GUEST OPINION: Gimme Shelter

By on May 24, 2016

From ‘crisis’ to ‘emergency,’ housing in Jackson has an even bleaker future if we don’t act now.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – It’s a frightening feeling not knowing where you’re going to live. But it’s nothing compared to the crushing despair of losing your home.

Three years ago my wife Stacy and I decided to move home to Jackson Hole—the place we met, fell in love and got married—to raise our two children. Finding a job was easy. Actually, it was easy to find two. But where the heck were we going to live?

When I came to town for a recon mission, I asked an old friend who had grown into one of the best realtors in town to show me some places in Teton Valley, thinking they would be the only houses we could afford. Before we crested Teton Pass I had already made my decision—there was no way this was going to work. The whole point of moving here was to give our kids a sense of community, and splitting our lives in two different states wasn’t going to accomplish that goal.

Incredibly, and almost too absurd to be true, we ended up buying back the house we owned in west Jackson from the friend we had sold it to seven years earlier. Both times we bought our house it was the lowest-priced single family home in Teton County. But there was a catch. I started work in early June and we didn’t close on our house until mid-July. Where the heck was I going to live?

Stacy and the kids would go stay with her family in Minnesota until our house was ready, but I would move our stuff out, start work, and get things set up. I reached out to every old friend I had trying to find a room, a couch, anything for my first six weeks back in Jackson. I found an old friend’s van in his driveway. I slept in that van for two weeks. For the next month he and his wife had a room available and they welcomed me into their home. I am forever grateful for their hospitality.

Nearly all of us have our stories of struggling to find housing in Jackson Hole. We’ve slept in our cars, on friend’s couches, on Shadow Mountain, or up Curtis Canyon. We wear it like a badge of honor. It’s like a rite of passage. Yeah, it’s hard to live here, always has been and always will be, and those of us who have struggled to make it work in this incredible place are damn proud of it.

Here’s the thing, over the past few years it’s gone from hard to nearly impossible. Luck, friends, and hospitality just don’t work when there’s simply nowhere to live.

Rent increases at Blair Place. Evictions at the Virginian Apartments. A new Marriott and luxury condos replacing housing affordable to people who work here. Over the past year hundreds of hard-working families in our community have lost their homes and literally have nowhere to go. And it’s about to get worse, much worse.

This summer thousands of people will flood into our valley to work. While you may not notice it living in our Jackson Hole bubble, the rest of Wyoming and most of America are struggling right now. Lots of hard working people need work, and we have jobs. Oh, do we have jobs. We have ten pages of help wanted ads. We have more than two jobs for every person who lives here, and this counts children and retirees. And we have almost nowhere for any of these workers to live.

We’re not just talking about seasonal ski bums and river rats, or temporary J-1 workers. We’re talking about families who have lived and worked here for decades. Families with kids in our schools who have fought and sacrificed to make this incredible place their home. And they’re getting pushed out, every day.

Our housing crisis has become a full-fledged emergency. It hit me in the face reading a friend’s Facebook post the other day: “I know we all know someone directly caught up in the Jackson Hole housing crisis. My best friend is neck deep. In two weeks he is living in his car with a high school student and an awesome dog. This amazing father is not a transient, lazy or any of that. He is a 24-year valley resident. Never ever missed a day of work in his life. OCD clean type.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can’t let our community get torn to shreds. We’re better than this. It’s time for action to address our housing emergency.

Here’s what we should do.

First, let’s throw everything on the table and have a community conversation about policy solutions that can make an immediate impact. Obviously there are serious issues to resolve before implementing policies like allowing workers’ RVs on public and/or private land. But if we engage in an honest discussion about the benefits and challenges of potential solutions, we’re bound to come up with something constructive.

Second, let’s move forward with housing our middle class by adopting the approved District 2 (downtown Jackson) land development regulations. The “workforce housing incentive” built into these new land use rules will benefit local small businesses as they work to house and keep their hardworking employees, and will keep downtown vibrant and the heart of our town. This innovative workforce housing incentive will encourage and empower the private sector to build employee housing on-site. The streamlined, predictable, and simplified regulations will encourage appropriate commercial redevelopment as well.

Best of all, these approved regulations won’t pour gasoline on our housing fire because they align with our Comprehensive Plan and limit new commercial and lodging development to the more than five million square feet of existing development potential (which analysis shows is more than enough for two decades). When you’re in a hole, the best thing to do is stop digging.

Third, let’s get serious about aligning our public investments with our values, and vote to approve dedicated funding for housing affordable to people who work here (along with investments in transportation choices and protecting wildlife)—on the sales tax measure this November.

Look, we all know it will always be hard to live here, but let’s do everything we can do make sure it’s not impossible. PJH

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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