where he could see the endless stream of cars. An otherwise even-keeled guy, he logged on to Facebook and vented. “Let’s rally,” he posted on his page, adding that he wanted to put together a “non welcoming committee.” He was joking—sort of. But word spread like the wildfires that would soon rage uncontrollably around the state. Before long someone had designed a flyer of a kid wearing a gas mask, with a speech bubble that read “Stay Out of Tahoe.” It went viral.
On Friday, August 14, at four o’clock, over 100 locals from around the lake began to gather. They commandeered the roundabouts leading into the Tahoe Basin’s major towns—Truckee, Tahoe City, Kings Beach, and Meyers in California, and Incline Village in Nevada—to greet the weekend hordes. Young women in bikini tops, elderly couples in floppy hats, and bearded dads bouncing babies in Björns held up hand-painted signs: “Respect Tahoe Life,” “Your Entitlement Sucks!,” and “Go Back to the Bay.” One old-timer plastered his truck with a banner that read “Go Away” and drove around and around a traffic circle.
But summer turned to fall, which turned to winter, which became spring, and the newcomers are still here. It’s not just the tourists anymore, whose numbers have ebbed and flowed with lockdown restrictions and the weather and whose trash has gone from wet towels twisted in the sand to plastic sleds split in the snow. There’s another population of people who came and never left: those freed by COVID from cubicles and work commutes. They migrated, laptops in tow, to mountain towns all over the West, transforming them into modern-day boomtowns: “Zoom-towns.”
(Photo: Parker Ulry/Unsplash)
“Absolutely bananas.” That’s how Truckee-based realtor Kaili Sanchez of Sierra Sotheby’s described real estate activity in 2020. And, she added with an air of disbelief when we spoke in mid-January, it’s still going strong.
The bulk of Sanchez’s clients come from the Bay Area and L.A. “They’ll say, ‘I want all the screens out of the house,’” she says. “‘I just want to hear the birds! See the stars!’” But much of the activity is also represented by locals capitalizing on the frenzy and cashing out, she says. They’re heading to Reno, Nevada. To Montana. Back east, to the ice, to get two houses for the price of the Tahoe one. Year-over-year stats from Sierra Sotheby’s are staggering: In November 2019, the agencyhad 67 pending sales, totaling $38.2 million. In November 2020, it had 94 pending sales, totaling $127.6 million.
According to Zillow, Truckee (population 16,735) saw 193 home sales in December 2020 alone, an 88 percent increase over December 2019. Home values were way up, too—December’s median sale price in Truckee was $833,000, an almost 30 percent increase compared with the same month the year before. Sales have soared as high as the Sierra Nevada’s snow-covered peaks, especially for properties with views of them. In wealthy Incline Village, the median home price hit $2.2 millionin February 2021. And even on the relatively humble, less developed west shore, the median sales price in 2020 was $756,000. Inventory is at a historic low, while demand is at an all-time high. For example, Truckee’s Tahoe-Donner neighborhood typically has 80 to 100 homes for sale at any given time during the summer. In the first week of 2021, it had six. Buyers are signing contracts after Zoom walk-throughs, or even sight unseen, says Sanchez, and multiple offers over the asking price are now standard, as are all-cash bids. More than one Tahoe local has gotten a knock on their door, accompanied by an unsolicited offer: “I’ll give you $2 million for your house.”
“It’s the wildest time,” says realtor Katey Brandenburg, who works on Tahoe’s Nevada side. For her and other realtors around the lake, the autumn of 2020 felt like winning the lottery. “I paid off a lifetime of debt—28 years of loans, college, credit cards, and cars—in three months.”
All told, 2020 saw more than 2,350 homes sold across the Tahoe Basin, for a boggling $3.28 billion, up from $1.76 billion in 2019, according to data analyzed by Sierra Sotheby’s. That $3 billion stat is on a par with 2020 home-sales revenues in Aspen, Colorado (albeit there, the latest average home-sale price came in at $11 million). The trend is in line with real estate records being shattered from Sun Valley, Idaho, to Stowe, Vermont. And according to a just-released market update, it hasn’t stopped: in the first quarter of 2021, median prices for single-family homes increased by an astronomical 70 percent year over year in Truckee, 72 percent in South Lake, and 81 percent in Incline Village.
With Tahoe just a four-hour drive (well, without traffic) from a Silicon Valley–funded tech city, San Francisco, the Zoom-town effect here embodies all of the cultural and economic tensions fueling the mountain edition of the Great COVID Migration. “It’s the white-collar flight,” says Colleen Dalton, CEO of Visit Truckee-Tahoe. Urban professionals are trading in the proverbial button-downs—or rather their Silicon Valley hoodies—for puffy jackets.
