[This week the News&Guide concludes its three-week examination of Jackson Hole’s housing shortage. Ben Graham and Michael Polhamus start with the story below about elected officials’ attitudes and possible ways to address the issue. Page 24 shows what a half dozen other resort towns in the West have done to provide affordable housing. And page 25 examines one of the ripple effects of the shortage: abandoned pets and the agencies tasked with caring for them. We trust, however, that the conversation will continue. — Eds.]
The long-term solution to Jackson Hole’s workforce housing shortage needs to involve a dedicated source of revenue, housing experts say.
While the opinions of elected officials vary about what should be done, a common theme from those who make a living analyzing and building affordable housing is that some sort of consistent funding is necessary to address the problem.
That is at the top of the list of tools that Teton County is missing to battle the chronic shortage of affordable places where workers can live, housing consultant Melanie Rees said.
“It’s just like you have a water fund or a sewer fund or a road fund,” Rees said. “The communities that have [a housing fund] are able to consistently, year after year, tackle housing.”
Those communities include many places in Rees’ home state of Colorado, including Aspen, Telluride and Boulder.
“It’s dependable, you can rely upon it, you can plan ahead, you can use it to leverage other sources of revenue,” she said.
Housing advocates closer to home agree that a regular stream of public funds should be made available.
“It would set up an equitable way that funds could be distributed in order to get the biggest bang for the community’s buck,” outgoing Teton County Housing Authority Executive Director Christine Walker said.
The ideas for solutions come during a summer in which, by many accounts, the housing market is exceptionally tight in Jackson Hole. People are camping or living out of their cars. Businesses are short of staff.
There is little concrete data about exactly how acute the housing shortage is this summer, but that doesn’t change the fact that the valley will always have to deal with a worrisome housing situation.
With limited, highly sought-after land available, working families are often priced out of the market.
The 2014 annual indicator report for the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan released this spring said homes remain extremely unaffordable to the average household and the job pool is growing faster than the worker pool.
More solid data will be available in 10 weeks, when a consultant is supposed to release a new housing assessment with recommendations to elected officials.
For now housing experts agree a housing fund would help.
“We need to talk about viable options to quickly develop a recurring revenue stream,” Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust Executive Director Anne Cresswell said.
The idea isn’t new. Indeed, the Jackson/Teton Comprehensive Plan calls for establishing “a reliable funding source for workforce housing provision.”
Ideally businesses, developers and government would all be able to use the cash to build housing, Walker said.
Ideas about where that stream would flow from include a real estate transfer tax, an additional property tax and a 1 percent sales tax.
One percent of sales tax would generate $9 million to $10 million annually, compared with the $1 million that an additional mill of property tax would raise, Cresswell said. It would also put some of the burden on tourists, who help drive the larger workforce, she noted.
“It engages everyone in the solution because it is a community-wide problem that deserves and requires a community-wide solution,” Cresswell said. “It’s not just putting the solution on the backs of developers or donors.”
While any kind of long-term solution is going to involve multiple strategies, housing experts say, there are other things that can be done in the short-term.
Businesses should be heavily involved, Walker said, and could work with the public sector in “shared-equity programs.”
It would also help for the town and county to have a clear plan for their housing authority and to fund it accordingly, she said.
At the very least the organization should have the funds needed to educate the community about the housing situation, she said.
But the first and most simple step at this point is drafting new zoning rules and following through with what the comprehensive plan calls for, Walker said.
“The biggest step they can do is finish with their character districts, especially in the town of Jackson,” she said.
The master planning document calls for a shift in density from outlying parts of the county into town and for open space to be preserved in the county by reducing development potential. It also sets a community goal of housing 65 percent of the workforce locally.
A key to the new regulations will be crafting them in a way that dissuades people from building second homes, which some see as a growing problem in town, Walker said. Options could be limiting the size of units or preventing one single-family home from spanning more than one lot, she said.
But the 65 percent goal won’t be possible by just adding density to town, according to a real estate agent who spoke at a special meeting on housing earlier this week.
“We can’t build our way out of this,” said Brett McPeak, an owner and broker with RE/MAX Obsidian Real Estate. “Something needs to change.”
He painted a troubling picture, at least for the middle class, of how rapidly the housing market is changing.
In 2012 a townhouse on Redmond Street was on sale for $200 per square foot. In 2014 a townhouse just next door was on sale for $400 per square foot.
The inventory available in town is similar to the merchandise at a yard sale late in the afternoon, he said.
What’s available is “somebody’s beat up hand-me-down or something brand new with a large price tag on it,” McPeak said. “We seem to be at a sort of an endgame with the housing stock that’s available.”
Elected officials say that for many residents housing in the county is as hard to find — and harder to afford — as it has been for years.
Not everyone agrees this challenge rises to the level of a crisis.
“I think that’s a pretty strong term,” Jackson Mayor Mark Barron said.
Barron said he has seen a housing shortage every summer since he moved here in 1975.
