EDITOR’S NOTE: Lessons from Blair

By on August 11, 2015

What actions will this community take to prevent more people from leaving?

Blair Place residents that have been featured so far in ‘The Faces of Blair,’ Jorge Moreno, top, Matt Grabowksi and Renee Knutson, bottom left, and Sgt. Matt Carr, bottom right. (Credit: Robyn Vincent)

Blair Place residents that have been featured so far in ‘The Faces of Blair,’ Jorge Moreno, top, Matt Grabowksi and Renee Knutson, bottom left, and Sgt. Matt Carr. Photo: Robyn Vincent

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – A few years ago in the midst of Greece’s deepening crisis, I found myself in an Athens market filling a grocery basket with as much food as my arms could carry.  I was en route to drop off groceries at Koumoundouros Square, where a man named Konstantinos was cooking a free meal for struggling Athenians. People who had recently lost their jobs, their pensions, their life savings, their homes — people who were hungry.

Unloading the contents I had lugged across the city, I watched in awe as Konstantinos and a small crew hauled mammoth pots and pans, a propane stove and grocery bags brimming with boxes of pasta, packaged meats and cheeses, vegetables and loaves of bread. As they assembled a makeshift kitchen on the sidewalk, hopeful faces – families with young children, seniors walking with canes and young people in school backpacks – swarmed the area in anticipation. Later Konstantinos explained to me the impetus for these daily meals. He said that eventually he too might be in the same desperate predicament as the people he was feeding, that no one was immune to the perils of Greece’s crumbling economy, and that most people felt they were losing control with each passing day.

Today, I can’t help but draw a parallel from that experience to the situation in Jackson Hole. While the crisis in Greece has intensified to a level most people here surely cannot fathom, what many of us can relate to is a sense that we are losing control, that any day you or I might be faced with the decision to either pay up or pack up. (In fact, just a couple months ago, I almost was faced with this decision.) It is what Blair Place resident and valley do-gooder Jorge Moreno said he fears when I sat down at his kitchen table for the first segment of “The Faces of Blair.” It is what diehard Jacksonites Matt Grabowski and Renee Knutson lamented over on the sunlit porch of their Blair Place apartment and what Sgt. Matt Carr echoed as I sat across from him last week in his Blair Place living room. It is what readers have told me via email and what a flurry of people have declared on The Planet’s Facebook page.

There is not only a pervasive fear that renters could be priced out of the valley at any minute, there is also the fear that Jackson Hole is on the precipice of losing its soul, and the very people who define that soul.

So we can either take what Councilman Jim Stanford has deemed “bold moves” to house Jackson’s working class folks and become a blueprint for other towns, or we can become a cautionary tale – a place other community leaders study and say, “This is precisely what not to do.” (Here’s looking at you, Vail.) A place dominated by high end businesses, national franchises, second home owners and a commuter workforce that has no connection to this community.  And for the folks who fight to stay and make it work, they’ll pay a steep price in addition to exorbitant rent. According to a recent report by the Center for Housing Policy, families paying excessive amounts of their income for housing often have insufficient resources remaining for other essential needs, including food, medical insurance and health care. These tradeoffs, the report explains, can threaten the health of all family members, particularly children.

But since we’ve yet to see “bold moves” from elected officials, community members will have to give them a good hard nudge. At the local level it is still very much possible to effect change in the political process: petitioning government, making phone calls, sending emails, attending town and county meetings and marching up to that podium during public comment. All of these actions carry weight when decision makers are toiling over issues.

In metropolises such as New York City and San Francisco, where, like Jackson, residents’ incomes are not keeping pace with rising rents, rental boards were created and rent control properties have become a key tool to keep people from leaving. The New York Times reported in June that New York’s rental board voted to freeze rents on more than one million rent stabilized apartments. Research by board staff showed that landlords’ operating incomes after expenses had grown for nine consecutive years while renters have experienced stagnant incomes and higher housing costs.

While it may be unreasonable to use the solutions that big cities have arrived at to solve housing issues here, it certainly doesn’t hurt to discuss how we might refashion some of them for Jackson.

It has been both illuminating and atrabilious to visit the homes of people who no longer feel they are welcome here for “The Faces of Blair.” Though it’s not just about Blair Place. It is about people living in all corners of this community who make Jackson better and the consequences of swelling socioeconomic disparity. But let us not forget: Blair Place was one of the last affordable options for a mosaic of residents when they had no other choices. It houses an economically and ethnically diverse palette of renters who work at our schools, our police stations and our nonprofits. So if even Blair Place is no longer affordable for working class folks, the Hole could very well lose its soul.

Contact Robyn Vincent at [email protected]

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine and former editor of Planet Jackson Hole. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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