“I’ve had several California clients tell me, ‘I don’t care if it’s Jackson or Park City,’” says star realtor Katherine Rixon from Ketchum, Idaho. “They just wanted a mountain town.”
According to U.S. Postal Service data analyzed by the San Francisco Chronicle, Truckee alone saw a 1,082 percent increase in San Francisco transplants between August 2019 and August 2020. More San Francisco households requested a change of address to that greater area’s 96161 zip code than to any other zip code in the country. And notably: “A disproportionate number of people who purchased homes in Tahoe in 2020 are employees of some of the largest tech companies in the Bay Area,” says Deniz Kahramaner, founder of Atlasa, a real estate brokerage firm that specializes in data analytics. Of the 2,280 new-home buyers Atlasa identified throughout the Tahoe region in 2020, roughly 30 percent worked at software companies. The top three employers were Google (54 buyers), Apple (46), and Facebook (34).
Prior to the pandemic, most people who moved to the mountains would probably consider themselves the type to prioritize place over career: where you live comes first, what you do to support yourself while living there is a distant second. Jobs in the mountains rarely came with Slack accounts or stock options or even, very often, full-time salaries. You were either employed by the mountain or the restaurants, shops, and hotels surrounding it, or you carved your own path as a free agent and Lived the Dream, making bank and riding bumps. But in Zoom town, you can work for Pinterest and ski powder. The Dream has become a reality, and with it, the potential for a kind of culture clash that inherently follows all that cash: when those who have it and those who don’t begin living side by side.(Photo: Tim Parsons)
Lake Tahoe has long been home to money. Some of the West’s wealthiest families first ringed the lake with their summer estates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these historic properties, like the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion, are now state parks popular for snowshoeing in winter and picnicking in summer. The classic Cal-Neva Hotel and Casino, which sits on the north side of the lake, was owned by Frank Sinatra in the 1960s and was a haunt for JFK, Hollywood celebrities, and mobsters alike. Oracle’s Larry Ellison bought it for $36 million in 2018. (Plans for redevelopment and reopening have since been paused by the pandemic.)
And yet somehow, despite Tahoe’s proximity to the Bay Area, it’s managed to stay relatively low-key compared to its posher mountain-town peers. Most of the swank has been confined to the resort villages (such as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Northstar); behind the country-club gates at the 2,200-acre, mansion-studded Martis Camp; and at secluded lakefront estates, like Mark Zuckerberg’s $59 million compound on the west shore, which he bought in 2019. When I ask Heidi Hill Drum, CEOof the Tahoe Prosperity Center, why the area has neveroozed glitz, she hypothesizes that part of it may be because Tahoe is a more local, drive-up market, unlike Aspen, Telluride, and its ilk, where visitors fly in.
Still, locals worry that the “Aspenification of Tahoe” is underway. “Private jet traffic is just as busy as it was before, but the character of flights has changed,” says Hardy Bullock, director of aviation and community services for the Truckee Tahoe Airport. Now it’s mostly midweek business travel, whereas before the pandemic, it was Bay Area families flying in and out on weekends. “Those families live here now,” he says.So do young, kid-free professionals with money to burn. At one lakefront restaurant, I recently overheard a stylish couple talking startup valuations and ordering rounds of $100 bottles of wine on an ordinary Wednesday.
They migrated, laptops in tow, to mountain towns all over the West, transforming them into modern-day boomtowns: “Zoom towns.”
Silicon Valley money hasn’t dramatically transformed the character, or tenants, of Tahoe’s various downtowns yet. A walk-up lift ticket this winter at Squaw Valley might be pushing $230, but that’s a symptom of the ski industry, not the tech industry. (Locals old and new have season passes anyway.) Most businesses in downtown Truckee are still locally owned, says Cassie Hebel, executive director of the Merchants Association. Grassroots organizations like Mountain Area Preservation have worked hard to keep it that way. Unlike Aspen, it’s doubtful a Prada store will ever come to Truckee, and Hebel says it’s doubtful the town would even support a Prana store. People here don’t want global brands and chains, whether they’re luxury or low-key, she explains. And unlike the more remote ski towns, those visitors who do can just drive back to the Bay for that.
What’s more, there are a lot of budding upsides to the influx of new residents: Diversity. Locally operated grocery delivery (which has provided jobs to laid-off restaurant workers during the pandemic). More culinary and cultural offerings. Higher property taxes going toward public services. And more money eventually pumping into bars and restaurants. Drum sees the potential for a more diversified economy and workforce in a traditional tourist destination. What if Strava opened a Tahoe City satellite office? she muses. What if a college grad who comes to ski could stay and be an engineer? What if Santa Cruz Bicycles decided to have a testing base out here?
