THE BUZZ 3: Attacking Affordables

By on June 14, 2017

Residents’ false notions of affordable abuses are at odds with housing objectives.

 

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Jackson Hole’s housing market is unreachable for the average worker. Although most agree affordable housing options are necessary to keep the community intact, some spuriously view the program.

Teton County residents gave input at the Center for the Arts on June 1 for the Engage JH 2017 Open House. The initiative is a project of the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan, which seeks to ensure “wildlife and workforce” in the valley, two community priorities.

But natural resource protection and parking took a backseat to the subject of housing—who ought to build it, where, and who should live in it. Mainly the fear of affordable housing abuse and a desire to limit the upward mobility of affordable homeowners, something local housing authorities say is largely misinformed, repeatedly arose. Trapping affordable homeowners in their homes disables the program from achieving its aim: to keep as many workers and community members in the valley.

Indeed, public input highlighted an increasing shift in what the community once deemed key priorities. The input reinforced results from the recent SPET and 1 percent sales tax elections, which flew in the face of the community’s commitment to house 65 percent of the workforce locally. Paradoxically, participant comments revealed increasingly individualistic mentalities of “I got mine, now you get yours” and “Why should they get something I’m not getting,” along with the acknowledgment of the absolute need for workforce housing. Participants were willing to help but wanted to do so begrudgingly, chiding and punishing recipients under the guise of preventing “abuse” of the system.

However, officials say the notion of rampant abuse of affordable housing is unsupported. Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust director Anne Cresswell said there are some problems, but noted sometimes people fall on hard times. One woman reported for having a roommate, a practice interdicted, confessed to Cresswell that she and her husband had recently separated and were struggling to keep it all together.

“Am I supposed to say, you have to go?” Cresswell asked. 

Still, attendees were critical of affordable homeowners. One attendee was adamant some affordable homeowners are taking advantage of the system and that in general affordable homeowners should not be allowed to profit from their homes.

“I just know so many people who abuse it,” the woman said. “Instead of providing affordable housing, bus service should be expanded to outlying communities like Alpine and Victor.” She also said the system isn’t fair to renters who put away money to buy a home. She suggested enforcing a minimum hourly work week for owners as well as employers raising employee wages.

She was not alone in her concerns. Another participant cited people who cut back on their work week because they have low mortgage payments. Someone else said affordable homeowners have transferred assets to family members to qualify for the program.

Housing Trust employee Stefani Wells, who attended the open house and also lives in affordable housing with her husband, a teacher, said it’s not fair to “take a snapshot” of an affordable homeowner and generalize their financial situation. Some people see someone driving a particular car and assume they are too wealthy to be in affordable homes, she said, which is an inaccurate metric to judge a person’s financial status.

Cresswell said, like with any system, noncompliance exists, which is why the Jackson Hole Housing Authority recently hired a compliance director.

Housing Authority director April Norton restructured the department to bring on a full-time compliance specialist. In the last two weeks alone, they’ve received 16 compliance complaints. Action has been taken on other cases.

“We are currently forcing the sale of a home due to noncompliance,” she wrote. “The Housing Authority Board will be hearing an appeal of another forced sale due to noncompliance next month.” She expects compliance efforts to continue to pick up at least in the next year or so. Non-compliance issues are violations of affordable housing requirements and restrictions, which vary widely from having a roommate to renting out the home, or not working enough locally.

Community participants offered solutions to prevent abuses but they did not mesh with affordable housing program objectives.

Engage JH attendees opined that owners of affordable units ought to be required to “requalify” annually, work at least 30 to 35 hours a week and not be able to own any additional real estate anywhere. Most participants were very vocal about limiting the return on affordable properties when sold so owners would make little to no profit.

Cresswell said limiting appreciation undermines the point of the affordable housing program. “Allowing our homeowners to capture as much equity as possible so they can roll that up into something bigger in the free market is what we want,” she said. “We have a totally failed housing market, therefore we are manufacturing a housing market. We want people to graduate into free market homes, not remain in affordables forever.”

Many affordable housing opponents are aghast at the prospect of Jackson having “housing projects” akin to the inner-cities. But by preventing affordable homeowners from getting up and out of their affordable homes, what some fear —“projects”—are likely to be realized. Suggested measures, such as disallowing ownership of other real estate, a viable investment or asset that sometimes materializes through a death in the family, or by limiting profit upon sale, provide little incentive or ability for upward mobility.

Cresswell and Wells cited the Mountain View Meadows affordable housing development, the area’s first affordable neighborhood, as proof that the system works.

Homes bought 20 years ago, priced around $82,000 are now worth $150,000, with a rate of about 3.8 percent appreciation and owners are positioned to sell and upgrade. “There’s no evidence to support limiting appreciation to two percent; evidence supports setting appreciation at four percent actually makes homes more affordable,” Cresswell said.

Recapturing the Mountain View Meadow homes would be cost effective, and they could be resold around $200,000, still affordable for buyers while bringing in a little money for the housing trust.

Local engagers

Engage JH participants were not representative of affordable housing recipients by a long shot. Attendees were given clickers and asked to weigh in regarding demographics and subjects to be discussed, and responses were quickly tabulated and projected in front of the audience. Of the approximately 80 people in attendance, most were males—a trend for the day, organizers said. 

Norton was pleased with the number of participants to the open house and outreach session as well as the Spanish language outreach held the previous week. But she was surprised by the lack of diversity even though they structured an all-inclusive event.

“From my perspective, there were very few women who participated and community members earning less than 120 percent of area median income were underrepresented. We offered childcare and only one person took advantage of that service,” she wrote in an email.

The evening’s opening exercise confirmed Norton’s observations. Responses projected onto the screen revealed 38 percent of attendees claimed to make more than $141,000 annually; 20 percent between $111,000 and $140,000; and 21 percent made between $76,000 and $110,000.

A mere nine percent in attendance made $45,000 or less; and 12 percent made between $46,000 and $75,000. Additionally, 51 percent of the respondents lived in Jackson for more than 15 years, with another 30 percent claiming residence between five and 15 years.

After answering the series of questions, participants walked through five stations, each dedicated to the issues on the agenda that evening. Some stations had creative spins on the traditional workshopping format of Q&A, such as a large “Mad Lib” sheets for affordable housing qualifications and restrictions, the responses to the blanks were solicited by the facilitators.

One of the key goals of the event, Norton said, is to create broad-based community buy-in for this work and that “whatever the outcomes, we will avoid having a last-minute disruption from community members who choose not to participate throughout the process.” PJH

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