We must be the envy of the world: The root of Jackson Hole’s biggest challenge is its privilege.
For many of us, growing up among the world’s greatest natural wonders was an opportunity few can imagine. For many others, financial achievement opened the doors to the benefit of a life here.
Call us blessed or call us lucky. From every angle we are privileged.
Yet the problems created by the workforce-housing shortage are real, and they threaten our community’s sustainability. These challenges are the byproducts of the advantages we all share in belonging to this community, no matter how we got here or what we now contribute.
Building affordable housing is the biggest logjam, but there are others. There’s the matter of access to capital, for instance. For people working in cash businesses or living paycheck to paycheck, buying even an affordable house here must seem impossible.
When any bank writes a mortgage, it requires a homebuyer to have some skin in the game, so to speak, in the form of a down payment. Confronted with this housing crisis — and that’s what it is — First Western has decided to offer some skin of its own: We’re exploring how to step outside our private banking world and start writing workforce-housing mortgages.
Nobody who has been to business school would say this is a good financial idea. Writing mortgages in the best of credit markets is a low-margin game. Combine today’s basement interest rates with the regulatory hurdles and limits involved in affordable-housing loans and there is little financial upside for the lender. Try to apply for an affordable housing loan from any name-brand national mortgage provider if you’re not convinced. They will hang up the phone.
But seen as an investment in the community that can bring long-term benefits, these loans, we hope, can in their small way help mitigate the crunch. There is currently only one bank in town writing these mortgages. A homebuyer can expect to pay a 3.5 percent down payment and must cover the closing costs. By entering this market we hope to drive down those costs and perhaps also those interest rates.
Readers of the News&Guide know what’s at stake. This community needs landscapers and restaurateurs, teachers and tennis pros, waitresses and caddies, firemen and EMTs and police just as surely as we need our tourists and our trust-funders and our Masters and Mistresses of the Universe. Having teachers and nurses as good neighbors is priceless. Meanwhile, a walled city of 1 percenters might feel as unhappy as it would be unworkable. After all, we need first responders to be able to get here quickly, and having people living in tents just to hold a job here is not sustainable.
You also know the costs. A single unit of affordable workforce housing costs about a half million dollars from start to finish — pulling together the land, the permits, the labor, the lawyers, etc. In the lifetime of that unit it’s unlikely to generate more than a $300,000 return. So for every housing unit, we as a community provide a $200,000 subsidy.
It’s a solid investment. It guarantees the privilege of Jackson Hole to the next generation. But make no mistake, it’s a lot of money.
For years I’ve had the opportunity to serve our community on the Teton County Housing Authority. We’ve spent more days discussing more ways to conjure that money than I care to remember.
Below is what I think needs to be done.
Create a cooperative plan: Currently there are many entities working hard to address the challenge — the Teton County Housing Authority, the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust, Habitat for Humanity, elected officials, businesses. Creating a plan that maximizes the strengths of each entity will help each investment dollar go farther. This plan is underway with the “Workforce Housing Action Plan” with input from stakeholders and advice from experts in the industry. Support the elected officials to complete and adopt this plan.
Update land-development regulations: The new comprehensive plan shapes the vision for increased density in the town of Jackson to create opportunities for workforce housing, and hopefully it can identify other areas in our “metroplex” suitable for workforce housing. Updates to the LDRs are necessary to implement this vision.
Educate: There has been much attention focused on the housing crisis this summer, but until this time there has been little notice. Consistently educating the community about the value of maintaining a core workforce will enable continued support for creating housing opportunities.
Secure funding: Because of high land values and cost of construction in an isolated mountain community, the private sector is unable to make a profit by creating housing that is affordable to working households. Therefore, assistance from the public sector is necessary. Ideally, a sales tax in a designated resort district — say, the lodging overlay — would generate enough resources to methodically produce housing and manage the units created. One penny of sales tax across the board in Teton County equates to about $10 million annually.
Establish a housing trust fund: A housing trust fund is a common model used in communities nationwide to equitably distribute funds for the production of workforce housing. This fund would make resources accessible to all housing providers — public, private nonprofit, private for-profit, businesses, individuals, etc. — and would enable leveraging of other resources to effectively put units on the ground.
Nothing that will work will be easy, but many workable difficult ideas are both sustainable and fair. What’s needed is support for them — from the community and from business leaders and officials.