April Norton, director of the Jackson/Teton County Housing Department, wants to spend $13 million to build homes and expand housing programs in the upcoming fiscal year.
“It’s crisis level,” Norton told the Jackson Hole Daily, referring to the state of Teton County’s affordable housing. “There are houses that used to be rented for $2,500 a month that are now being rented for $10,000 a month. It’s really hard to wrap your head around.”
Norton spoke with the Daily after a week of budget hearings in which government and nonprofit officials repeatedly said the housing pinch is making staffing difficult.
The housing director presented her department’s operational budget request Wednesday, outlining a plan that primarily covers staff-related expenses. It’s distinct from the department’s Housing Supply Program and its accompanying budget, which includes land acquisition, development and the like.
In her presentation, Norton said she has heard from at least one business owner facing a similar problem.
“She can’t hire anybody,” Norton told the Teton County Board of County Commissioners and Jackson Town Council. Norton said other business owners can’t find people to hire, either.
Norton described the staffing issue as a “near-term emergency.” When she presents the Housing Supply Plan during the joint information meeting Monday, she said, she plans to request the $13 million.
That sum will be split across four housing projects, one existing program and three pilot programs if county commissioners and town councilors give the Housing Department the go-ahead.
Norton is seeking to raise the $13 million with a roughly $8.7 million balance, $2 million in general fund dollars from the town and county ($1 million from each), $1.5 million in housing mitigation fees, $2 million in specific purpose excise tax funds and a smaller contribution of $37,000 from the Jackson/Teton County Housing Authority.
“This is money we have for housing,” Norton told the Daily. “We need to spend it.”
The housing director said her department has been carrying the $8 million balance because she knew she’d “have some projects we’d probably want to invest some more in” and “they’re ready.”
For example, Norton proposes spending $5 million on the Red House Apartments project. That’s a 100% deed-restricted partnership between her department and the Cumming Foundation that still needs to win approval from the Jackson Town Council before breaking ground. The complex would create 60 apartments, with 75% of them reserved for lower-income Teton County workers.
If Norton gets approval to spend the full $13 million, she will be left with a roughly $1 million balance in the Housing Supply Program’s budget.
“I don’t think it’s an overreaction,” Norton told the Daily. “It is the reality of where we are.”
Whether the Board of County Commissioners and Town Council give Norton the green light remains to be seen, but at least a few officials are interested in spending more on housing.
Town Councilors Arne Jorgensen, Jessica Sell Chambers and Jim Rooks all identified housing as a top priority during Norton’s presentation Wednesday.
Chambers and Rooks both seemed interested in giving the Housing Department more money to hire another employee to work with her on developing affordable housing.
Norton is the only individual in the five-person department that focuses on creating new housing supply. Other employees focus on managing existing housing stock and administering the department.
“Housing is the number one priority for our community,” Chambers said. “I think that we should be prepared this year to give you the resources that would make the department function better.”
Jorgensen also worried about the Housing Supply Program’s ability to pull off a five-fold increase in spending and the accompanying workload.
He asked for more information about an additional employee or an “additional breakdown of how we’re going to manage such a significant increase in supply expenditures this year.”
Norton said she hadn’t requested an additional supply-focused employee because it was the first year of budgeting after the COVID-19 pandemic began and she was trying to keep her operational budget down.
“If offered,” she told the Daily, “we could definitely use the capacity.”