December 11, 2014 Features & Images » Feature Story

Paradise at a price 

Conservation goals in Jackson Hole collide with a need for workfore housing

click to flip through (6) STORY BY RAY RING,  HIGH COUNTRY NEWS - Paradise at a price Conservation goals in Jackson Hole collide with a need for workfore housing
  • Story by Ray Ring, High Country News
  • Paradise at a price Conservation goals in Jackson Hole collide with a need for workfore housing

As I roam around this resort town to meet conservationists who battle affordable housing projects, I'm struck by a tongue-in-cheek take on the argument in the Jackson Hole Daily. Smack on the front page is a photo of a pair of geese  facing off against two ospreys over possession of a man-made nesting platform. The birds' conflict has been highlighted for several days, and now the news is: Jackson's bird-lovers have erected a second nesting platform near the first, in the hope that the geese and osprey will accept separate but equal facilities. "By mid-morning, the housing crisis had been solved," the Daily observes wryly.

The newspaper's back page advertises real estate for humans: ordinary houses and condos for about $1 million each, vacant rural lots with a view of the surreal Teton crags for more than $2 million each, and a "perfect getaway" house at the best ski hill for about $3 million. And those are bargain prices, compared to the most expensive houses around here.

One bright morning, with fresh snow glaring on the Teton peaks, Rich Bloom is waiting for me in a cafe just off the town square. A grey-haired dynamo with sharp blue eyes, he came to Jackson from California when he was 18 to climb the Grand Teton. He settled here in his late 20s, and, with college training in ecology and environmental education, he spent 300 weeks as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, and 20 years with the Teton Science School. Now he makes his living as a financial adviser, specializing in "environmentally responsible investing." When I mention affordable housing, he says, "It's an old story, and it's around us — constantly."

Nearly everyone here has a personal housing-related saga, and Bloom recites his own: When he moved here 33 years ago, he rented a 200-square-foot cabin that was Science School employee housing. Then he and his wife, Becky, bought an unfinished two-bedroom house across the state line in Idaho, where prices are much lower, and drove the dangerous road over the 2,600-metre Teton Pass — a 45-minute commute on a good day, and much longer, or completely impossible, during blizzards and avalanches. Eventually, they leveraged the Idaho house into a Jackson condo, and finally, eight years ago, bought an actual house in Jackson.

Other desirable Western towns also struggle with housing, of course, so some of the facts sound familiar: Between one-fifth and one-third of Jackson's workers — more than a thousand people on average — commute long distances because they can't afford to live here (the number of commuters fluctuates with economic ebbs and flows). Most live in Idaho and use the Teton Pass road, but some make even longer commutes from distant parts of rural Wyoming. Many other Jackson workers live crammed into small and rundown places.

Yet Jackson is in a class all its own, because of its environment. This is the gateway to a unique array of wild landscapes: Grand Teton National Park, several other alluring mountain ranges, a great stretch of the Snake River and the sprawling National Elk Refuge. Thousands of elk, along with grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, bison and bald eagles, share the valley — known as Jackson Hole — with passionate anglers, hunters, wildlife watchers, skiers, kayakers, climbers, mountain bikers and hikers. The town square is famous for its massive arches of stacked-up elk antlers, and moose occasionally wander the streets.

To protect the environment and the community's "character," conservationists and other slow-growth advocates have done more than support vigorous land-use regulations similar to those imposed by other resort towns. They've also battled ambitious efforts to build affordable housing for workers — "restricted" homes priced far below the free market, managed by well-meaning entities, as well as free-market homes designed to be within reach of the better-paid workers.

Bloom and I climb into his sage-colored Subaru and drive a few minutes to the fiercest battleground — South Park, a suburban area on the flats just southwest of town. Hundreds of acres in South Park are already covered with homes on small lots — many of them built decades ago — and more than 1,000 acres stand vacant, apparently ripe for infill. Over the past 10 years or so, affordable housing advocates, county planners and landowners have attempted three big developments on South Park's vacant land. The proposals varied in detail, but they would've created more than 1,000 new affordable homes in both restricted and free-market units. Neighbours, conservationists and other opponents exerted enough political pressure — including petitions and a ballot measure — to kill all three proposals.

"This is the most contentious" area around Jackson, Bloom says, but "I don't see these as battles — these are discussions with people you know very well." Bloom himself lives in South Park and led the rebellion against a 2007 proposal called Teton Meadows Ranch.

"It's hard to be perfect — we're all hypocrites one way or another," he says.

The environmental champions usually win in Jackson Hole. But despite everybody's good intentions, many of the workers end up paying the price, using whatever currency they can manage.

There are no villains in this tale

Jackson is a high-powered community, with about 21,000 people in the town and suburbs. They've formed more than 200 nonprofit organizations, an incredible number for a community this size, and a few of the non-profits are focused on the housing problem. So is the government of Teton County, which is more or less synonymous with Jackson, the only incorporated town. And so are employers, developers, landlords. They provide as many decent affordable homes for workers as they can, but it's not enough.

The community throws just about anything imaginable at the problem, even sending commuter buses over Teton Pass equipped with state-of-the-art "Insta-Chains" — when the road is slick, the bus driver flicks a switch and chains automatically wrap the tires.

More than 97 per cent of the county's land is public, owned by federal, state or local government agencies, leaving only 78,000 acres of private land for development.

