THE BUZZ: An ARU of Hope

By on June 14, 2016

Accessory Residential Units could provide housing relief to some.

Aaron Feuerstein at the June 6 Shelter JH rally. Feuerstein must vacate his Virginian Village apartment by the end of July, at which time the valley’s housing shortage may force him to couch surf or camp. (Photo: Robyn Vincent)

Aaron Feuerstein at the June 6 Shelter JH rally. Feuerstein must vacate his Virginian Village apartment by the end of July, at which time the valley’s housing shortage may force him to couch surf or camp. (Photo: Robyn Vincent)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – For Aaron Feuerstein, last Thursday was day 52 in his countdown to vacate his Virginian Village apartment. Residents of all 56 units were served eviction notices this spring by Bedford Investments, a real estate development company in Napa, California.

Feuerstein is the head chef at Trio where he has worked for three years. He has to vacate his apartment by July 31. So far, the 37-year-old says his choices are couch-surfing or camping. “My options are very limited,” Feuerstein said. “Limited, to nonexistent.”

Looking to escape the urban hustle, Feuerstein came here from Grand Rapids, Michigan. “My passion is fly fishing,” he said. “I love the mountain lifestyle and fresh air. The peacefulness and serenity are what keep me here.”

He has two kids to support. So far, buying a house or condo has not been an option for him despite gainful employment.

On Thursday, just down the street from Virginian Village, Jackson Hole Public Art had parked its Mobile Design Studio in front of the library. The design studio is housed in a small trailer about the same size as a “tiny home” that could house a local worker. JH Public Art brought the trailer in order to help the Town of Jackson draw attention to a workshop at the library about Accessory Residential Units (ARU).

Passersby decorated small cardboard signs in the shape of houses expressing their housing wishes. Others inspected the wood paneled trailer. Associate long-range planner Regan Kohlhardt directed people inside for the Jackson Planning Department’s workshop on ARUs.

In March, the town council asked planners to pursue an amendment to current land development regulations to allow accessory residential units in all residential neighborhoods. Currently 12 of Jackson’s 18 zones allow ARUs, but the town wants to extend that to all zones. ARUs include guesthouses, mother-in-law suites, laneway houses, carriage houses, basement suites, employee apartments and caretaker’s quarters.

“Many communities are pursuing ordinances to allow [ARUs],” Kohlhardt said. “Portland, Seattle, Denver, Durango, Santa Cruz; other resort towns in the Rocky Mountains [like] Whistler and Vancouver, B.C.”

Kohlhardt noted that the ARU amendment is the first step in implementing the strategies of the Workforce Housing Action Plan. “This particular strategy was identified as a low-hanging fruit opportunity for providing workforce housing,” she said. “In theory, it should be relatively quick to implement.”

The first step in the planning process was to elicit public feedback. The public workshops provided an opportunity for people to register their opinions about amnesty incentives similar to those in Durango. While planners are still consolidating feedback, Kohlhardt said most people viewed ARUs favorably.

“My impression is that people were generally supportive as long as the new ARU regulations are implemented in the right way,” she said. “They’ve seen that ARUs are a relatively benign addition to single-family neighborhoods.”

The ARU amendment may well provide the first ray of hope for people losing their housing this summer. There are several more hoops to jump through, but if all goes smoothly at town council hearings, the amendment could go into effect as soon as September 7, according to Kohlhardt.

But that date is by no means set in stone. Nor is it guaranteed that ARUs will be instantly available just because they are allowed.

“It’s a great solution,” Mayor Sara Flitner said. “But it’s not tomorrow.”

To draw folks into a workshop detailing ARUs, a potential housing solution, Jackson Hole Public Art parked its Mobile Design Studio outside the workshop. (Photo: Jackson Hole Public Art)

To draw folks into a workshop detailing ARUs, a potential housing solution, Jackson Hole Public Art parked its Mobile Design Studio outside the workshop. (Photo: Jackson Hole Public Art)

Flitner said she is well aware that emergency housing is needed right now. After the Shelter JH rally at town hall and public comment at the June 6 town council meeting, the mayor acknowledged that now is a time “to be mindful of the real life situations that are playing out every day.”

Shelter JH co-organizer Jorge Moreno said his group will have follow-up meetings with town leaders to provide the council with information they need to take action on emergency housing.

“We are going to start looking for ways for them to make a decision,” Moreno said. “We are looking into more details and gathering more information that they might need.”

Flitner has reviewed the emergency housing suggestions presented to the council by Shelter JH at the June 6 meeting. They recommend year-round trailer towns on town property, overnight RV parking lots in the summer, overnight street parking, driveway parking, and a VRBO/Airbnb-style room rental system for workers. Flitner favors two of the five solutions.

“The best opportunities we have are with neighboring communities where we could get recreation park trailers on the ground,” Flitner said.

She praised Mary Erickson and the Community Resource Center for leadership on that front.

The mayor also supported Shelter JH’s suggestion of Worker Rental by Owner, which would function like VRBO or Airbnb, allowing homeowners with rooms or accessory units to rent to workers and families who need them.

“I would love VRBO for room rentals,” she said. “It doesn’t need government intervention. It’s allowed right now, today.”

Though accessory units and room rentals may solve short-term housing needs, long-term solutions are decidedly critical. More workforce housing is coming—a rental project at Redmond and Hall promises to provide 28 units—but demand for housing appears to be much larger than projected supply.

Increasingly, the housing shortage is raising issues about quality of life.

“I want to live in Jackson, not just survive in Jackson,” Moreno said. “I’m still thinking next year is my last year here.”

The instability and transience Moreno laments impacts the entire community. He says when the workforce is comprised of people just here to make money and leave, it “changes the face of the community.”

Feuerstein agrees. “It’s so much better for business if an employee stays here,” he said. “You have more commitment. You don’t have to retrain them. It’s better for community.” PJH


About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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