THE BUZZ: Home Away

By on July 20, 2016

Jackson’s under-housed get squeezed out a little more.

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Chart compiled by Zumper.

Jackson Hole, WY – Jackson’s housing ills waver between emergency and urgency—a crisis that makes itself known in marches on town hall, and two-day summits where alarming statistics are bandied about: 43 percent of presumed second, third, and fourth homes sit vacant while camping 20-somethings peer in the windows, wishing. Nineteen percent of Teton County’s available rentals are uninhabited at any given time—commodity condos waiting on a weekend whale and his family to fork over a month’s rent in one platinum card transaction.

What’s not always immediately evident is the soul-crushing lifestyle brought about by a resort community geared more for hospitality instead of humanity. Greed trumps need in Jackson Hole, and the victims are growing more and more desperate every day.

John Slaughter, 33, is a prime example of a middle-class resident who sometimes feels like he’s got a big red bull’s-eye on his back, a prank sign that reads: “undesirable.” He’s been in Jackson for 11 years. The plan was to tough it out until he could invest in his community. Work hard, save money, and obtain a living space.

That was 2005. Since then, things have gotten worse. He now lives out of a van that he strategically parks in commercial lots, quiet streets, anywhere with shade and away from the eyes of nosy neighbors and hassling cops who he fears view him as a bum.

“Until it breaks, politicians and many other people don’t realize how badly the system is bent. Community character is suffering,” Slaughter said. “I can pick up and leave but some of these families can’t. I feel unfairly treated. l feel like a target sometimes. I know a lot of groups are working to make it better but it’s too little, too late, and too slow. We are losing a lot of the backbone of the community. Constructions workers, artists, teachers and nurses. A lot of people have had to leave.”

Slaughter was making things work. He managed to land a few good rentals for his first eight or nine years in the valley. Then, in 2012, when the economy began to recover in Jackson, his landlord upped the rent.

“That summer three years ago, everyone started jacking rents for the hell of it,” Slaughter recalled. “My landlord was a nice lady. I understand where landlords are coming from. Many of them are being pinched, but the thing that makes me angry are the one’s who just arbitrarily raise rent. They just pick a number.”

Where John Slaughter lays his head.

Where John Slaughter lays his head.

The scenario is typical. A one-year lease in Teton County is nearly impossible to find anymore. Most landlords choose to go month-to-month or with a seven-month lease that runs out at the end of May. That’s when they see green and many tenants are pushed into campgrounds or out on the street.

Martin Ertz, a 20-year resident of Jackson received his notice to vacate a couple of weeks ago. He’s been a familiar face at the Rec Center welcome desk for the past 10 years. When he put out the word on Facebook, several friends commiserated and offered assistance. In the end, Ertz found nothing but former Jackson residents who told him to get out and move to the real world where rents were saner.

“The greed in this town has become way out of hand,” Ertz declared. After an exhaustive search, he will be leaving the community he called home since 1996.

In a van down by the…

Slaughter doesn’t like to tell people where he lives. He sleeps in his van when he isn’t working one of his handful of jobs. He runs his own business, takes side work and puts in 50-plus-hour weeks. He comes “home” to the streets and his bed on wheels.

“Quite frankly, I don’t like to name places I park. I’m not trying to be rude but parking is becoming limited. I try to find empty commercial lots or quiet residential streets. Personally, out of respect for my neighbors, I don’t park in front of them. I think a lot of us try to do that.”

As considerate as he thought he was with where he parked his home, Slaughter’s van got stickered recently.

Slaughter said, “I had left the van in a semi-residential area for an afternoon and a night. The next day it was stickered with a warning. It was a handwritten note saying ‘no camping.’ I had to call a number to get the car off the abandoned list. They probably got a complaint from a neighbor.”

Slaughter had been making the summer work. Dry shampoos, a kitchenette in his van, a clean change of clothes always handy—he was quiet and respectful and on the “down-low” wherever he parked.

“It’s not like I was partying or being a nuisance. It wasn’t the dreaded hippy drum circle. Most of us are working so much we just want to be left alone to come back to sleep,” Slaughter said. “Then this person complains about a sketchy van outside her house. Well, lady, you are the exact problem about what is wrong here. It made me feel like a rule breaker. I try to be respectful, but it’s getting more and more contentious, and it gets to the point where you feel like taking a poop on someone’s lawn.

“If you want to think of me and my van as such an eyesore that you have to call the cops, then maybe you should remember the people you are [banishing] are the same people who might be waiting on your table at a restaurant, or cooking your food, or taking photographs at your daughter’s wedding.”

Police Chief Todd Smith said his department is just trying to do its job. His officers are aware that a tight housing market is creating some tense situations.

