GUEST OPINION: Creative Quarters

By on September 29, 2015

A few bold moves would go a long way to house more people in Teton County.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – There is a rapidly developing consensus that the town of Jackson and Teton County need to start building a lot more workforce housing. The conversation is starting to shift toward finding ways to fund this housing. As you can imagine, this will be a contentious debate.

But we should also be having a discussion about who we are trying to house, and what that housing will look like. If the public perception is that we are building housing for people who are not contributing to the community or that we are going to over-engineer a small number of homes for a lottery there will be very little public support, and deservedly so.

The public perception in the past (true or not) has been that housing has often gone to relative newcomers or people who could otherwise afford to buy on the free market. I’ve heard from countless people who lament that “affordable” housing that’s occasionally available is not remotely attainable for them because of poor credit history, lack of a down payment or simply because they don’t earn enough to make the payments. They resent watching their tax dollars go toward relatively expensive homes that are sold to people with parents who can help pay the down payment. They resent seeing two bedroom homes being subsidized for single people who then rent out the other bedroom and build equity, while they themselves live in rental insecurity or even in their car. To them, the message is clear: if you don’t have great credit, a great income history and access to enough cash for a down payment, you won’t be deemed worthy of assistance.

The truth is that home ownership is not for everyone. It’s certainly not a good choice for people who move to Jackson for a few years to work and then move on. We need those people here, but it makes no sense for most of them to buy a home. The two main benefits of buying a home are housing security and the ability to build equity. You shouldn’t be trying to build equity if you’re just living here for a few years after college. That’s a 10-year project at least. But housing security is important for everyone. And that’s why secure rentals with predictable and affordable rents are important.

This could be accomplished through regulation by massively increasing tenant rights and imposing rent controls. Indeed, we should certainly be examining tenant rights, which are a disgrace in Wyoming. But rent control is problematic. It imposes the costs of our massive community growth (and the resultant need for more housing) on a small number of landlords who are certainly not the main beneficiaries of that growth. On top of this, we would be spending money on enforcement that would be better spent building actual housing. It’s a temporary solution, at best.

Building high-density rental housing should be the focus now. We can do this in a bold, forward-thinking way that takes into consideration changes in the way people live and in the direction we would like to see the community move.

I’d like to see us start with a model development of around 100 units — a mix of studio and two-bedroom floor plans. I’d like to see the design focus on energy efficiency and minimalist living. As someone who once spent the better part of three years living in an RV in Jackson, I can attest to the fact that 200 square feet is plenty of space for one person if it’s designed properly.

I would like the development to be vehicle-free. There are plenty of potential residents who work near public transportation, and having little or no parking would greatly reduce its cost and footprint. A development like this would adhere to the community values regarding environmental stewardship and conservation by being minimalist, green and promoting public transportation. We could provide a rental car service (similar to ZipCar) for residents who need to use a vehicle occasionally – this could be based underground and could also serve other residents who might choose to forgo car ownership if they knew they had affordable access to a car-sharing program.

We could restrict eligibility to people who work for or own businesses based in Teton County, and we could set income limits for residents as well.

I realize that this kind of housing would not be appropriate for some – people with larger families, for example, or people who need vehicles for work. But they would benefit as well by an increase in the housing supply in general.

It won’t be enough, of course. We’ll still need more housing, and we’ll still need to limit growth. But we’re in a tough spot, and we need some creative solutions. We’re going to have to house more people in smaller and smaller pieces of real estate. We’re going to have to find ways to limit the physical footprint of additional vehicles, as well as environmental impact.

Building single-family homes with two-car garages is no longer feasible. It’s time to start looking at other options. PJH

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