THE BUZZ: Homestead Act II

By on September 1, 2015

Housing Action Plan offers path to domiciling reconciling

Can TCSAR volunteer Alex Norton rescue Jackson Hole from its housing crisis (Photo: TCSAR)

Can TCSAR volunteer Alex Norton rescue Jackson Hole from its housing crisis (Photo: TCSAR)

It’s been studied for hundreds of thousands of dollars and a federal HUD grant on the backs of taxpayers. It’s been unpacked and analyzed at coffee shops, barbershops and at governmental emergency meetings and summits. It’s evidenced anecdotally on any given summer afternoon in the line of smoking tailpipes crawling along Highway 22 in first gear. The housing situation in Jackson Hole is beyond crisis.

For some, the epidemic is little more than an inconvenience when dealing with slow or unreliable service at a favorite restaurant. For others, the valley’s housing crunch has actually been a boon to those poised to reap higher rental income or make a killing in the real estate market. For those directly affected, life has become drastically less idyllic in paradise lost.

Alex Norton, joint long-range planner heading the Comprehensive Plan revision and subsequent Integrated Transit Plan (ITP) and Housing Action Plan (HAP), released the long-awaited report on housing last Friday. The Workforce Housing Action Plan – all eight chapters and 80 pages of it – offers a guiding framework moving forward for local electeds to now initiate policy changes and other tough calls that will put housing units on the ground. Nearly every candidate and incumbent says affordable housing is a top priority. The time is now to learn whether that was campaign rhetoric or a heartfelt desire to effect change.

The plan offered little in the way of unexpected content. In collecting and disseminating more than a half-dozen studies conducted since 2007, group consensus uncovered a few basic truths: Houston, we do have a problem, and, it’ll take a concerted effort and buckets of money to merely get things started in the right direction.

Restructuring, coordinating housing agencies

The plan calls for a few major changes in the way the town and county have done business. One potential action item is the reconfiguration of the Teton County Housing Authority (TCHA). Currently, TCHA operates fairly independently as a county entity. At the very least, the plan calls for a housing authority to be established as a joint town-county agency. There also has been talk about establishing a regional housing authority, recognizing that workforce housing needs to be considered not in a vacuum but with surrounding areas in mind.

Studies have led Norton and other experts to believe the best configuration of a housing authority would include a two-piece organization that would operate on independent fronts including a housing supply division focused primarily on putting units on the ground, and a housing managerial division that would concentrate on enforcement, needs assessment, public outreach and monitoring and reporting progress to elected officials.

“That would mean some restructuring as far as administration positions and staff to be in compliance with state statute,” Norton said. “It may include additional hires or using some existing county staff.”

TCHA executive director Stacie Stoker needn’t worry, though she has contemplated her future. According to the plan, the county would likely retain Stoker as a housing coordinator overseeing the two branches. At this point she has had only preliminary and informal discussions with Norton, town-county planner Tyler Sinclair and county attorney Keith Gingery.

“I honestly don’t know what they have in mind,” Stoker said. “The electeds are waiting on public input and things wouldn’t move forward until October at the earliest. I assume I would be part of the future. I want to be part of the future. I would think my institutional knowledge would be important to them.”

Most county commissioners have gone on record backing the idea of getting TCHA under some kind of joint supervision. Commissioner Smokey Rhea likes the idea of a regional housing authority for the accountability aspect – “Because it is the public’s money,” she said – but was quick to point out that although some of her fellow commissioners have put TCHA in their crosshairs, she’s not one of them.

“I’m not one of the people that’s been unhappy with the Housing Authority,” Rhea said. “The Grove is a great project. It’s maybe not something they would have chosen to do, but after the land trade with START Bus and the town, it was what was asked of them by elected officials. It’s too bad it turned out the way it did but I don’t understand why people don’t see the successes they’ve had.”

Stoker also expressed some frustration that the plan and general chatter of the community doesn’t seem to recognize what’s gone right.

“I feel like the public needs to know what has been successful already,” she said. “One of the things I don’t see [in the new plan] is information about what we’ve done that has worked well. The Housing Authority is successfully developing our eighth project. Phase II of The Grove is right on schedule and right on budget. I want to build on what our successes already are. And I also want the Housing Authority to do a better job.”

Without knowing Stoker’s or Rhea’s comments, Norton had already anticipated the plan would be viewed by some as a commentary on everything that’s gone wrong to date. He stressed it be made clear that no one was advocating striking a match to previous successes.

