Mountain Town Economics, Pt 3: Developing Housing, Addressing Climate Change, & Mitigating Megafires (Ep.180)

While we are dealing with the crisis of affordable housing, we are also dealing with a crisis of megafires. So on our latest Blister Podcast, we talk to Scott Ehlert, a developer based in Truckee, CA, to help explain how these two crises are related, and what solutions are available to mitigate both.
Sierra at Tahoe, Broadway webcam on 8.29.21

Let’s take stock: as of this morning, August 30th, massive fires are drawing closer and closer to South Lake Tahoe. So while we have been talking about the crisis of affordable housing, we are also dealing with a crisis of megafires. And our guest today, Scott Ehlert, is here to make clear how these two crises are related, and what solutions are available to mitigate both.

We discuss massive issues like the sordid history of development, regulations, and building codes in the USA; how community planning can be used as a roadblock to meaningful action; how car culture — and requiring land to be used for parking spaces — can make affordable housing impossible; how and why we need to change forest management practices to mitigate megafires; and more.

We’ve included links to several articles and one video that Scott and I had shared with each other, and I would strongly encourage you to check out all of those. 


  • Scott’s work & the mission of Fabric Workshop (4:15)
  • Scott’s background in development & manufacturing (8:23)
  • How community planning can become an excuse for inaction (14:10)
  • Developing to actually solve affordable housing (27:27)
  • What’s the #1 thing to be done? (29:12)
  • The sordid history of development, regulations, & building codes (39:38)
  • Car culture: build parking spaces *or* build affordable housing (55:27)
  • Megafires & changing forest management practices (1:09:18)
  • Reasons to be Hopeful — if we act now (1:17:59)


12 comments on “Mountain Town Economics, Pt 3: Developing Housing, Addressing Climate Change, & Mitigating Megafires (Ep.180)”

  1. Thank you for balancing the conversation with Scott’s perspective! This was easily the best, most actionable and solutions-oriented episode of this series. Really appreciate you all for amplifying this topic and pulling in guests like Scott who can connect the dots between wildfires, sustainable development, affordability, and accessibility. I hope we can build more dense, sustainable, vertical housing that is transit and pedestrian oriented so that downtowns remain walkable, and homes remain both affordable and defensible in wildfire season.

  2. Interesting conversation. Not sure I agree on all the points but there are some valid points. For decades, developers have taken advantage of Tahoe and city planners have allowed it to happen. The amount of buildings and homes build in Tahoe that aren’t appropriate for the area is overwhelming. Homeowners have paid the price for developers cutting corners. Truckee doesn’t necessarily have a housing problem, we have a short term rental/unoccupied housing problem. We don’t have the infrastructure to support more houses and more population. There are tons of houses that are empty, lived in part time and then short term rented when not occupied by owners. People are more or less operating rental business and using it to subsidize the cost of their purchase. We need new zoning that prohibits/disincentivizes short term rentals and incentivized full time residence/long term rentals. The “affordable housing” that has been built is affordable for remote tech workers but not industry related workers making less than $50k/year. $1500/month for a studio is not “affordable”. With the smoke from the wildfire’s, many of our new Covid residents and tech workers have fled back to their city properties. Meanwhile, locals who live and work here are still here. It’s actually been pretty nice! Outside of housing, living cost are sky rocketing as well, things like daycare, food and services continuing to creep up. Pricing out locals and creating incentive for mountain town community and culture to leave for greener pastures. The emergency is drastically changing the mountain town culture in a negative way.

    • I appreciate Scott’s perspective, it certainly brings some good points to the conversation. Im curious to see and learn more about his company’s products. I am curious though whether he has resided long enough in Tahoe/a mountain town community to fully grasp all sides of the challenge. The mass evacuations in South Lake Tahoe are highlighting the infrastructure challenges in the basin associated with population growth and further development. Sustainable development isn’t sustainable if the community can’t sustain the development. Living in the mountains requires some grit and willingness to put up with nature that many city people haven’t really fully experienced yet in the Sierras. Smoke, massive snow storms, wildlife and feast or famine tourism are all challenges new Tahoe residents haven’t really yet felt. What’s more, most residents in ski towns traditionally have forgone careers and income growth opportunities to maintain the desirable mountain lifestyle. The local economy and culture cannot support the very high housing prices. Furthermore, On another note, having a vehicle/vehicles is paramount to freedom and recreation living in Tahoe. Unlike a lot of other ski town communities, Tahoe is very spread out and as it is, our public transit struggles to find its niche in the region.

