After nine years, Housing Authority leader tires of ‘battle.’
Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Christine Walker announced her resignation as executive director of the Teton County Housing Authority last week. Her departure comes at a time when affordable housing is a hot button issue and housing availability, or lack of, has never been more dire.
After nine years on the job, Walker can look back and feel proud of a few achievements. But budget cuts and the daily challenges of providing government subsidized housing have finally taken their toll. Walker sat down with The Planet for a look back, and ahead, at the challenges of trying to house the valley’s workforce.
Planet Jackson Hole: Why are you resigning?
Christine Walker: It’s a challenging and stressful job. There is no particular reason. There wasn’t anything that was a defining moment. I just felt like it was time to go. I never saw myself as a lifer at the Housing Authority. I committed to five years, so I think I put in my time fighting this battle. The position in itself is very controversial – providing government-provided housing for working families. That over time it takes a toll.
PJH: Why now? How long have you been thinking about leaving?
CW: It’s been a while, now, probably for over a year. I’ve been thinking about whether I really wanted to keep on in this position or whether I wanted to try something different. Part of it was I felt the Grove was at a particular position where it’s steadily moving forward. It’s a good time to make a transition into a different role.
PJH: How did you get here?
CW: The Housing Authority was established in 1990. It was a well-established organization that had just completed the Milward development. We had just transferred some land to the Housing Trust to develop on Hall. And I’ll tell you what; there weren’t a whole lot of good records in place at the Housing Authority. Having to establish record keeping was a big part of what I had to do at the Housing Authority.
PJH: When did you really feel settled in; like you had a handle on the job?
CW: I still don’t have a handle on the job. It’s evolving so quickly. What is especially challenging right now is not having the organizational capacity to do what you see needs to be done. I hope this is an opportunity for the community to really stand behind their government housing entity and provide the resources needed to take it to the next level. I think a fresh energy is needed here. A fresh perspective.
PJH: What TCHA needs is more money, and land. And money.
CW: That’s good for putting housing on the ground. Development is kind of the sexy part of the HA. It’s fun to be able to work with people to come up with a plan, and work with the neighbors to learn what they want to see, and work with existing homeowners to understand how to make housing better. And to put something on paper and watch it come out of the ground.
PJH: And the drudgery of the job?
CW: Managing the units that are on the ground. Sales and resales, the bulk of what the HA really does is provide management of the existing restrictions on properties.
PJH: The American dream of home ownership, of creating that investment in community was once all the rage. Now, it seems, everyone is talking about renting over owning. How is the TCHA responding?
CW: One big misperception I think that is held by people in the community is that, well, there are about 1,500 restricted units, 1,000 of those are rentals. So we’ve had a lot of success in providing rental products. You have Habitat pushing and marketing for ownership opportunities and you have the Housing Trust doing that. So in the community what we see is a lot of this emphasis on the ownership product when really there’s been a lot of emphasis on rentals, too, and I don’t think the community is aware of it.
We’ve always been talking about providing rental products since I started with the HA. It hasn’t been something that is not on our radar. We got shot down on many cases in trying to provide it. But we partnered with a private sector developer to build the Flat Creek units. We partnered with Pioneer Homestead to provide rental housing there as well. We have short memories, I say.
Part of the reason there has been an emphasis on home ownership in the past is that in this community, through the free market, there are very few opportunities for entry-level housing for people to get a foothold.
PJH: Developers and others complain a lot about the 25 percent mitigation fee. They say it’s too high and stifles new development. It was jacked up from 15 percent when the economy was booming. Is 25 percent the right number?
CW: Is it right? One of the things to remember is that that tool is to mitigate the impacts of actual new development being built. It’s not to try to make up for some housing shortage we have in the community. It’s designed to help house the employees a new development will create. If we have other tools that are functioning correctly, like finding ways to partner with business to help put houses on the ground and creating incentives in our LDRs, then the numbers could be right. It depends on how much you want to have these other systems and tools working. If you want to say, “Nope, we don’t want to provide housing in any other way than through this tool,” then it needs to be higher.
PJH: Surely you’ve heard the chatter. Is the pushback a headache and the reason why you are calling it quits?
CW: The biggest headache with that mitigation rate is the assumption that it’s the Housing Authority’s regulation, where it’s the town and county’s regulation. We just help to implement those. I’ve heard a lot of rumblings, mostly from developers, which isn’t uncommon.
The community has set a goal of housing 65 percent of the workforce. So let’s say that mitigation rate is at 25 percent. That means with a new development they are going to mitigate for 25 percent of the employees they generate that can’t afford housing in the community. That means the community has to figure out a way to provide housing for 40 percent of those other employees. So if the community wants to do it through other mechanisms, great, but let’s run the numbers real quick.