“That’s one of the things that’s difficult to get across in a study like this,” Norton explained. “It might read as a [condemnation] of what we’ve done in the past. It’s more a commentary on what we want to do moving forward.”

Dedicated funding source

One point almost every stakeholder can agree on is the need for a dedicated funding source; one that has centered around the idea of asking residents to duty themselves to the tune of an added penny of sales tax for housing and transportation costs. The electeds are basically all-in on this, but will voters pull the trigger come next year?

“Technically, it could go on a May ballot, but we are probably looking at primary or general election in 2016 with this,” Norton said.

“I think we need to get it on the ballot next year,” Rhea said. “I think it will be half a penny, which is not that much money. But it will take a lot of tools, a variety of tools. It’s come time we have to address our situation and realize we can’t build our way out of it.”

Additional revenue could come through SPET initiatives or a look at a real estate transfer tax – something state legislators have routinely shot down, but an appetite for the idea could be growing.

Representative Andy Schwartz-D said he would defer to Senator Leland Christensen or Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff to introduce any measure at the state capitol because of their leadership roles. “It’s probably better coming from a Republican anyway,” Schwartz added. But he cautioned that even though many other counties in the state – Park and Sheridan, for example – are experiencing similar housing issues, a real estate transfer tax would face a tough road in Cheyenne.

“That’s still going to be a hard sell at the Wyoming Legislature,” Schwartz said. “There is a ‘no tax on any level’ attitude today that I don’t think existed the last time we made a run at it. And where there seems to be housing concerns in places like Sweetwater and Campbell [counties], that’s mostly due to extraction. But now, with the industry in decline, the question is going to be will they still be willing to have this conversation and do they still even have a housing issue?”

No immediate relief can be expected from the state on a possible real estate transfer tax. Next year is a scheduled budget session, meaning any non-budgetary bill would need a two-thirds majority vote rather than the standard 51 percent – an unlikely scenario, according to Schwartz. That would mean the soonest an act could be passed, implemented and begin generating revenue would be July 2017.

Streamlining efforts

A final highlighted point of the plan released last week was acknowledgment that government needs to get out of its own way. Norton pointed to mitigation rates that burden developers interested in building desirable low- and mid-level housing projects as much as they whack high-end commercial developments that exacerbate the county’s housing problems.

“Ultimately what we are seeing on a number of different fronts is a desire to have a conversation on where the mitigation burden sits,” Norton said. “How do we want to handle the growth rate and what kind of growth do we want?”

He also admitted that government should leave building to builders. Government’s role should be in providing land while the actual development is probably best left to a public-private sector partnership, Norton admitted.

“Not necessarily because there is any great efficiency in free market development,” Norton said. “There are no studies that show they build at less dollars per square foot than the county. But government doesn’t necessarily need to be in that role.”

Stoker also was quick to add that the belief government housing is heavily subsidized because building costs are higher is not truly the case. “We are building right now at $218 a square foot. I heard that Greg Prugh’s new project is coming in at $200 a square foot. So we are competitive,” she said. “I also don’t believe that private developers will build Categories I, II and III housing, which are the biggest need in the community. They just won’t.”

Real hurt

Meanwhile, as daily headline realities include Blair Place displacement and ungodly traffic conditions, the pain of a housing crunch is being felt all over. Last week’s gathering of concerned citizens, hosted by the Latino Resource Center, packed the house with 116 in attendance. That surprised executive director Sonia Capece, who said it was more than she anticipated.

“What we heard is this is more than a Latino issue,” Capece said. “It’s a problem affecting the whole community. I think the belief has sometimes been that Latinos are not as invested in the community, or they are more willing to endure substandard housing conditions. But nobody deserves to live in extremely large numbers whether they are family or not. And Latinos do call Jackson home. They want to stay here, settle here and live out their lives here.”

Capece herself will soon be stepping down from her role with LRC and moving out of the valley due to housing issues.

Rhea, who came to Jackson in 1982, said this is the worst she’s ever seen it.

“I always say, ‘If you choose, you have chosen,’” Rhea said. “We get voted all the time as the best place to … whatever. Well, those accolades bring more people and more problems. How long can that last? Just continually building is not the answer. We can’t forget we are a community first and a commodity second. We’ve kind of lost sight of that.” PJH

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