At the same time, he said, the county includes two world-class national parks, three ski areas, the Snake River, several mountain ranges, a community dedicated to preserving open space and habitat, and not much developable land to begin with.
“I think it’s just a reality of such an amazingly beautiful, popular place in the summer,” Barron said.
The problem will never go away, he said, but viable measures remain to cope with it better than have been employed in recent years.
The owner of several small Jackson businesses, Barron said it’s impossible to keep key employees unless employers pay them well and assist with housing.
Most employers understand that already, he said, and want opportunities to help house their key workers.
“I don’t have a mitigation I’m trying to meet,” Barron said. “I have a market need I’m trying to meet.”
Barron provides housing opportunities for his employees, he said, but “more people don’t do it because there’s only so much inventory.”
Were more businesses allowed to expand upward — turning commercial areas into mixed-use areas — they’d be able to house employees without affecting the character of existing neighborhoods, Barron said.
If a business owner has a store on the first floor and could build housing units above it, Barron said, “I’m inspired to do that, but I’m unable to do that with today’s rules.”
That wouldn’t work unless such development is restricted from taking place around Town Square or in residential neighborhoods, Barron said. For what is already zoned as commercial, however, such an allowance represents low-hanging fruit, he said.
That is one of the strategies that ought to be taken advantage of, County Commission Chairman Hank Phibbs said.
“To address the problem best, we can and we should look at every viable option,” Phibbs said.
These options include increased commuter services to Star Valley and Teton County, Idaho, he said. The county can encourage private-sector solutions, too, such as that undertaken by Jackson Hole Mountain Resort with its employee housing development in west Jackson, he said.
The Grove, a large affordable housing project under construction by the Teton County Housing Authority, represents another set of opportunities, Phibbs said. Large, private high-density developments such as that contemplated for the former U.S. Forest Service headquarters on Cache Street are important as well, he said.
“There is no universal answer,” Phibbs said.
At the same time, he said, there is no housing crisis, either.
“We try to employ all the opportunities we’ve got to ensure we have a diverse community,” he said, “but from my point of view it’s not a crisis, it’s an ongoing problem.”
The problem may not have existed all 40 years Phibbs has lived here, but it has for at least the last 30, he said.
Many elected officials told a similar story.
“Housing was in short supply when I moved here 22 years ago, ” Jackson Town Councilor Jim Stanford said. “It’s just increasingly acute now than I’ve seen it in some time, because of the recovery.”
The increasing severity of the housing shortage, Stanford said, shows that it is more of a crisis than a seasonal difficulty.
A look at the newspaper, Stanford said, reveals “a preponderance of help wanted ads and a paucity of rental ads.” A recent lottery for affordable housing in Pine Glades provided further evidence, he said, with more than 100 people applying to purchase seven residences.
True workforce housing
Like Phibbs, Stanford said there’s no single solution.
One approach that makes sense is to allow taller buildings, Stanford said, and the comprehensive plan contemplates that. But Stanford was not convinced that taller buildings will help, he said, unless some form of oversight was attached to their construction.
“We have to be careful we get true workforce housing,” he said, “and not a glut of high-end condos that’ll end up on VRBO.com.”
The same applies to mixed-use developments such as what Barron suggested, Stanford said. If allowing residences on top of commercial buildings expands commercial development, Stanford said, “we’re only digging a deeper hole.”
A housing action plan is being written, and before its release Stanford wouldn’t speculate on the best answer to the housing problem.
But in addition to greater density, dedicated funding for affordable housing might make sense, Stanford said.
A real estate transfer tax could help, but the state Legislature has repeatedly shot down such a device, Stanford said.
Apportioning part of the sales tax to affordable housing might be another option worth exploring, he said.
“I could conceive of a day when we dedicate 1 percent of sales tax to affordable housing,” he said.
Community members so strongly support affordable housing that they may actually approve such a plan, Stanford said.
1 percent for housing
Dedicated funding is essential to meeting the comprehensive plan’s long-term workforce housing goals, County Commissioner Ben Ellis said, and a 1 percent sales tax is the most likely source.
Rather than devote the sixth cent of current sales tax to the specific purpose excise tax, allocate it to general revenue, Ellis said.
“There’s a difference between needs and wants,” he said, and general revenue is for needs while SPET projects are for wants. Workforce housing is a need, Ellis said.
That approach has several advantages, he said. The fact that tourists pay half of sales tax revenue is the best argument, Ellis said.
Another is the fact that voters can always approve an additional penny of sales tax for SPET initiatives they support, he said.
A dedicated funding source is critical to housing workers locally because of severe limitations on what solutions the private sector can offer, Ellis said. While the problem as a whole belongs to the community as a whole, forward-thinking business owners can help themselves by helping their workers find housing, Ellis said.
“Businesses thinking long-term should be thinking of some sort of solution,” he said. They’re required at some level to invest in worker housing in order to keep employees, he said, “and there’s no better time to invest in a problem that’ll keep getting worse than today.”