Finally, more homes being filled with full-timers means fewer homes being rented out on Airbnb for, say, Tuesday-night bachelor parties. (North Tahoe’s Washoe County recently passed an ordinance cracking down on short-term rentals, aiming to help curb the ongoing complaints about them.) Even with the influx of new homeowners, the Tahoe Basin actually has fewer full-time residents than it did at its peak in 2000. Says Drum, “We’ve got room for more.”
There is, however, one glaring issue with all this rapid, high-priced growth: the people who actually make a mountain town run—the ski instructors and patrollers, lift operators and shuttle drivers, housekeepers and snowcat mechanics, cooks and servers—can no longer afford to live there.
This isn’t a new problem. Nor is it unique to Tahoe. Lack of affordable housing in regions dominated by tourism and the low-paying service sectors that support it is a decades-old issue. It’s just suddenly on steroids.
“It’s very scary,” says Deb Lee, pulling down her mask to take a sip of coffee from her favorite café, Zuri. It’s a sunny, snowless afternoon in mid-January, and we’re sitting on opposite tapestry-draped couches outside Truckee’s beloved 50-50 Brewery and adjoining Drunken Monkey restaurant, where her daughter, Katie Baillargeon, is the general manager. (And which was preparing to reopen for outdoor dining again the next day.)
Deb and her husband, Spencer, moved to Truckee from New England in 2014. A lively, fleece-clad couple pushing 60, the Lees wanted to be closer to Katie, who settled here after college in 2012. Deb found a job in town, the couple fell in love with the community, and eventually, in 2018, they signed a three-year lease on a cabin near Northstar. “We cared for it like our own,” says Deb.
When COVID-19 hit, Deb, who is immunocompromised, couldn’t return to her retail job. But she and her tight-knit neighbors brought each other food. “We helped one another,” she says, tearing up.
On August 1 of last year, the Lees came home from a walk and discovered an eviction notice taped to the door. “Not even a phone call,” says Spencer. “We had 60 days to get out.”
“I contacted every real estate office, banged on every door,” says Deb. “I was crying every day.” All the long-term rentals online were booked. Every storage unit within driving distance had a waiting list 50 people long. Their three-bedroom cabin, built in 1975, was listed for $1 million and sold within a week. “Cash,” says Spencer. To a couple who barely looked 30 years old.
A year into the pandemic, affordable homes in Tahoe have disappeared faster than the snow on the 55-degree Friday I visited in mid-January. According to the Tahoe Prosperity Center, in 2019, only 28 percent of residents in the Tahoe Basin could afford to buy a home—a percentage expected to drop after 2020 stats are tallied, says Drum. And the rental market is hardly an affordable alternative. Recently, Spencer forwarded me a Redfin listing he found for a basic, four-bedroom house in Truckee going for $6,000 a month. He prefaced it with one flippant word: “Sure.”
Some locals are trying to help. Truckee-based Colin Frolich, the 40th employee at Lyft, is putting his tech money toward the problem caused in part by tech money. He founded Landing Locals in 2018, with his wife, Kai. The company aims to personally match long-term renters in Tahoe and other resort towns like Telluride, Colorado, and Big Sky, Montana, with second- or third-home owners who’d rather invest in the community than deal with the churn or COVID-related hassles of Airbnb.
Landing Locals tried to help the Lees, but to no avail. Demand among renters in need was too high.Eventually, the Lees posted a Hail Mary plea on Nextdoor. A man miraculously came to their rescue, with a cabin in Carnelian Bay, on the lake’s northern shore. They got lucky.
We should talk about the shoveling.
City slickers can be naive about mountain ways, say the seasoned Tahoe locals. “[There are]a lot of new people up here this year who don’t know how to move snow,” a Tahoe-Donner resident commented on Nextdoor in late November. “Using a shovel is like rocket science man, not everyone gets it.”
“A lot of us feel like they don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” says Matt Schorr, a Tahoe-raised realtor. For instance, he’ll ask buyers if they want the seller of a new house to throw in a snowblower, and the buyer, having purchased the home during the gorgeous summer, will pass it up. “They’ll be like, ‘Nah, we don’t need it,’” he says.
They have more basic weather concerns instead. The Lees’ daughter, Katie Baillargeon of the Drunken Monkey, says the restaurant gets calls at dinnertime from folks asking if it’s cold outside. It’s winter in the mountains: “Of course it’s cold outside!” she says.