Lets make it easy, say a new development comes online that has 100 employees. They have to provide housing for 25. The community at-large has to provide housing for 40. That gets us at our goal. Now let’s say we are going to put two people per unit. To create one unit, you’re probably looking at $200,000, times the 20 units I have to create. That’s the cost to the community. So how are you going to get that money to pay for those houses for those workers? It’s expensive. So really it’s a community decision. If we as a community want to have a new developer mitigate a larger portion of their impact, there is that option. If not, and we still have this goal, we have to look for other solutions.
PJH: Maybe an answer, in part, is what we are seeing with some of the valley’s biggest employers building their own employee housing. It makes sense. Workers need a place to live almost as much as a paycheck. Maybe more.
CW: I see that as a really big, untapped resource. It isn’t something that the HA has done a lot of, except to help facilitate the Mountain Resort housing development [near Kmart]. But that really ties into that organizational capacity. If we had more organizational capacity to focus on ways to partner with employers, well it’s a way to get more housing on the ground for less – leveraging some private funds with public funds. That being said, I want to be really clear. Employers in this community have done a tremendous job in providing housing for the workforce. They are doing it. Helping them do it more effectively is an opportunity for this community.
PJH: You mentioned organizational capacity. How many people are on staff at TCHA? How many do you need?
CW: Right now there are four staff members at the TCHA. One person is our office manager and sales coordinator. One person is our stewardship manager and communications. One is our housing associate who reviews development applications. The executive director does development and is managing all these people. So there isn’t the capacity to add any more programs. There isn’t the capacity to try to be creative with working more collaboratively with the business community or the town and county to help make them work more effectively together.
Ideally, I would love to see the Housing Authority be a regional authority. It would make for greater collaboration between the town and county. My understanding is the HA was set up as a county entity primarily because at the time, in 1990, development was taking place in the county. That’s really switched. With the new Comprehensive Plan, the workforce housing is to be in the town. I think that having a regional housing authority would help the community be more productive in providing housing for the workforce. And I see that entity kind of having two arms – a development side and a stewardship side.
PJH: Your funding has been cut dramatically over the past few years. How are you managing?
CW: With the downturn in the economy there are less resources available, countywide. It wasn’t anything specific to the TCHA, but all agencies have been required to cut budgets where they could. So we are getting down to our bare bones level of services and service provision. And it takes a while for that revenue to rebound and we haven’t really seen that coming through. But with the down economy we also saw a slack in the demand for our services. So it allowed us to cut some of our essential services and still be able to function effectively. We also implemented a very robust database which helps streamline operations here and enables us to manage more units in our inventory. But when it starts ticking up we are getting hit on all sides right now.
That’s just been this void in our community for a lot of years. You don’t see any housing events going on in the community. You have Habitat that is building onsite, which is great because that is definitely community building, but there just haven’t been a lot of voices for the need to house our workforce locally. Did I say organizational capacity before? I see that changing and that would be fantastic. I hope it does.
PJH: I think we’ve all heard stories of abuse. People in subsidized housing driving fancy cars, renting their place out, or not living in it at all. Is compliance an issue?
CW: I don’t think they are being abused that badly. Part of having any government system is you are going to have abuse. It comes down to a threshold of what level of abuse are you willing to live with? And with that being said, how many resources do you want to throw at trying to minimize the abuses?
I think there are a lot of perceptions about the abuse that stem from, well, each restriction is a little bit different so sometimes you can rent your house. We do give permission for people to leave if they have, say, a family emergency, they can leave for a year. Or they may get a job [elsewhere] if the economy is terrible here, so they may get permission to leave. So a lot of times there may have been permission granted to leave or rent out an affordable house and the neighbors are like, “This person is renting it out.”
We respond on a complaint basis. I would say 90 percent of the time there is no abuse, nothing going on. In a few cases we deem there is a violation and we look into it further. We just had one today and they’re horrible to deal with. We had a hearing for the first time. In nine years we’ve had one hearing on a violation. Which was deemed they were living somewhere else. But usually we can resolve it. Once we find out about it and talk to the homeowners we tend to get resolution.
But you can buy a nice car after you buy an affordable home. You are allowed to do that. And in a lot of cases it’s at time of purchase so you could buy your affordable home then win the lottery and buy another home. That’s not against the rules. Typically what happens is somebody is not going to want to stay in their affordable homes because we tend to make them a little bit smaller than probably most people would want, or a little less desirable. So that if they do increase their means there is kind of a motivation to move out.
PJH: Do you still give preference to first responders? Does that bring up ethical concerns?