  3. Excellent addition to this series, Scott’s views contrasted sharply at times with the other two guests but he laid out valid, sometimes uncomfortable, approaches to the issues at hand. It’s one thing to say you want affordable housing in your mountain town, but quite another to actually embrace it and the change it could bring. I served on a small town city council, my responsibilities were Planning and Zoning and EMS. As we looked at increasing affordable (usually that mean high-density) housing one thing became clear: Nearly all of our police, EMT, and fire calls were coming from the two parts of town with high-density housing already. I’m not going to speculate why, but that’s a burden each community may have to live with when they increase housing density.
    A suggestion for a future edition in this series: What role do “bedroom” communities play/should bedroom communities play, in mountain town economics? Ketchum has Bellevue (or rather Sun Valley has Ketchum, Ketchum has Hailey, Hailey has Bellevue), Jackson has Alpine and Driggs, Telluride has Norwood, Ouray has Ridgeway, etc. Many of the local labor force are pushed out to these other, sometimes distant and even with dangerous commutes where housing costs more affordable. But again, the short term rental scourge is taking hold in these towns as well, and housing costs are climbing.

  4. I am really enjoying your series regarding housing in mountain towns…. this is a big issue that extends well beyond mountain towns and I really appreciate the broad cross section of guest with their broad commentary on the issues. Clearly not simple.

    While I appreciate some of Scott’s views, I found some of them boarder line ignorant. In particular his comments regarding zoning. Full disclosure, I am an Engineer that has spent three decades on infrastructure planning and construction working for both private entities and public organizations…. does Scott recognize that zoning and density is the basis of the design and development of the supporting water/sewer/drainage infrastructure? At one point he noted that he could add something like 50 dwellings on two single family lots… does he understand that required fire flows are higher for mutli-family dwellings (ie, water infrastructure upgrades), sewer flows are higher (ie sanitary sewer upgrades)…. the infrastructure in an area is based on the zoning, and if you want to increase density, you need to be prepared to upgrade infrastructure…..

    Second point. In general, the price of a dwelling is what the market will bear…. reduction of fees that support community amenities etc will likely only put more money in a developer’s pocket in an area with a hot market…..

    On the more complimentary side, he was bang on regarding the automobile and how much space/money we devote to their convenience. But the alternatives (transit, car share, ride share, etc) need to be in place before you can convince people to get out of their cars… if you simply get rid of the parking spaces before the community is ready, you will simply find your parking problem expands to the street and extends beyond the neighbourhood you are developing.

    I think you need to get someone on the show that can balance Scott’s comments and explain why some of the rules are in place….

    • “On the more complimentary side, he was bang on regarding the automobile and how much space/money we devote to their convenience. But the alternatives (transit, car share, ride share, etc) need to be in place before you can convince people to get out of their cars… if you simply get rid of the parking spaces before the community is ready, you will simply find your parking problem expands to the street and extends beyond the neighbourhood you are developing.”

      100 % this. We watched this happen exactly in sone seattle neighborhoods.

  5. Classic developer viewpoint. You want to see the results of “streamlined” permitting and zoning? Go to the Florida coast. You want CB/Tahoe/etc to be overdeveloped with crappy dense housing stock like that? And it’s still not affordable. We can’t build our way out of this (which would make lots of people happy/rich). There are lots of empty beds.
    I work in town government in my coastal community and it’s always developers trying to sneak stuff in and then a local citizen or government official does their homework and figures it out. Sometimes the developer gets it through anyway and the results of “fast and loose” building are almost always the same: builder walks away with a pile of money and there is some poorly planned pile of lumber called housing left for the community to deal with for the next several decades.
    I’m not saying this guy is unscrupulous (wish more developers were like him and gave a crap), but there are enough shitty developers out there that the rules have to be tight to prevent bad behavior.

