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God’s country, renter’s hell
Desperation grows among local workforce looking for housing
Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Living out of your car has its challenges, particularly when you get food poisoning in the dead of winter and have to hightail it to the nearest bathroom.
“Another night I woke up and it was so cold that I thought it was snowing inside my car, but it was just my breath crystallizing and freezing on me,” said Jared Rogers, a 15-year resident with a good job who says his life looks pretty good, except for that part about being homeless since November.
Rogers is perhaps unique in his ability to withstand negative Teton temperatures with nothing but a heated blanket, but he is hardly alone in his struggle to find housing as a working-class professional in Teton County. One of the realities of living the Jackson Hole dream is the high cost of securing a heated place to lay one’s head. Buying a home is prohibitively expensive for most of the non-trustafarian working class. Long-term renting, and all the trials and tribulations that come with it, is the de facto option of choice for most.
None of this is new, but in the past year reports from those in the trenches of the rental market have been bleaker than recent memory.
The Housing pinch
Rental property availability follows the rhythm of the seasons with prime moving periods prior to the busy summer season and in the fall when the influx of seasonal workers and visitors subsides.
Veteran renter Amber Townsend knows the drill. She has moved seven times in the last four years and knows that finding a decent spot requires quick decisions and connections.
“Every time I have had to look for housing has been tricky, but it has gotten harder and harder,” Townsend said. “This time around was the hardest.”
She spent three months diligently scanning the classifieds, countless hours emailing and calling leads only to have the deal fall apart.
“It was a second job, and I still had to live in my car for a few days in between,” she said.
Townsend is crossing her fingers that a two-bedroom basement apartment on Crabtree comes through so she can move her belongings out of her car and under a roof.
“I just feel lucky to have gotten it,” she said hesitantly, as if at any moment the landlord could change his mind. “It’s an underground unit, but it does have some half windows, which is really nice.”
Puzzled for years
Christine Walker, executive director of Teton County Housing Authority, said the workforce housing puzzle has perplexed Teton County for more than 20 years.
“When I moved here in 1989 it was pretty tight. I camped out and slept in garages,” Walker said. “Housing the workforce is a constant challenge and this period of time is right up there with one of the most difficult there’s been.”
Melanie Rees, a housing consultant specializing in the Mountain West, said that while the magnitude of the problem ebbs and flows, the overall trend is that the housing shortage is a consistently worsening problem for lifestyle communities like Jackson Hole.
“It might have softened a little bit during the recession, but now that the economy is coming back, the problem is rebounding,” Rees said.
Overall, it’s a simple problem of supply and demand, with lower income residents getting priced out of the market as demand rises and prices increase. However, two dynamics in particular are exacerbating the issue.
“It’s the summer season, so there are always more jobs. Plus, I see a lot of construction jobs this summer that are drawing more people into the area,” Walker said.
Jackson Town Councilor Jim Stanford said the supply of affordable workforce rentals is low this season, in part, due to an increase in illegal short-term rentals.
Whereas homeowners once rented their places to long-term renters, Stanford said the internet has enabled average homeowners to turn their apartments or condos into a makeshift hotel, generating far more profit from night-to-night rentals. He said that doesn’t jive with the goals the community has set for itself.
“We’ve made a choice as a community that we don’t want to export our workforce,” Stanford said.
The Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan lays out a goal of housing 65 percent of the workforce locally. The statistics from the 2014 Comprehensive Plan Annual Indicator Report point to a discrepancy between our community goals and reality.
“If 65 percent of the local workforce is living locally … it is a result of employees working multiple jobs in order to afford housing, not the provision of workforce housing opportunities. Workforce housing opportunities are not being provided at the same pace as jobs, ” the report states.
More precise numbers are not yet available for quantifying our current situation.
“Frankly, we don’t know how much of the workforce is housed locally right now. We are in an analytical process to try to get those numbers,” said County Commissioner Ben Ellis. “We do know that we have more to do to achieve our goals.”
Several studies are underway to give local officials more information about the housing picture in Jackson Hole. Shawn Hill, a planning consultant for Forward Frontier, is working with Rees Consulting on a housing needs survey for Teton County, WY, and four other counties that he says will shed more light on the demand side of the equation.
Results of the survey won’t be available until the end of August, but Hill said even without the numbers tallied, it’s easy to see that the market is lopsided when you look at the newspaper classifieds.
“There are 332 full time jobs available and only three available rental units,” Hill said.
A good job and a truck to call home
Rogers feels the effect of the lopsided classifieds in his own life.
“I don’t like to put too much emphasis on my title, but I feel like I’m doing alright financially and professionally. I just don’t have a place to live,” said Rogers, an executive chef at a popular local restaurant.
Last fall, when he was ousted from his basement room rental, Rogers and his dog, Ninja, searched for rentals. He knows that in this market he is being picky by setting his budget between $700 and $1,000 a month for a reasonably quiet place, preferably by himself.
“I’m 36 and I just don’t want to live with five other roommates at this point,” he said. “Plus, 90 percent of the places I looked at did not allow pets. For me it just seemed like a better option to live out of my car.”
He bought a topper, and built a “living” area complete with storage compartments and just enough space for him and his dog to sleep.
