There are 57 apartments in Rafter J that Sadek Darwiche wants to see filled with local workers.
Darwiche and his family, brother Dorian and father Jim, finalized the purchase of Legacy Lodge in the south-of-town subdivision at the beginning of May, but much remains unclear about the building’s future. Affordable workforce housing is one of the community’s most glaring needs, and Darwiche thinks Legacy Lodge could be one solution.
“The No. 1 issue the community is facing today is housing, and this is a building that has 55-plus apartments in it,” Darwiche said. “If we can basically put those units into the public’s hands, that would be an awesome benefit.”
Legacy Lodge has sat empty since mid-February after the last of the assisted living facility’s residents found new homes. The Nebraska company that owned the facility, Nye Health, said it could no longer afford to keep Legacy Lodge open because just 35 of the 57 apartments were filled.
CEO Russ Peterson told the News&Guide at the time that the COVID-19 pandemic had made recruiting new residents difficult, and Nye’s research on the community showed that local demand would not rebound to support an assisted living facility long term.
That left the St. John’s Health Living Center as the only similar facility in town, though its status as a skilled nursing facility means it handles higher-level patients and isn’t suited to house the exact population Legacy Lodge did. The same is true for Sage Living, which will supplant the Living Center on the hospital’s campus in August.
The Darwiches say they were disappointed to see the facility shutter.
“It’s super sad that Legacy Lodge closed,” Darwiche said. “It’s disappointing that the community can’t support a private living center.”
Out of tragedy came opportunity. Hoping to keep the building’s ownership within the community, the Darwiches contacted Nye to begin the purchase process. Because of their stature as hotel owners and local business owners, Darwiche said, the family knew other employers were struggling to find workers due to a housing shortage.
Procuring land, funding and contractors for a workforce housing project can take years, especially if it requires subsidies to make the finances work. Legacy Lodge presented a unique opportunity because it already has 57 units with most of the amenities needed to house people.
Each apartment is a self-contained unit, with a fridge, sink and bathroom, missing only a kitchen. When Legacy Lodge was open, the commercial kitchen and staff provided food for residents, so the rooms didn’t need stoves, microwaves and the like.
“You could easily add some hot plates to them so that they’re self-sufficient,” Darwiche said.
Because of its past as an assisted living facility, the building has lots of common spaces, including one that contains the pool table and bridge table left when Legacy Lodge closed. It also has communal washers and dryers, along with that commercial kitchen, which Darwiche said could be rented by a local chef to open a restaurant for residents and the larger Rafter J community.
All in all, it’s basically “turnkey,” as Darwiche put it, with some modifications probably needed to make it more functional for standard residences. While he said he would happily move people in this week if he could, he’ll need county approval and likely a rezone or an amendment to the existing planned-use development to open to the public.
A quick move-in on an emergency basis in response to the housing crunch appears unlikely.
“I am not aware of any emergency approval that may be granted in contrary to the adopted LDRs,” Teton County Planning Director Chris Neubecker wrote in an email to the News&Guide.
Legacy Lodge was first pitched in 1998, then construction and prepping for opening took six years. The building has always been an assisted living facility and is currently zoned as “convenience commercial,” which allows personal services like restaurants, retail and banking, among other uses. Neubecker told the News&Guide that the Darwiches have applied to explore what uses are currently allowed under the zoning.
A rezone or amendment to the planned-use development would likely take about six months after an application is filed, Neubecker said. That jibes with Darwiche’s understanding that it could be winter by the time leases are signed.
Between now and tenants moving in, the family will need to go through a series of steps that include review by both the Planning Department and the Teton County Board of County Commissioners. What changes might need to be made to the building to ready it for more standard residential use aren’t yet clear.
Another required step is a meeting with members of the Rafter J neighborhood. Though the neighbors won’t have veto power over any plans for the building, they will have the chance to weigh in.
Jim Darwiche, Sadek’s father, already met once with the Rafter J homeowners’ association board, president Kip MacMillan said. Though the meeting didn’t produce any tangible plans, MacMillan is confident the Darwiches will bring forth something that his board can get behind.
“Jim Darwiche is a good man,” MacMillan said. “I’m sure he will be a good neighbor once they decide what to do with the building.”
For now, that plan looks to be letting renters secure their own housing or business owners find rooms for their employees, Sadek Darwiche said. He envisions a setup in which businesses might pay the rent then manage it on the backend by collecting rent from their workers. That would give employers the opportunity to subsidize employees’ rent if they chose.
“I think sometimes businesses get a bad name that they’re contributing to the problem, but they’re not contributing to the solution,” Darwiche said. “This might be an interesting opportunity for businesses.”
With the housing crisis reaching levels that some employers say is worse than they’ve ever seen, Darwiche hopes Legacy Lodge’s second act can be one that eases the burden on workers and businesses. If for some reason the community doesn’t like the plan, he said, the family will regroup and figure out other options, but he thinks this represents a chance to combat some of the rising housing insecurity problems.
“Obviously we can’t house everybody with this one project — that would be impossible,” Darwiche said. “But I think it’d be nice to know what the need is out in the community so that we can at least engage.”
“The No. 1 issue the community is facing today is housing, and this is a building that has 55-plus apartments in it.” — Sadek Darwiche New owner of legacy lodge property