“This situation was already difficult and has gotten increasingly impossible.”

The words of a cafe owner 557 miles away reverberate through my mind, like fire alarms in the distance. As I read the words that Elena, the owner of the beloved Telluride, Colorado, coffee shop/grocer Ghost Town, wrote in a heartbreaking social media post, my stomach clenches.

“Ghost Town is closing. ... Unfortunately, I cannot keep Ghost Town alive with so few employees. ... The reality of our employee shortage, housing crisis and cultural shift ... is hitting hard.

“I need to be honest with this community, with my customers, and with myself instead of sacrificing the mental and physical health of our team.

It’s not for the season. It’s a permanent closure.

What’s most unsettling about reading this post of a woman I’ve never met, in a town I’ve never been to, is how familiar it is. It could have been written by any business owner in Jackson. Any of the nonprofits, banks or grocery stores that are struggling to hire. Any of the restaurants and retailers that have altered hours because of lack of staff (read: lack of housing for staff) and increased stressors. Healthy Being Juicery, Trio, Local, Cafe Genevieve ... the list goes on.

It’s all there, the same writing on the wall we’ve been reading for years here in Jackson: insufficient affordable housing, an unsustainable amount of tourism, remote worker migration and prioritization of whoever holds the largest wallet. And yet, we shrug. “It’s always been bad,” we say, thinking of seasonal workers crammed six to a three-bedroom, bouncing from $500 a month skid room to $500 a month skid room or working two jobs to pay bills and save.

When I moved here in 2018, it was still considered a rite of passage to live in your vehicle for a few months to find housing. My first summer doing so was somewhat charming. The second summer I did so after our landlord sold our place midlease cycle, during the height of the pandemic, was less so.

It’s always been bad, it’s always been unsustainable. But it is no longer the same type of “bad,” for our housing stock has dramatically changed. Homes that once housed young local workers, a family or retired community members are now luxury refuges. A screened-in porch-turned-7-by-9 bedroom I once paid $750 a month for is now going for $1,500 a month. Even optimistic workforce housing projects are out of reach for the teachers, nonprofit employees and restaurant workers who make our town run.

It’s always been “bad.” But the type of bad we know doesn’t even exist anymore; we’ve upgraded to the type of crisis where there just simply isn’t a room to rent, even if you had $2K to spend on it.

We are on the road to Ghost Town, a slow, exponential erosion of community, economy and culture that will end not with a bang, but a whimper. A shell of a vibrant town left with vacation homes, shuttered businesses and a few hardy survivors.

Unless we all decide to fight for the soul of our community.

Unless we prioritize affordable housing outside of the speculative market. Unless we advocate on a local and state level for a dedicated public funding stream for affordable housing. Unless we demand a northern South Park Neighborhood plan that will offer units affordable to households earning under $120,000 a year. Unless we take a little hit on profit to do right by our community. Unless we say, “Yes, in my backyard.” Unless we work together long term to solve this mess instead of shrugging “It’s always been bad.”

We can have a community that has both luxury homes and affordable ones. We can have a thriving economy, school district, and town where people can afford to live where they work. We can have space for the wildlife and humans that want to live here. But we can’t have it if nothing changes. It’s going to take all of us — businesses, government and citizens alike — to do it.

For myself, a healthy young professional, housing instability is an exhausting constant stressor that permeates my professional and personal life. For others — families, elderly community members, immigrants, low-income workers, disabled community members — it’s downright dangerous. And it will drive away the individuals, couples, and families who have sacrificed and dreamed of making this community their lifelong home but ultimately are told, “There is no place for you here.”

It’s always been bad. But it doesn’t have to get worse.

Use the next two weeks to review and give comments on the northern South Park Neighborhood plan in support of maximizing affordable housing units for lower-income classes, and adding deed restrictions. We have an opportunity here and we cannot afford to miss it. Comment at NorthernSouthpark.konveio.com.

Elizabeth Hutchings serves as the vice chair of ShelterJH, which is dedicated to advocating for and collaborating on affordable housing solutions in the valley. She has been an Idaho commuter, forest dweller and housing-insecure tenant in the town of Jackson. Guest Shots are solely the opinion of their authors.

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(1) comment

Roger Hayden

This year is the worst ever for housing availability in Jackson Hole. Of course, we have said that almost every year for the past 30-40 years. Now, we've reached the point many of us predicted 30 years ago.

Today, as we continue to grow, middle class workers can no longer move or work here. Unless they secure the affordable housing we provide, or have their own resources, they have no place to live. This includes the teachers, firefighters, police and many others every community needs.

Without some serious changes, Jackson Hole will become what we predicted: an exclusive community of the ultra wealthy, served primarily by the poorest of the poor.

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