“Dating isn’t really an option,” he said, showing how he sleeps diagonally across the truck bed so that his feet fit. Dating, however, is a secondary concern compared to finding a warm place to change clothes and a way to fill his free time.
“I work a lot, so when I didn’t know what to do with myself, I just went to work or went to the gym,” Rogers said. “But sometimes I just wanted to relax.”
Living out of a truck bed, especially through the winter, requires constant planning.
“I had to move around a lot to various spots and find power to plug in my space heater,” Rogers said. “I planned my days so I could shower at my gym and brush my teeth before bed.”
Summer, with its more moderate temperatures, should be easier to manage, but the thought of next winter weighs heavy on his mind.
“I don’t know if I will do another winter like that,” Rogers said. “After 15 years, it might be the reason I move from Jackson.”
Consequences of tight rental market
“There’s a variety of ways that a shortage of housing negatively impacts a community like Jackson,” Rees said, drawing from her years of experience with housing shortages in other “lifestyle communities” such as Vail, Aspen and Telluride.
The less-entrenched workforce population often decides to pick up and move away to other lifestyle communities when things get too expensive, which leaves local employers with fewer options for workers.
“That can lead to a lower level of service at local establishments. Service is pretty important for a resort town and that can hurt the economy,” Rees said.
When the forces of supply and demand raise rent to exorbitant prices, people often spend an unwise percentage of their income on housing. According to common financial wisdom, individuals should spend no more than 40 percent of their monthly income on housing. Rental prices in Jackson Hole are reaching levels exceeding that percentage.
“That means that these people have less income for critical things like healthcare and bills,” Rees said. “Plus, their expendable income to contribute to the local community is lower.”
Additionally, when prices are too high people save money by cramming too many tenants into a home, which can cause disruptions to neighborhoods. Campsites, both legal and illegal, also fill to capacity and beyond.
“When the rental market gets tight, it puts a lot of pressure on the national forests,” said Linda Merigliano, Bridger-Teton National Forest recreation program manager for the Jackson Hole area.
Merigliano said Forest Service employees spend a significant amount of time policing campsites to ensure that folks aren’t overstaying their limits. Long-term campers often don’t dispose of their waste properly, which pollute forest areas and attract bears.
When camping isn’t an option and housing is too expensive, an increasingly common option for folks feeling the housing pinch is moving to surrounding towns like Victor, Driggs and Alpine.
“It’s more expensive to build and maintain highways than it is to build housing,” Rees said. “Not to mention, when the workforce moves away, you lose a valuable part of a town’s character.”
“They talk about keeping the workforce in Jackson, but I really don’t see it happening,” said 20-year resident Susan Kerley.
Kerley may be joining the growing number of Teton County workers moving to nearby areas. Since 1992, she has managed to stay rooted in Teton County, working as a certified nurse’s assistant and raising a family.
“I think we got here like five years after things were somewhat affordable,” she said. “It was always hard to find a place. You had to be lucky. We’ve lived in some less than desirable places. But this time, we just can’t find anything.”
Kerley’s landlady recently passed away, leaving her heirs to make the difficult decision to bulldoze the old home in order to either sell the land or redevelop.
“I don’t blame them,” she said. “All these older homes are scrapers. I’m seeing lots of older more affordable places get turned into gigantic homes that I could never afford.”
Kerley, her husband, and 17-year-old daughter are considering joining many other local workers who already have moved to Alpine, but work in Jackson.
“I’m still holding out hope that we can find something, but if not I would be looking at two hours of commute time every day. I’m not looking forward to that drive,” she said.
Hope for housing
In the time it takes to develop more affordable housing options, many long-term county workers like Kerley, Rogers, and Townsend may already be gone.
For those that can hang in there, Rees thinks Jackson Hole has a lot of potential to mitigate the housing problem.
“Compared to other resort communities I’ve worked with, like Aspen and Vail, you have more room for redevelopment, annexation and affordable housing. It’s more a matter of political will, but it seems like the foresight is there, unlike in some other resort towns that didn’t address their housing issues,” Rees said.
If the Comprehensive Plan goals are any indicator of political will, then the sentiment to provide housing for the majority of the Jackson workforce is there.
Housing 65 percent of the workforce will not be a simple task, said County Commissioner Ellis. “But it doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy goal. And just because we don’t reach 65 right away, does not mean we are failing. It means we are still striving.”
“I do think the goal is achievable,” he said. “It will be a challenge to maintain and will require a constantly changing set of policies … sticks and carrots that can balance the forces of the private market.”
Teton County Housing Authority officials say they are working on new solutions from a variety of different angles, a strategy that Rees advocates.
“There’s no one solution. It has to be a variety of solutions and options for different income levels, so as long as a community is employing a variety of options, if they are taking action, it’s probably the right action,” Rees said.
Currently, housing developments are underway or slated for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Teton County School District employees. The next affordable housing project will be The Grove, a mixed-use project near Teton County Library with 20 rental units and 48 ownership properties that broke ground Tuesday. However, the first occupants won’t move in until September 2015.
“This is not something that you can fix overnight,” Walker said. “But every piece makes a difference.”
So for now, just as it has been for decades, “You’ve gotta pay to live in God’s country,” said Chuck Fideroff, director of Jackson’s homeless shelter.