THE BUZZ: Essentially Needed

By on March 16, 2017

When it comes to housing, should the community redefine its definition of “essential workers”?

An artist rendering of the Sagebrush Apartments, a private sector housing project that may become a reality with the help of government incentives.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Lina Collado has lived in the same apartment since she moved to Jackson from Puerto Rico four years ago with her two dogs. She’s worked for Jackson nonprofits for as long.

Each year, her rent has increased $50 to $75 a month. Her rent has gotten so expensive, she said, that she has decided to leave her current home “without any idea of what I’m going to be able to find.”

She hopes to find a home for her and her boyfriend to move into together. But on their incomes, with two dogs, the hunt is proving near impossible.

“I don’t know whether we’re gonna be able to stay here or not,” Collado said.

Trish Herasme, meanwhile, just moved to Victor, Idaho, from Virginia, but not before spending hundreds of dollars in classified ads looking for housing in Jackson. Herasme works at the post office on Maple Way. She transferred in September, but she looked for housing in Jackson for a year before finally settling on a place in Victor with two roommates. Her income is decent, she said, but not decent enough to afford a place close to where she works. “I don’t want to put all that money into housing,” she said. “I just can’t.”

Local advocate Mary Erickson of Shelter JH said that conversations about the housing crisis often exclude Jackson’s most vulnerable but also most critical communities. She noted that the first subjects in affordable housing discussions are “essential” or “critical” workers: teachers, doctors, first responders, etc. People like Collado, when she worked for El Puente.

“That is critical, there’s no question about that,” Erickson said. “But there’s also sort of the engine of our economy—our service workers. We don’t talk and think about that community as essential, and they really are.”

“The people keeping the community alive is the working class,” Herasme agreed, “and they’re the ones who have to suffer and struggle.”

Collado works at Teton Literacy Center and at Teton Free Clinic. Her boyfriend is a caretaker for the Clear Creek group. Collado says that for them, it’s a matter of surviving, or building a life. “This town doesn’t permit you to grow in it. You can live here, and make ends meet,” she said, but saving money and building a home feel out of reach.

Collado was once considered a “critical service provider” when she worked for El Puente translating emergent medical crises for the Latino community. Now, she’s just another nonprofit employee.

Attitude shift

Christine Walker is a real estate consultant who focuses on workforce housing, and was director of the Teton County Housing Authority for 10 years. Jackson’s housing struggles, she says, are not actually all that unique, but they are diverse, which makes a uniform solution impossible. For one, she said, local wages have failed to keep up with the cost of housing. “There’s a disconnect between what somebody can afford to pay, and what housing costs can develop,” she said. In Jackson especially, Land Development Regulations drive development construction and therefore add value to housing projects.

Part of the solution, Walker said, must include a shift in what the community is comfortable with. To really make a dent in housing a community workforce, housing units “have to be denser than what we’re accustomed to or comfortable with.”

Erickson says there must also be more attention given to rental units. “Home ownership is a great dream,” she said, “but I don’t think we owe home ownership to anybody.”

Business owner Joe Rice agrees. “Believe it or not, everybody doesn’t want to own a home,” he said. “They just want a place to live.”

Rice, Walker and developer John Shelton are working together to build such a place. Rice is the owner of Blue Collar Restaurant group, and says that as a business owner it is his responsibility to help his workforce find housing. “If you’re going to build a business here, part of your plan better be where you’re going to keep your employees,” he said. “It’s not rocket science.”

Rice is working on approval for a development that would build 90 apartment units on West Broadway, on the plot of land between Staples and the pawn shop. “It’s an ideal location for height and increased density,” Walker said. The unit would have no direct neighbors, with Flat Creek buffering one side, the pawn shop and the highway buffering the others.

Rice is planning the development with his employees in mind, but the apartments would be available to anybody that needs them, he said. “I’m a big proponent of the blue collar worker,” Rice said. “I’m a blue collar guy.”

As a business owner, Rice says he does whatever it takes to ensure that his employees have a place to live, be it raising their pay or just fronting housing costs when needed. To him, it’s a win-win situation. If his employees can’t make it to work due to road closures, his business suffers.

Public vs. private

Rice says that in order to address the housing crisis, the private sector must be allowed to contribute. “I’m a big proponent of the private sector taking care of themselves,” he said. “I’m not a big proponent of tax dollars going into housing.” For one thing, he said, tax-funded housing projects move slowly, and are tied up in regulations.

“The town has to incentivize [private sector housing] with fewer regulations so we can build these apartments for the workforce that is so badly needed,” Rice said.  “If they’re going to solve the problem, or at least put a dent in it, they’ve got to let the private sector do what they do.”

But there are obvious concerns that without the proper regulation, there’s nothing stopping private housing developments from evolving from rental units into condominiums. Rice argues that such concerns are not rooted enough in the present. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in 10 years,” he said. “Let’s worry about now, about taking care of people.”

Rice observed that private sector housing projects will lower housing costs across the board. “It’s a supply and demand issue,” he said. “When there’s not enough supply, prices go up. The more supply is on the ground, the cheaper things are going to be.”

However, Erickson sees it a little differently. In her mind, public money for public housing needs to focus on the community’s most vulnerable populations. The private industry, she said, can figure out how to house the middle class. Tying housing too tightly to employment, she said, also poses huge risks. “Especially at that service level, people are a little bit more mobile,” she said. If housing is too dependent on employment status, losing or changing jobs could also mean losing housing. “We have to be careful about tying too much of housing stock to specific jobs,” Erickson said.

Still, she says Rice’s project is a step in the right direction. It focuses on the people who, in her mind, need it most. It’s also a smart business model for Rice to invest in his employees.

Walker has worked in both the public and the private sector, and says that both have their place. Each entity works to serve a different niche. In Jackson, Walker identified a spectrum of different “segments,” from low-income workers who service Jackson’s most critical amenities, to “critical service providers” like snow plow drivers and Lower Valley Energy workers, who she observed were particularly critical this winter, to nurses and teachers. “They’re all looking for a different product type,” Walker said. “It’s nice to have different entities working to build those little niches.”

Walker says her partnership with Rice is both unique and hopeful “in that you have a locally respected businessman who has partnered with an individual with vast experience with multi-family units around the country, and is willing to do this forfeiting maximum profits. That’s rare.”

As for Collado, she and her boyfriend hope for a future in Jackson, and Herasme is still looking for a place closer to where she works. But experience suggests it won’t be easy. “Every year I’m losing friends because housing isn’t available,” Collado said. “I understand that people need to make a living, but it honestly makes the people who really fight hard to make Jackson a home, it makes it really hard to stay.”

Housing, Walker said, is a “lofty goal,” and finding a solution is going to require community-wide participation. “It takes a community to build one,” Walker said. PJH

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