The data used to shape Teton County’s affordable housing program is due for an update.
After seven years, elected officials want a new housing nexus study, which shows how many employees are generated by different kinds of development. The original study became the foundation for the housing mitigation rates approved in 2018. Housing mitigation requires developers to either build housing for a certain percentage of the employees they generate or pay a fee.
The new data could prompt an update of those mitigation rates, which many critics see as an unfair burden, especially to commercial developers. Mayor Pete Muldoon said there’s “no doubt about it in my mind” that the study will lead to changes.
But it’s unclear what those changes will be. As Community Development Director Tyler Sinclair put it, “this study will provide us a lot of good information. It won’t provide you any answers.
“This is really getting you the facts, the figures, the data, to then have policy discussions,” he said.
When they set the mitigation rates in 2018, the town and county dramatically reshaped the development landscape in Jackson Hole. They wanted to redistribute the burden of building housing to developments that generate new jobs, which in turn require employees that need housing. To that end, they required much higher mitigation of commercial developers, and lowered requirements for residential developers.
But the program always had opponents, at home and across the state. During the 2019 legislative session, and again in the run-up to the coming 2020 session, mitigation has come under fire.
A bill last year threatened to nix Teton County’s ability to require mitigation, and though the proposed legislation failed then, it was reintroduced in November during the interim session.
Commissioner Mark Barron worried that if local officials wait for the nexus study’s completion, about a year from now, it could be too late to save that vital piece of the community’s strategy for housing local workers within Teton County. He suggested they act quickly.
Otherwise, he said, “I think we’ll send a message that we’re continuing as we have, and we may suffer severe consequences.”
At this point there’s no sign of a forthcoming adjustment. But the two governing bodies will likely meet later this month to approve a request for consultants to perform the nexus study.
“I think we all know that our current mitigation policies are not completely fair,” Muldoon said, “and when we develop some new ones they won’t be completely fair either. But ... we can always continue to work to improve them, and I think good data is really important to that.”
Councilor Arne Jorgensen said the data will also be valuable for justifying whatever decisions they reach.
“If we’re going to do significant changes to how we look at our housing policies,” he said, “to me this is an important tool. We need to have a legal, defensive way to back that up.”
Even if the Legislature preempts local control over this housing policy, Commissioner Mark Newcomb said, it will still be essential to update the nexus study, as it can point to other policies, like incentives for certain kinds of development.
Newcomb said the study could also serve a broader purpose, offering insight into not only the employees that various kinds of development generate, but also the traffic they generate. That could be useful in transportation planning as well, he said.
Throughout the study, a stakeholder group — tentatively composed of a developer, a Chamber of Commerce representative, members of the town and county planning commissions, and several other people — would advise officials on potential changes to the mitigation program.
Some questioned whether the group should include representatives of interest groups like the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Jackson Hole Working (both on the list). But others argued that because mitigation rates are ultimately a political decision, a variety of opinions would be helpful.
“I think it’s important for us to be reflecting a wide range of community voices,” Jorgensen said.
Including the study itself, a facilitator for the stakeholder group, and advertising and education about the study, the project will cost an estimated $200,000.
April Norton, director of the Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department, said the study will also look at non-brick-and-mortar businesses, which can still generate employees despite having no physical place of business in the community.
The study will also show the types of jobs being created by development and the wages they earn, as well as more precise figures for two crucial statistics in affordable housing policy: the percentage of the workforce living in Teton County, and the gap between income and housing costs.