King Street

The Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust hopes to create gap housing for families that don’t qualify for affordable units but can’t buy on the free market.

One of Jackson’s key housing projects has switched hands, as the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust takes over development of workforce units downtown.

Choosing security over affordability, the Town Council took back the project from Westmount Development Group. The Connecticut-based developer planned to build 30 rentals tailored to Teton County’s lowest-income earners but struggled to obtain the necessary financing.

Now the local Housing Trust will build 24 units priced for workers with a more midrange income.

Westmount was twice passed over for low-income tax credits that would have allowed it to price its rentals at less than 60% of the average local income — hitting a price range that’s especially scarce in Jackson.

Jackson’s high construction costs make it difficult to win over the Wyoming Community Development Authority, which awards the credits. There’s no guarantee that a third attempt at the credits would have paid off.

“We keep doing the things they tell us to do, and I think at some point we’ll crack the nut,” Housing Director April Norton said. “Will it be this time? I have no idea.”

The rejection of a third application would have further delayed the project, an unappealing prospect for elected officials. With so many workers already driven to seek accommodation outside Teton County, the council is eager to draw them back with affordable housing, especially as another housing project on West Kelly Street remains mired in political complications.

Westmount President Rick Ross made a final plea to the council, asking it to wait until January to see whether a third application for tax credits would be successful.

“We believe the highest and best use for this site are affordable rentals, and we believe you should continue down that path,” Ross said. “There are no affordable units in your pipeline. This is your opportunity to provide some.”

But a majority of the councilors decided there wasn’t enough evidence that the Wyoming Community Development Authority would be persuaded. With that unpredictability in mind, Norton advised the councilors that the Housing Trust’s proposal would be a safer bet.

The decision to side with the Housing Trust was also, to some extent, forced by the town’s financial reality. Westmount offered two alternatives that would have bypassed the uncertainty of tax credits, but they were too expensive for councilors. They would have required $2.8 million to $3.5 million in public subsidies, when the town has just $2 million in funds for housing.

The Housing Trust’s revised proposal — which is identical to the one it submitted in early 2018, when the council first chose Westmount — calls for 24 ownership units for a mix of income ranges from 80% to 120% of the local average.

The plan requires $3.4 million in public subsidy, but director Anne Cresswell said she is confident the Housing Trust can raise about $2.1 million through private philanthropy. The town would use some of its $2 million in housing funds to cover the difference.

In reaction to the discussion, a handful of affordable housing advocates sent letters to the town or spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, all urging the council to stick with the original proposal from Westmount.

Considering it would provide housing for the lowest-income range in Teton County, as opposed to the Housing Trust’s midrange income, they argued that the cheaper dwellings are crucial in a way the costlier ones aren’t.

“There already is and will be affordable housing for successful professionals,” wrote Rachel Attias. “There is none for Jackson’s working class. That is a blatant and obvious problem that you have the power to solve.”

Sharel Lund, executive director of One22, a nonprofit focused on the needs of the Latino community, did not explicitly endorse one project or the other. But she said that almost all of her clients spend around 75% to 80% of their income on housing and are “in no position to purchase under any circumstances.”

Another letter to the town, from Wren Kominos, read: “It’s worth it to wait for the funding for truly affordable housing to come through, rather than jump the gun and continue to build housing that only the middle class can access.”

The council was split on the decision, with Mayor Pete Muldoon and Councilor Hailey Morton Levinson in favor of giving Westmount another chance.

“I still want to tip the scale this time toward rental,” Levinson said. “Even if we don’t get any of the tax credits, I still think this is the project we should invest in. It feeds the need just a little bit in the direction we need most.”

But when it became clear the other three supported the Housing Trust, the two joined the yes-vote, agreeing that it will be good “to see housing there in general.”

Muldoon closed the meeting with a second vote, directing town staff and the Housing Supply Board to explore strategies for funding the kind of low-income housing Jackson so desperately needs.

Tax credits are one surefire way to do that, but after this process it seems they aren’t often a viable option.

“It’s not something we can do year in and year out,” Muldoon said. “But the need is great, and we’ve got to find a way.”

Contact Cody Cottier at 732-5911 or town@jhnewsandguide.com.

Cody Cottier covers town and state government. He grew up with a view of the Olympic Mountains, and after graduating Washington State University he traded it for a view of the Tetons. Odds are the mountains are where you’ll find him when not on deadline.

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