  6. I made the rookie mistake of leaving a comment before listening to the entire podcast. I totally agree on the car culture part but was shaking my head. You single out Vienna as a great example but want looser building rules. We need to keep tight rules, but reform them as you pointed out. Pt 2 talked about walkability and that’s huge. Bike paths etc.
    Good luck to all of us with these huge entrenched issues that we are all aware of, but… I got mine

  7. The only part of this program that offered any solutions. Scott really pulled his punches here, and huge props to Jonathan for the very Chicago-style question and answer that does a great job of getting to the core of issues without seeming like he is disagreeing with guests. The one thing I felt this edition was missing was the naked truth of the big picture situation: At the end of the day the only ways to stop housing cost inflation are to manage supply or demand. That means build more to increase supply or give people relatively better places to live to slow population growth and decrease demand (see the Midwest and Eastern Europe for the latter). Massive government housing is a possible alternative, as Scott notes, but it also just tends to be a variant of build more with some additional steps.

  8. Jonathan, have you considered discussing how the IKON and Epic passes/big ski business has contribute to housing shortages and culture changes in mountain towns? I just watched a VICE clip on youtube and the first thing the tech worker who recently moved from NYC said was that he visited CB because he had a EPIC pass! I mean it’s only been the plot to virtually every Hollywood ski movie except Aspen Extreme and Hot dog…

    Prior to the EPIC and IKON passes, people who relocated to ski towns did so to live in a ski town and ski! These people typically did so with the understanding that they would be potentially paying a noteworthy career opportunity cost in exchange for a culture and lifestyle they sought. That’s how we got restaurant employees with masters degrees!

    Before the EPIC and IKON passes, city dwellers who ski visited resorts but maybe not at the frequency that they do now with super passes. In Tahoe at least, the IKON pass/cheaper season passes have exploded resort traffic. Squaw Valley use to be $1200+/pass, catered to experienced skiers primarily and half the parking lot was full at 9am. The ski culture was strong. Now, a IKON pass starts at $429, beginner rentals are rampant and the parking lot is full at 8am and people complain they can’t charge their Tesla… People who may have driven up the hill occasionally and skied a few weekends a year have started coming every weekend, even if they weren’t really into skiing. Why not? Their skiing is paid for and all their friends hang out at the cool apres bar getting 10% off F&B after taking only two runs. The EPIC and IKON passes have exposed more people to resort communities that they might never have visited had they not had a pass that provided cheap skiing.

  9. Awesome episode that I believe was a particularly great addition to parts one and two. I am no subject matter expert, but took coursework in planning and have written for an urbanism publication.

    Scott did an excellent job of challenging the status quo and making arguments of the new urbanism movement using simple terms. We do need to reevaluate our priorities as a society and be frank about them. Scott especially nailed it on his points concerning single-family housing and parking minimums. These two policies are ingrained in American culture but have terrible outcomes in our built environments and beyond.

    Lastly, props to Jonathan for asking excellent questions and digging into this series on housing in mountain towns. I’d love to continue having episodes that explore big topics which impact mountain sports/lifestyles! I think a great follow-up to this episode could be getting into transportation in mountain towns.

  10. I really appreciate you guys bringing attention to the housing issue in our small mountain towns. I have felt this personally and as an employer (can’t find housing for my employees). My daughter got to live in four different houses before she was one year old because landlords would decide to sell or short term rent their property at the whim of the market.

    I have been to many of the same or similar town council meetings as Scott (haven’t met him though) and it is incredibly frustrating to see how slow they operate and how ineffective our local government is at addressing this issue. The only projects that get built in mountain towns are luxury mansions which often end up sitting vacant. Our current system of fees and building codes heavily favors this one type of housing and makes building tiny homes, additional dwelling units or any other small scale or higher density project cost and time prohibitive.

    Increasing density in strategic locations is a great way to preserve the nature we love. I hope we all can get educated on this topic and start making incremental change towards more sustainable and equitable development.

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