CW: Yes, we do that. It’s called a critical service provider. So they are on call 24 hours a day in the event of a public health/safety emergency. It’s challenging because you start judging. We now have in place a process of verification because we definitely did see abuses of that when there wasn’t a formal process set up.
PJH: Where do you get your money?
CW: In government, we have different pots of money that we can allocate for different uses. For operations, we get funds from the Teton County general fund. As long as we have staff actively developing we are able to use some of those fees-in-lieu. We have rent revenue. We also have sales commissions or facilitation fees, as we call them. That’s how we fund our operations.
HA has been successful with SPET elections. We purchased land and have land set aside for future affordable housing development. Historically, the subsidy is the cost of the land. With all costs in, it costs $400,000 to produce a unit. To sell it affordably to a family that can afford it, the sales price would need to be $200,000. So there’s that subsidy of $200,000. Typically, that subsidy is the value of the land. When you see that value increase dramatically, that subsidy value goes up dramatically. This increasing cost of land is a challenge to our community.
The Grove is a little bit of an anomaly because the land was purchased in 2001 with SPET funds, then there was the trade agreement with the town. So the subsidy per unit in there is closer to $70,000 per unit.
PJH: Has it been difficult or easy working with the town and county?
CW: I wouldn’t quantify it as easy or hard. It’s all hard [laughs]. Elected officials have so many things on their plate. And all I’ve got is housing. So I come to them and it’s just housing, housing, housing. And they’re going, “OK, I’ve got Christine coming at me with housing, I’ve got Mike Wackerly coming at me with buses, I’ve got Brian Schilling coming at me with Pathways, I’ve got the school district coming at me with a new school that they need.” They have a lot of things that they have to juggle. Believe me, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes any more than I don’t want to be in my own anymore. It’s a challenge in order to get their focus and attention and be able to have meaningful discussions about housing in particular places.
PJH: Did you consider putting something on the 2014 SPET ballot?
CW: No. They were trying to keep it at a set level and we’ve got the Grove project and are fairly comfortable with being able to fund that. The last SPET election that TCHA was on, in 2006, it was a very slim margin of victory. Part of the feedback from that was there was no specific project [tied to our request]. With the Grove underway we didn’t have a specific project on the SPET ballot. It would have been a general “we want money” and I’m not sure that would be successful.
PJH: What does your future hold?
CW: I don’t really know. I have some ideas. I’m just stepping out there. In the decision-making process to leave here I thought I should probably try to figure out what I’m going to do when I leave. But this job is so all-consuming that I just didn’t have the energy to think about it. I finally recognized I just needed to make a decision and have trust in my skills and abilities that I can stop this job and save enough money so that we can get by financially for several months until I can find something else. I would like to do something with development. That is my passion. It’s what I enjoy doing and I hope it can be on the private side trying to find solutions to housing our workforce. That would be my dream job. But can I make it work, financially? I’m not sure.
PJH: And what if you bring a project to the town or county and are hit with that whopping 25 percent mitigation fee for housing?
CW: Then I’ll show them how to do it cost-effectively. Incorporate it and make it work for the development. That’s the cost of doing business in this community. It’s like the park and school exaction fees, the water sewer hookups, the parking requirements, the building codes with energy efficiency standards. It’s expensive to develop and build in this community.
PJH: What advice do you have for the incoming ED?
CW: Put your armor on. I hope it’s somebody that’s able to feel like it’s not a battle. It shouldn’t be a battle in this community. It should be something that we all feel is important.
I’ve always been happy to come to work. It’s a great environment here at the TCHA offices. I always enjoy a challenge. But it can feel a bit discouraging at times, like you are unable to make headway. This recycling of the issues [is frustrating]. We just keep studying the problem to death, and keep making the same recommendations and choosing not to implement them. So it’s our choices as a community. I hope we recognize that we’ve had so many experts look at this issue. It’s not unique to Jackson Hole and we need to find places, dedicate the resources, and educate the community about the value of workforce housing.
PJH: What do you leave behind? What are you most proud of?
CW: The Grove. Five-two-five Hall. The Wilson Park neighborhood. Those are the things that will last longer than you or I. That’s the core of the job. You are providing housing for the workers. So when you see that come to life, that’s special. And seeing the people get the keys to their new home for the first time. That’s pretty spectacular.
PJH: Are you normally there?
CW: Actually, Billi [Jennings] gets to be there. She gets all the fun. She always tells me about it, but I have my head down working on the next one.
PJH: Anything that haunts you? Anything you were not able to accomplish?
CW: Bringing people together more. Really being able to collaborate more effectively with the Housing Trust and the town and the county. I’d say that’s the most frustrating. It’s unfortunate. It doesn’t need to be that way.