Jackson, Teton County agree to spend money on housing

Billy Arnold, Jackson Hole News&Guide via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 5/5/21

The final go-ahead will come when town and county budgets are approved in June.

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Jackson, Teton County agree to spend money on housing


JACKSON — Jackson Hole elected officials are unanimous in giving the Jackson/Teton County Housing Department initial approval to spend roughly $13 million on housing projects and programs in the next fiscal year.

The final go-ahead will come when town and county budgets are approved in June.

The expenditure would be a five-fold increase from what the department agreed to spend in the last fiscal year in the Housing Supply program, the portion of the department’s budget focused on making housing stock available for local workers.

“It’s real investment,” Housing Director April Norton, who oversees the department and program, told the News&Guide. “These projects are really happening.”

But what dent the funds will make in locals’ housing problems remains to be seen.

“What we should be doing is making these kinds of investments on an annual basis,” Town Councilor Arne Jorgensen told his fellow elected officials Monday, making the case that comparable investments are only possible with revenue streams to support them.

Christine Walker, a former Housing Department director and the board policy chair for housing advocacy group Shelter JH, felt similarly. The department, she said in an email, is “doing a fantastic job.”

“But we need to do more as a community,” Walker wrote. “The burden to address our diverse housing needs should not fall on one organization.”

The Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners’ votes in favor of the housing spending come as Jackson Hole workers, businesses, nonprofits and government employers are all feeling the housing pinch.

In the last week, both boards heard from social service providers — Teton County nonprofits that provide senior care, shelter for teens in crisis and subsidized mental health care, among other services — and government officials about how high housing costs and commutes from Jackson’s more affordable bedroom communities are preventing them from hiring staff. Anna Olson, president and CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, told elected officials Monday that businesses are facing the same challenges.

“It’s a challenge for businesses right now,” Olson said. “The number one problem is lack of worker availability, and stress from the housing situation for their employees.”

Officials and realtors pinned some of the blame on a changing housing market.

With urbanites leaving cities due to the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest, there’s been widespread concern that Jackson Hole is becoming a “Zoom Town” — a haven for highly paid remote workers at the base of the Tetons. The first quarter Jackson Hole Report said many of those people had moved to the area, “putting pressure on our rent pool while they wait for new listings to hit the market.” Norton described the bunch as “modem cowboys.”

In an interview, town councilor and economist Jonathan Schechter said those highly paid workers play into the supply and demand problems Teton County is facing. There is, of course, a classic supply and demand problem: Is the supply of housing local workers can afford keeping up with demand? But the other, compounding issue, Schechter said, is that newer, remote workers are putting a different kind of strain on the system.

“Those folks have a different economic profile,” he said. “It’s clear that as our economy becomes increasingly integrated with that of the entire world, people are able to pay rents commensurate not with the local tourism driven economy but rents commensurate with remote working jobs, which almost invariably are much higher paying.”

A Wyoming cost of living report put the average rental price for a two-bedroom apartment up 8% in 2020 at roughly $2,400. The median single family home price shot up 44 percent to $2.5 million in the same year, and the median condo price climbed 16 percent to $800,000, according to the Jackson Hole Report.

And all that comes as supply is bottoming out. Norton reported Tuesday a 0% vacancy rate in the valley’s largest rental complexes — the Blair Place Apartments, Hidden Hollow, Aspen Meadows and The Timbers.

In the face of that demand, some new housing stock is on the way.

The 90-unit privately-funded Sagebrush Apartments climbing into the sky on Broadway are nearing completion. Ditto the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust’s 24-unit partnership with the town and county on King Street.

And Norton said that, across the valley, 118 new, deed-restricted housing units are set to become available in 2021.

“We’re seeing supply hit that we’ve been working on for the past three years,” Norton said.

The 12-unit development at 440 W. Kelly Ave. and the 30-unit project at 105 Mercill Ave. are also slated to break ground this year, and the $13 million is intended to facilitate groundbreaking on another 78 units, a mix of apartments and townhomes, in 2022.

Those units should be split between the Brown property on E. Kelly Ave. (18 townhomes) and the Red House Apartments south of Snake River Brewing (60 apartments).

Norton is also hoping to spend part of the $13 million on programs intended to support the valley’s lower income residents. One of those is a first/last/deposit program to help people get into a rental. Another is a so-called “family stabilization” pilot intended to help households with school-aged children experiencing homelessness find affordable rental housing.

But the community won’t see the benefits of the $13 million investment immediately.

Building housing takes time and, aside from the first/last/deposit programs and a proposed expansion of the housing preservation program, those funds won’t impact people experiencing housing issues now for a few years.

Some think more is necessary.

“It is not close to what is needed to address the depths of the housing crisis,” Walker said. “We need to do much more.”

She, like Jorgensen, called for a dedicated revenue stream to “optimize the efforts of each housing organization.”

Anne Cresswell, executive director of the nonprofit Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust, urged the public sector to begin investing in “shovel ready projects” rather than buying land and starting housing projects from the beginning.

She also wanted to see some of the valley’s major employers come to the table and partner with the public sector on housing.

“We’re at the point where the problem is so bad we have to call the question,” Cresswell told the News&Guide. “Who has land, who has capital, who has capacity to manage the design, development and construction of the project?”

Larry Huhn, the Hoback Market owner who was not successful in his bid to win town and county approval for developing the Hog Island area in 2019, said he didn’t trust the public sector to develop housing.

Instead, he advocated for a regulatory approach requiring certain areas to be exclusively reserved for Teton County workers through zoning.

The market, he argued, would take care of pricing. But he acknowledged those units might be more expensive because of demand.

“There’s a fear there that it’s not going to be affordable,” Huhn said. “My point is if it’s zoned that way, and the only people who ... live and work in Teton County can live there, it will always be affordable.”

Norton said she is working with the valley’s employers to partner on housing projects and that, while her preference would be for her department to “be the last money in,” as Cresswell pitched, that’s a very “rare opportunity.” She also acknowledged Huhn’s point and said she was interested to see what zones come out of the ongoing neighborhood planning process for northern South Park — and where they’re implemented.

“I think a really appropriate role for government is to work in spaces where the private sector can’t and doesn’t,” Norton said. “I think it’s pretty clear that the private sector doesn’t work in the affordable housing space.”

But she said Walker and Huhn had a point.

“Christine’s right, Larry’s right,” Norton said. “You can’t just rely on the government to fix it. But the government is a very key player in addressing the issue.”