Young immigrants known as Dreamers may soon be able to purchase affordable homes in Teton County.
The town and county voted unanimously Monday to open a public comment period on changes to rules governing who is eligible to rent or purchase publicly administered housing restricted for local workers. If approved the new rules would give recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, the ability to buy publicly subsidized or restricted housing in Teton County for the first time.
The public now has 45 days to comment on the proposed changes, which also include updates to how the Jackson/Teton County Housing Department handles requests for accommodation for people with disabilities and how it restricts “affordable” dormitory units.
Cinthya Benavides, a DACA recipient, activist and volunteer with the Community Safety Network and Animal Adoption Center, came to Jackson from Mexico when she was 7 years old. She has lived in the community for 17 years. Now 24, she kicked off public comment on the proposal Monday, encouraging the Teton County Board of County Commissioners and the Jackson Town Council to adopt the changes.
She does not have a place to “call home,” she said, and is able to live in Jackson only because of an opportunity to trade “pet sitting in exchange for housing.”
“Every day I live in fear that this opportunity will be taken away from me, constantly thinking about the possibility of having to move away, leaving this all behind,” Benavides said. “I want to continue my work here. I want to keep building relationships.
“I have so much love to give to this community,” she said. “You all have the power that will allow me to do so.”
As the regulations stand, households looking to buy properties restricted by the Housing Department must have at least one adult member who is a U.S. citizen or a green card holder.
DACA recipients can’t purchase those units, which include “affordable” homes that are price-controlled for local workers, and “workforce” units that can sell for market prices but are reserved for households that make the majority of their income from Teton County businesses.
If the new rules are adopted that will change, and Dreamers will be able to apply for affordable and workforce units, according to Stacy Stoker, housing manager for the Housing Department.
“Their drawing entries will be treated the same as everyone else,” Stoker told the News&Guide. “It’s just that they haven’t had the ability to even apply in the past.”
She said the department hasn’t had inquiries from Dreamers in the past.
“That doesn’t mean they’re not out there,” she said. “I think they just understand they don’t qualify.”
The proposed rule change would allow DACA recipients with a Social Security number and valid employment authorization to purchase restricted units.
Dreamers are already able to rent “affordable” and “workforce” units because the Housing Department doesn’t ask for citizenship information for rentals.
The reason for the difference between renting and owning, Stoker said, is financing.
Mortgage lenders have traditionally asked about applicants’ resident and citizenship status, and people applying to rent units typically don’t take out loans.
But Stoker said guidance from federally backed home mortgage companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as the Federal Housing Administration, is changing to allow DACA recipients to receive federally backed loans. That’s part of the reason the Housing Department brought the proposed change forward.
No councilor or commissioner spoke against the proposed change. A handful spoke in favor of it, including Councilor Jim Rooks.
“I really appreciate you recognizing the legal status of DACA persons,” he told Stoker and Housing Department Director April Norton. “They have legal rights and to deny those legal rights I think is a mistake. So it’s probably the right thing to do legally. It’s definitely the right thing to do ethically, and we should do it.”
The Obama administration established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy in 2012. It provides people who were brought to the United States unlawfully as children a two-year shield — technically, a “deferred action” — from deportation and allows them the opportunity to apply for a work permit.
According to the White House, over 800,000 immigrants have qualified for DACA.
The policy, enacted through the executive branch rather than legislation, has faced challenges. The Trump administration announced in 2017 its intent to end the program. But, in a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked that action and, in December 2020, a federal judge in Brooklyn ordered the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to fully reinstate the program. The Biden administration has since expressed its intent to “preserve and fortify” DACA.
In light of the back and forth at the federal level, commissioners and councilors recognized the uncertainty DACA recipients face. Stoker acknowledged that a future policy change that could increase Dreamers’ risk of deportation was a “possibility.”
Councilor Arne Jorgensen said that shouldn’t stop the town and county from acting.
“Let’s not hold these members of the community [responsible] for the dysfunction of the federal government,” he said, adding that if a Dreamer was able to purchase a home and policy changed at the federal level years down the road, he would not be comfortable forcing them to sell.
“These are folks that are part of our community,” he said. “I just feel very strongly that we should be accommodating them here and wherever else we can.”
Wes Clarke of Immigrant Hope, a nonprofit that provides immigrants with help completing applications for green cards, citizenship and DACA, also supported the move.
“One of the things about DACA that people don’t always realize is they’ve been here for a long time and are community members. All DACA recipients had to be here before 2007,” Clarke told the council and commission. “They are very valuable parts of our community. And they’re able to work, but right now they’re not able to apply for these homes.”
People interested in commenting on the proposal can email the Town Council by following the links at TinyURL.com/tcpubliccomment and email County Commissioners at Commissioners@tetoncountywy.gov. People may also give public comment in person during regular town and county meetings.