“I feel bad for the ones just trying to get a start in the community. But I also feel bad for people who paid a lot of money for their home,” Smith said. “We don’t turn a blind eye to the ordinance against camping in town, but we try to be tolerant and educational. We don’t issue them a citation right away. We understand they are in a tough situation. When we get a complaint, we try to talk with the vehicle owner who may be living out of his or her car. Most are understanding and compliant. We rarely issue a ticket. Maybe less than 10 citations a year.”

Slaughter is still scraping the sticker off his van’s windshield. Between jobs he is already trying to secure winter housing. He is also contemplating a move away. He knows getting a leg up in a place like tony Jackson is not easy but he adamantly refutes the notion that it’s always been tough to find housing and most people have had to start out couch surfing and camping until they could afford a way in—a statement more than one elected official has made.

“[Mark] Barron has stated he had to camp when he first arrived in Jackson. I know Barron. He said the same thing to me,” Slaughter said. “And I appreciate how many have made it work here by starting out in a tough situation, camping and couch surfing until they’ve saved enough to buy into the community. That worked years ago but I don’t think anymore. It works when you are in your 20s. But I’m 33 and things are working backwards for me. They are getting worse. And the current electeds are making decisions that run counter to solving the problem.”

When the going gets tough…

Other Jacksonites have found creative ways to hang on in a town with mounting impediments to affordable housing. Jennifer Marsh* and her boyfriend have been living in a commercial space where they also work. It was a grey area arrangement that included a sublease. The couple had been making it work for two years, even through issues involving a broken sewage pump, until a rent hike was imposed. July 1 rent was to be doubled. Marsh refused to pay. She now lives in her van with a 13-year-old dog.

“I feel kind of trapped,” Marsh said. She’s taken up driving a cab for extra money. Her boyfriend paints houses. “Now, instead of giving back to the community with donations to fundraisers and committing our time like we used to, we are busy working 12 hours a day for barely a hundred dollars. That wasn’t even a good wage 10 years ago. It’s a horrifying wage now. I’m in an impossible situation to get ahead. That sounds very negative and that’s not who I am at all. I’m usually very optimistic. But this is really rock bottom.”

Marsh had her van stickered as well, recently. She is currently camping in the forest near town. The 14-year resident is thinking about moving to California or Colorado. On some days she wants to fight for her right to be here. Other days, she feels drained and exhausted.

“We have no consumer protection laws for tenants, and these landlords are doing these rent hikes that are making peoples lives impossible,” Marsh said.  “Wyoming is the very last state without tenant protections. Not having tenants rights is a part of your basic human right for a shelter. I really do think it’s time for all of us to start writing our legislators and demanding change. Some of us are living subpar, below poverty-level lives. It’s like third world nation conditions. Families are living in their cars. How are they surviving? I know how I’m surviving and I won’t say it’s a pretty situation at all.”

Wyoming is known as a landlord-friendly state. No town or county in Wyoming has rent control. There are few protections for tenants. Landlords can boot renters if they are more then three days late with the rent. If tenants ask for something in their domicile be fixed as a matter of health or safety, landlords can respond by fixing it or terminating the lease and evicting the renter with as little as 10 days to get out.

“State statutes really favor the landlord,” Rep. Matt Greene, R-Laramie, told reporters three years ago when he proposed legislation to even the playing field. The bill failed.

Some fight the system, some game the system, and others just walk away. Max Mogren is one of the few who switched sides. He went from scratching out housing options and bouts of homelessness, to being a homeowner and landlord.

“I was roughing it in my truck, working a shit ton and stacking as much worthless paper as possible,” Mogren declared on his online blog. “I also have to admit to feeling contrite because I’m not actually homeless anymore, having recently purchased a house in Alpine. Frankly, I’m currently more concerned about my garden here than the fate of Teton County’s homeless population. I don’t live in Jackson anymore and have no control over how badly the financially powerful people who love that place as much I as do—ironically–continue to f*** it up.”

The enormous gap between the financially elite and Joe Sixpack is larger than ever in Jackson Hole as reported recently. Those striving for a better living situation see little chance of securing anything to call home.

“You’re probably tired of hearing about the housing crisis in Jackson Hole, especially if you are currently homeless here or find yourself among the thousands of working class locals enduring overpriced, overcrowded living conditions,” Mogren stated on his blog. “It is depressing to be reminded that your living situation sucks, will continue to suck, and is forecast to suck worse—at least by conventional standards, and certainly when compared to the posh living situations enjoyed by nearby rich people. The ‘solution’ implies that working folks should keep calm, suck it up, and work longer hours to stack more worthless paper money to pay increasingly outrageous fees feeding our bloated scam of a system and its many parasites.” PJH

*Not her real name.

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