Some new neighbors have so many questions that longtime second-home owner turned full-timer Dayna Grubb and her husband, Terry, have jokingly considered compiling them into a pamphlet. “We call it Terry’s Tips,” says Dayna. “What’re those poles lining the driveway?” (So the plow doesn’t tear up your yard.) “Who do we call to plow?” (Jesse.) “What’s up with all the exterminators?” (They’re for the carpenter ants, which invade every spring.) Terry also offers unsolicited tips: Don’t put your trash out the night before collection, and don’t ever keep any food in your cars. (Bears.) And definitely don’t leave your dog outside. (Coyotes.)
Many of the newbies are also “super tree huggers,” says Lease, the tree specialist. Clients who have never heard of defensible space—the landscaped buffer created around a home to protect it from flames in a wildfire—will tell Lease, I want to save this tree! “It’s not their fault,” he says. “You go from a concrete jungle to being surrounded by burnable material, you don’t necessarily understand. But they need to learn.”
The other big thing they need to learn, locals say, is how to safely venture into the backcountry. As in other mountain regions, interest in backcountry skiing and snowboarding skyrocketed in Tahoe over the winter, driven in large part by the new arrivals and the COVID-related desire to avoid resort crowds.The trailheads are often overparked by 9 A.M. To be fair, it seems many are eager to learn: sign-ups for some intro classes and American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Level 1 courses sold out back in August. Backcountry Babes, the 24-year-old backcountry-education organization, had a waiting list 100 names long.
Other first-timers, though, are more clueless.“People will come in and ask, ‘Do you guys have any of those avalanche finders?’” says one Tahoe-born employee who works for a gear store in Truckee. They’re referring to the lifesaving beacon-probe-shovel package, and their lack of knowledge is “scary,” he says. “New, inexperienced groups increase the avalanche risk for everybody.” (Around the West, the 2020–21 season has been one of the deadliest on record, although Tahoe has been unscathed by avalanche fatalities so far.)
As Caleb, one localchef who preferred to speak with a pseudonym, put it: “This isn’t the Japanese Tea Gardens in Golden Gate Park—you can actually fucking die out here.”
Locals hope the harsh living might weed some people out. Back in December, Truckee resident Matt Chappell, who’s lived in the area nearly 25 years, told me, “Everyone’s hoping for a huge winter to knock people back to the Bay. The winter that destroys your roof and blows your back out shoveling.” Now, as vaccines roll out and cities reopen, some hope the quiet mountain life everyone craved during the pandemic will lose its luster in muddy May. Because what many local residents fear more than unprepared transplants is the long-term incursion of what one person called “the San Francisco vibe.”
For one, there’s the honking. People never honked before, says Chappell. Now he’s honked at while crossing the street with his kids. The chef, Caleb, got honked at the other night. “I was like, Are you reallyhonking at me because I’m not driving fast enough out of the Raley’s parking lot?” he says. “You’re in this dreamy place! And you’re honking?”He rolled down the window of his weathered Wranglerand told the guy in the squeaky-clean white BMW X3, “Hey man, why don’t you go wash your car?”
This newcomer shininessis part of what annoys the lifetime locals.All the sparkling cars, the untested gear, the brand-new puffy coats, and the eager-beaver enthusiasm.“Tahoe is attracting a less calloused crowd,” Lease says. “I miss the diehards. It’s like the Good Vibes Squad around here!”
Except when they’re complaining and giving off bad vibes, of course. “‘I ordered this a second ago, and I want it right now,’” says Sanchez, offering an example. “‘Why is the Wi-Fi so slow?’ ‘Why isn’t the gym open?’ ‘We need a heater.’” Lease recalls the time “a house full of techies” moaned about the noise from the chainsaws when he showed up for a three-day tree-clearing job. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he told them. “Welcome to the woods!”
And finally, there are the Teslas. Almost every local I spoke to talked about the number of Teslas, though a couple did point out that the company had opened a new factory in nearby Storey, Nevada. Nonetheless, there they are: The Teslas blowing through intersections. The Teslas stuck in the snowy ditch. The Teslas spun out on steep Northwoods Boulevard. Again.At a rally in Tahoe last August (Photo: Tim Parsons)
To be fair, for every bumbling newbie, there is another who’s been coming here for years and who prepared for this move long before the pandemic. They’re ready for the storms, the fires, and the fact that it’s hard to find good Indian food. They’re happy.
Dayna and Terry, of Terry’s Tips, moved into the weekend cabin they’d owned for more than ten years last June and never looked back. “Why would we?” says Dayna, who runs a small online retail business. Now they go for sunset walks and gather around the Solo Stove with their new neighbors (including, admittedly, a few from the tech industry). “We’ve met more people here in six months than we did 12 years in Berkeley,” she says.
