“I think that we’ve reached a tipping point in Door County,” said Mike McCarthy, owner of the Village Green Lodge. “I don’t think that there’s ever going to be an issue with people (tourists) coming here, but I do think that their experience isn’t going to be as special as it is today, and today it’s probably not as special as it was yesterday. This is happening.”
McCarthy has owned the Village Green Lodge in Ephraim since August 2015. He offers onsite housing for employees, including international exchange visitors. As with many other business owners, McCarthy said he’s noticed the need for employee housing increasing annually and becoming particularly apparent since the pandemic.
A June 2022 study by Tourism Economics on the economic impacts of tourism in Door County found that annual visitor spending jumped by nearly 40 percent in 2021. The two largest areas of spending were in lodging, accounting for 48.8 percent of all spending, and food and beverage, at 20.8 percent.
The county also has seen an increase in the popularity of short-term rentals. More than 500 short-term rental businesses have been created in the county since 2018, Knock reported last year. As of the 2020 census, an estimated 30,066 people live in Door County year-round. A DoorCounty.com fact sheet from April 2023 reported that that Door County attracts more than 2.5 million visitors annually.
Finding properties for use as employee housing has been a significant obstacle for local business owners.
“We were looking for probably a year to find the right thing,” said Mary Horton, the outgoing owner of Bearded Heart Cafe in Baileys Harbor. Horton said she sought housing for her employees during the first summer of the pandemic when business was busier than it ever had been before. It wasn’t until the following year that the business secured a house. Horton bought a four-bedroom farmhouse with a cottage. The property had the capacity to house up to 10 workers.
“I feel like we got something right, at the right time, where things were starting to get even more expensive and harder to find,” Horton said. “We found that one and jumped on it right away—(we) made an offer as soon as it was on the market.”
Horton said being able to offer housing was an essential aspect of Bearded Heart’s success during her ownership. In 2022, most of the cafe’s staff was living on the farm. More employees worked full-time when they were given housing, as opposed to people working multiple jobs part-time, she said. Horton said employees living and spending time together outside of scheduled shifts made it easier for them to grow closer and form friendships with one another.
“It reminds me a little bit more of when I was a summer kid and worked at a restaurant all the time and was with the same people all the time,” she said last year. “They (the seasonal employees) have a lot of fun. After work they go hang out at the beach or have a barbecue. They’re having a Door County summer.”
Lauren Schar, the owner of Fireside Restaurant and Big Easy Bagel & Beignet in Egg Harbor, has noticed the same trends around the increasing need for employee housing in the county.
“With the absolute void in affordable housing not just for seasonal employees but young professionals, as well, we found ourselves in a position where we had to salvage for ourselves,” Schar said. “We knew that the only way we were going to have employees is if we had some place for them to stay. So we did everything in our power to solve that problem.”
The restaurant owns a property that is capable of housing about 12 seasonal workers, as well as two apartments on the same property where Schar lives with her family. According to Schar, the search for the restaurant’s employee housing was not straightforward.
“If we were looking for housing, we were looking in the wrong direction,” she said. “It just happened that this piece of property that nobody else wanted showed up and we could do some reconfiguration with the interior walls and get some workers in there. It was just luck, absolute dumb luck.”
Schar pointed out that for older year-round employees with spouses or children, unwinterized, community housing is not a viable option.
“I feel like one of the very, very lucky ones that we were able to scrape together some money and buy a dumpy old farm in the middle of the peninsula and throw some bunk beds in there, hire some kids from all over the world that wanted to have a great summer, make money, make friends, and make memories,” Schar said. “But I can’t hire a year-round manager. They won’t be able to live there. Being able to have employee housing for our employees is great, but the lack of affordable housing is keeping us from the opportunity to hire quality professionals in our industry.”
Both McCarthy and Schar said the lack of employee housing hurts not only employees and businesses but the entire county. The service industry seems to be only the tip of the iceberg, they said.
Schar pointed out that the issues go beyond employee housing. While employee housing is essential, it is not enough to cover the county’s need for affordable housing for all types of workers, she said.
“I don’t even think if every business that was open had employee housing (that) it would cover the county’s affordable housing (overall),” Schar said.
“The reality of it is, the businesses are the things that keep (the county’s tourism economy) moving in a direction that makes it significant for the second home owners,” McCarthy said.
Although many business owners seem to agree the county needs a solution to its affordable housing shortage in order to properly address the employee housing issue, a solution does not appear to be easily achievable.
Part of the problem is that the people most affected are business owners who are strapped for time and resources to deal with it, McCarthy and Schar said.
“It’s always somebody coming in from outside the county who doesn’t understand the community who says, ‘Have the employers thought about this? Have they thought about that?’” Schar said. “Yes, we’ve thought of it all. It’s a community problem that shouldn’t be on the backs of the employers to fix. We just have to sit and wait to see what happens to the housing market because now everything has turned into a vacation home.”
Door County Land Use Services Director Mariah Goode said the number of high school students in the county has decreased by about 500 since the late 1990s.
“That’s almost the exact number of (international workers) we’ve had coming into the county in the last 15 to 20 years,” she said.
Since high school students are typically living in the county year-round and with their parents, their contribution to the local workforce is not one that requires employee housing. With the decline of students comes the need for help sourced from outside the county, Goode said.
“People are constantly switching jobs, and I don’t think people are doing it to be malicious,” she said. “This isn’t necessarily causing the shortage, but it is a symptom.”
Goode said it seems many people from out of the county who move to Door County to start businesses don’t always think of the significance of employee housing for their business. She suggested business plan-writing classes could include employee housing if they don’t already.
Goode referred to accessory dwelling units as a possible means of alleviating the employee housing shortage.
“These units are specifically in conjunction with the businesses on that property,” she said. “They’re only allowed in commercial zoning districts, but we’ve allowed them for a long time. We don’t set a minimum size for the units; we don’t set a maximum number of units. They just have to be housing for people who are working for a business on that property. That’s one thing I think could help. If you’re starting a business or buying a business in a commercial area, there is an option under county zoning to add housing for employees.”
Goode said housing shortages are not unique to Door County.
“It’s an issue everywhere. It is especially bad here because of the tourism, the second home market, the lower incomes (and) the geography and because we’re much older than most of the state,” said Goode. “I do feel like people understand, and almost everyone agrees, that this is a problem. I also feel like a lot of people are waiting for someone else to fix the problem. You don’t need to have a lot of money to try to do something to help.”
McCarthy said a combination of efforts from nonprofits, businesses, philanthropists and local governments could be beneficial in solving the lack of affordable and employee housing.
“Without somebody to carry the torch that is the future, the next 10 years are going to languish like the last 10 years and we’re going to write the same article 10 years from now, but the equation is going to be far different,” McCarthy said.
“It’s going to be far harder for businesses, and then our product is not very great, and all of a sudden people are coming up here but it’s not special anymore,” he added. “We’ve got to get someone in office, we’ve got to get good quality business owners and thinkers and we have got to accomplish something that is going to be of value for our community.”