Housing central to candidates’ platforms
Proposed solutions to problem as diverse as field of candidates.
By Noah Brenner, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: July 2, 2008
Securing an adequate amount of housing for workers in Teton County and a reliable mechanism for creating housing is the biggest issue for many candidates for the Jackson Town Council.
Some candidates are endorsing significant increases in the housing mitigation rate, which is the percentage of deed-restricted affordable housing developers must build in residential projects. Some think funding is the key issue while others focus on maintaining affordable rentals. The only thing all candidates could agree on was that free-market homes in Jackson Hole were wholly beyond the reach of the valley’s work force unless the buyers had some outside assets to help them.
Matt Lee, who works as a builder, said he thought the housing shortage required a host of small regulatory changes to areas like the housing mitigation rate and condominium conversion laws.
“You cannot eat one big meal and never be hungry again,” Lee said, quoting a minister at his church. “It seems like we are trying to look for big solutions to big problems like Teton Meadows and Osprey Creek. What happens is the community vomits it back up. Let’s look for small solutions to keep us sustained.”
Lee said he favored increasing the housing mitigation rate to 40 percent but favored doing it in a phased approach. He did not rule out going to 60 percent in the future.
He said he would like to ban conversion of existing apartments to condominiums but acknowledged such a law would likely not hold up in court. Instead, he would like to apply the housing mitigation rate to the conversions, which was not done historically, and would like to implement a “no net loss” policy, which would require redevelopment projects that demolish affordable rental units to replace them.
Lee said he supported controversial efforts by the Teton County Housing Authority to spend its money to buy and “bank” property rather than focus on building housing units, but said he would push to consider other ways to fund affordable-housing programs including a real estate transfer tax, lodging tax or additional sales tax that would be earmarked for affordable housing
Incumbent Mark Obringer took almost the exact opposite take that Lee did, saying the town needs to focus not on small measures like housing mitigation rates or condo conversion regulations but on one big question: How to fund affordable housing.
“I think we need to identify a revenue stream in order to provide the appropriate amount of affordable housing that this valley requires,” Obringer said in an e-mail response to questions. “To base our housing program on development and the value of real estate does not solve the problem. We will never catch up this way.”
Possible funding sources are an additional penny of sales tax, a real estate transfer tax or a lodging tax. But Obringer did not endorse any of the options, saying that the answer needed to come through a community dialogue.
However, he said current efforts are working.
“We have been very fortunate in Teton County to share the support of both public and private partners working to address the housing issue,” he said. “Between the efforts of the town, the housing authority, the housing trust, the school district and the hospital, this community has been very successful in putting hundreds of workforce homes on the ground.”
Kyle Burson disagreed with Obringer, saying current efforts were obviously not enough to keep up with the community’s needs.
“We need more affordable housing and not everybody can buy a home and I am not seeing it,” Burson said.
Burson did not have specific recommendations on how he would like to change the housing authority operations, however.
“I would have to sit in on a meeting and find out what exactly they do and then take it from there,” he said.
Burson said he would support increasing the housing mitigation rate from 15 percent to 30 percent and possibly higher in the future. He also would like to eliminate the possibility of developers making fee-in-lieu payments rather than actually building their affordable-housing requirement. Though he said he supported some incentives for developers to encourage them to include more affordable housing in their projects, he did not favor the density bonuses that are available in the town’s planned mixed-use development regulation. He also said the town needs to discourage, if not outright ban, conversion of existing apartment buildings to condominiums.
“I would like to see them stay apartments that are kind of affordable,” Burson said. “I wouldn’t like to see them converted at all.
Incumbent Abe Tabatabai said he was unsure how the town should regulate, or legally could regulate, condo conversion, but he acknowledged that Jackson was already behind the curve on the issue as so many conversions have already taken place.
“It is unfortunate in that respect we didn’t do it 15 years ago,” he said, “because most of those already became converted and we are talking about a much smaller percentage than before.”
Tabatabai said he favored increasing the housing mitigation rate to at most 20 percent.
“Any more than that would stop building because the numbers wouldn’t work and we wouldn’t even get the 15 percent we are getting now,” he said.
To stimulate development of more affordable units, Tabatabai said he supported widening incentives for developers beyond those density bonuses contained in the planned mixed-use development regulation.
“Not to raise the mitigation rate too high so the developer can still afford to build – that would be an incentive,” he said. “Also expand it to other zones. They are good incentives but on PMDs especially on smaller lots I am against them.”
Louise Lasley said she would like the housing authority to re-examine its practices to ensure the organization is adequately addressing current housing needs.
“We have such an enormous backlog that it seems this is a critical area to push the most thoughtful and rapid solutions we can come up with,” she said, noting she would like to see an emphasis on multifamily rental housing. “If the property was going to eventually be used for housing, I can see that logic, but to buy property and speculate, basically I don’t see the value in that when our housing need is so great.”
She said she would like to see more funding for housing programs but pointed out that surveys for the comprehensive plan revision have shown most residents are not willing to pay more taxes to fund housing. Lasley said she supports incentivizing the development of affordable housing but current incentives are not working.
“It just seems to me there are other opportunities to incentivize development rather than maxing density and floor area,” she said. “I don’t see a problem with enticing developers to increase density, but this unlimited density we have in our tools right now is too much.”
Besides incentives, Lasley said she would support raising the mitigation rate to at least 25 percent but not more than 50 percent, and would apply that rate to condo conversions.
Tommy Wood said his housing focus is not affordable housing as much as affordable rentals.
One major component of that focus would be to stop all conversion of apartments to condominiums, he said.
“The town needs to step up to say we want to keep you from doing this,” Wood said. “How can we keep these units affordable for the work force and not investors.”
Another component would be to subsidize landlords who rent to longtime locals, rather than seasonal workers or short-term tourists. The savings could then be passed on to the renter.
“If we allow workers to spend 30 percent of their income or less on rent, that is going to allow them the opportunity, with some effort, to get into the free market,” he said.
To fund the subsidy, the town could institute a lodging tax or additional sales tax, Wood said.
He thinks this emphasis on rentals should factor more prominently in housing trust policies.
Wood was the only challenger who endorsed the current 15 percent mitigation rate as appropriate, but he qualified his comments by saying the current rate was only appropriate if it was enforced and the town did not allow fee-in-lieu payments.
Unlike other candidates, Greg Miles said there are still opportunities for Jackson workers to buy market-rate housing, especially in developments with a strong mix of market and rental units.
“I think we are missing so many opportunities in town for good free-market housing,” he said.
Miles said the community needed to find ways to generate more rental housing, but he said the solution was to amend zoning restrictions in the auto-urban residential district. That district allows for three units on a lot, but changing the laws could allow developers to be more creative and build smaller units, or a better mix of housing, Miles said.
Condominium conversion should continue but town regulations should require that they are safe and should apply the affordable-housing mitigation rate. A proper rate for the foreseeable future would be 25 percent and fee-in-lieu rates should be brought up to reflect housing costs, Miles said. In addition to increasing the fee, the town needs to look at more creative funding sources for affordable housing, such as a tax on plastic grocery bags. The tax could help phase out plastic bag use and would hit primarily tourists, Miles said.
“It could create some revenue pretty fast that is not going to affect anybody,” he said. “I can’t imagine the community would not get behind that.”
Miles said he doesn’t understand the current direction of the housing authority in some ways, saying that money spent to bank land in the county could have been used to buy multifamily lots in town and build on them.
“There is not one silver bullet,” he said. “It is taking a variety of options and applying good smart-growth principles.”
Candidates Tim Sullivan and John Bickner could not be reached for comment.