Nina, a director at a Silicon Valley–based AI company who asked that only her first name be used, moved to the area in October, when she bought her first home just five minutes from Heavenly Ski Resort. She and her husband, newly married thirtysomethings, say they may not be experts at mountain life, but they’re eager to learn. (YouTube has been helpful, she says—it’s where they learned how to rake pine needles.) When she’s not working, Nina is snowboarding with women she met on local Facebook groups. She’s in heaven.
But like other newcomers, she and her husband have sensed a little resentment. She recalls the time a check-out woman at a grocery store in Stateline, Nevada, gave her and her husband one look and said, “Oh, you’re not going to last a winter.” She admits to skirting around the fact that they moved during the pandemic in casual conversations with locals. “I’ll say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not the bad tech people,’” she says. Another source told me, “There’s a lot of negative feelings about people like us.” Most Bay Area transplants I spoke with similarly requested anonymity, and many more declined to be interviewed. (So did many longtime locals. “Sorry, it’s a touchy subject,” one told me.) The newcomers just want to quietly slip in and fit in.
Not everyone has that option, though. If you’re not white, like 82 percent of people in Truckee, you stand out, says Grace (not her real name), who is Korean-American and moved into her longtime second home last spring before the boom. Being Asian American “is like a big ‘Bay Area’ sign pointing at my head,” she says. She was disgusted by the “Kung flu” comments and other casually racist quips she saw on Facebook and deeply disturbed by the time she was fake sneezed on at the Safeway. She and her family moved back to San Francisco full-timeby the fall: “I needed to be with my people,” she says. But thanks to the influx of new homeowners, she says, Tahoe feels a little more comfortable on the weekends, a wee bit more diverse. In honor of the Lunar New Year, the Trokay restaurant in Truckee even debuted an all-Asian takeout menu for the month of February. “The fact that they’re doing this makes me feel hopeful,” Grace says. Still, her husband, who is white and wears flannel, handles the contractors; otherwise, she says, “I get gouged with Silicon Valley pricing.”
Cross-country skiing past a trailpost carved with the words “Locals Only” doesn’t feel good. Neither does being evicted mid-pandemic because someone with more money wants to move in. Both beg a very American question that’s long been asked at the intersection of rural and urban, between the haves and have-nots.
Who’s a local? Someone with duct tape on their Gore-Tex? Who belongs in a mountain town? In a city? In this country? “Are you a local if you were born in Tahoe?’” says Lyft’s Colin Frolich facetiously. “Our friends like to joke that you’re a local if you went to high school here, and are divorced.”
In the Great COVID Migration to the mountains, do Dayna and Terry count as locals? They bought their house more than ten years ago but only relocated ten months ago. Do the Lees count? Their daughter, who had to lay off most of her local restaurant staff, is a local, right? How about the Salesforce guy who’s been hiking Sunrise Bowl for two decades and just paid $100,000 more than he’d anticipated for his first house in Tahoe-Donner? He drives a Tacoma, after all.
The Dream has become a reality, and with it, the potential for a kind of culture clash that inherently follows all that cash: when those who have it and those who don’t begin living side by side.
Ultimately, most of the locals I spoke with said they welcome anyone who wants to be in Tahoe as long as they respect its trails, its quietude, its small-mountain-town culture. “We have this soulful community,” says Chappell. Reminiscing about pre-COVID times, he remembers, “When you walk down Main Street, six people stop to give you a hug. I worry that we’ll lose that connection. I worry that we’ll lose that soul.”
What Tahoe will always have, though, is its heart: the lake, where on a quiet winter night, after the sun sets behind the snowy peaks, the water and sky melt into one as they morph from electric Sierra pink to brooding blue. The lake, and the mountains around it, are why locals both old and new are here. “What we all want—what we really want—is to ski fresh pow in the winter and catch big fish in the summer,” says Caleb, the chef.
The outdoors has always been the draw, the great equalizer. Even longtime locals admit that what one does for work is ultimately beside the point. “It’s not about how much money you make,” says Frohlich. “What matters is, did you skin up Castle Peak?”
People everywhere are hanging on to the past, hoping their towns, cities, country, and, above all, their lives return to normal. The pandemic shook everything up: neither Tahoe nor the world will likely return to what it once was. But change has always been a certainty.
“My father-in-law moved to Squaw in the sixties and has seen several cycles of this,” says Chappell. “He always says, ‘You can either get on board the steam train and help steer it, or you can complain about it and leave.’”