Beginning in the 1970s, as the two local ski resorts and the park drew more tourists and raised Jackson Hole's profile, waves of middle-class immigrants like Bloom moved here, and rich people rushed to establish vacation homes. Locals reacted by ratcheting up regulations on private land with a 1994 comprehensive plan, and then got tougher in a new plan whose details are being hammered out even now. The regulations include "overlays" on the county map, which protect wildlife habitat and scenic views by restricting — although not quite banning — development on roughly 48,000 acres.

In addition, conservation easements more or less forbid development on 22,000 acres, mostly but not all within the overlay districts. And nearly 20,000 acres of the private land is too steep to build on, a mosaic that also overlaps with the overlays and easements. There are specific bans on construction within 91 metres of any trumpeter swan nest, and within 45 metres of cutthroat trout spawning areas, and so on. As a result, there's a lot of private open space, and even in town, it's hard to get permission to build anything taller than two stories, even if the proposal includes affordable housing.

There are three main players running the restricted homes, all founded in the 1990s: The Teton County Housing Authority uses tax money and money extracted from developers for building and managing roughly 360 houses, townhomes and condos that people can buy, plus about 400 rentals. The Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust is a nonprofit that has used donations, grants and public funds to build or acquire roughly 107 homes, ranging from studio apartments up to three-bedroom houses. Habitat for Humanity, a much smaller program, has built a few dozen houses for the neediest buyers.

The restricted homes are much cheaper than free-market homes, because the county agency, the nonprofits and developers provide subsidies that average more than $200,000 per unit, according to Bloom. But they amount to only a tiny fraction of the total number of homes here, and to get one, you have to go through a Kafkaesque screening and linger on a waiting list.

Complicated formulas determine what kind of home your income qualifies you for, and you're evaluated on other factors, such as the number of years you've lived in Jackson, the kind of job you have and the number of hours you've volunteered for local causes. In the Housing Trust's system, ambulance drivers rate higher than teachers, while teachers rate higher than restaurant workers.

The County Housing Authority uses a lottery combined with a less-complicated screening process, but even so, every applicant must have lived in Jackson at least four years, and "critical service providers" like EMTs and volunteer firemen get priority.

Applicants often wait years without being picked.

If you're a single person making up to $118,000, (again, in rough numbers) you can qualify for the biggest Housing Authority units; often the greatest demand is for the smaller units intended for people who make less than $80,000. Most local incomes fit within those boundaries, but applicants get mired in the waiting lists and lotteries, and the restricted homes, while often intelligently designed, tend to be small. Meanwhile, tough land-use rules require commercial and residential developers to provide a calculated number of affordable housing units or pay a fee that goes into the county's program. If you're building a single 8,000-square-foot house, your affordable housing fee would range from $10,890 up to around $80,000, depending on the date you bought your lot and other factors.

Bloom has served on the board of the Habitat for Humanity program, but he's something of a Darwinist when it comes to restricted housing. He believes that the free market is pretty adept at providing affordable homes, especially rental apartments, even though free-market apartments go for about $600 to $900 per bedroom, and often a renter has to pay more than $1,500 up front (first- and last-month's rent, plus a security deposit). Recalling the decades that he and his wife saved to buy their South Park house — three bedrooms on a half-acre, worth maybe $700,000 to $800,000 today — Bloom says, "We had to earn our way into a free-market house."

During my visit to Jackson, Bloom and other conservationists cite many reasons why South Park should not be the site of big new developments, including car-dependent sprawl, bad math (every new home, even if it's affordable, requires additional affordable housing for construction and maintenance workers), and — the most powerful trump card in Jackson — intrusion on wildlife habitat.

Even the affordable housing advocates disagree over some of the big South Park proposals. Generally, though, they think that the opposition boils down to "Not In My Back Yard" and general no-growth sentiment. Not only is South Park's vacant land surrounded by similar neighbourhoods, they note, the town's main sewer line runs along the edge, making hookups easy. The land has long been grazed by livestock, much of the grass isn't native, and part of it is already a gravel mine. Public schools and a grocery store strip mall are located in the South Park area, as well.

"More than any other location in Jackson, (South Park) best symbolizes the affordable housing battle," says Bill Collins, director of county planning from 1993 to 2004, who's now a consultant. "It's a perfectly logical place for development, with utilities, good access and minimal natural resources, yet it's a lightning rod." (Collins' personal housing saga: He owns an ordinary house with some nice features, in a town neighbourhood that demonstrates the chaos. The house next door is owned by an Oregon venture capitalist who occupies it only from July 4 to Christmas. Next to that is a modular rented to four to seven young people at any given time, with a great deal of turnover and a clutter of parked cars. The house across the street is owned by the hospital and occupied by its CEO.)

"I took quite a few hits," says Anne Cresswell, director of the Community Housing Trust, recalling the uproar when her nonprofit partnered with the Teton Meadows developer on the plan to build a lot more affordable housing in South Park. "The community fought it tooth and nail. There were ugly attacks on me and my board members in the newspaper." (Cresswell's housing saga: She and her husband, a math teacher, got into the game about 15 years ago by buying a mobile home for $36,000. It was right on a highway noisy with semi-trucks, but they sold it five years later for $75,000. "This must be the only place in the country where mobile-home prices appreciate," she says. They used that profit to buy a restricted lot from the Housing Authority for $38,000, built a home and sold it for limited profit to a qualified applicant. Finally they were able to buy "a funky old" free-market house in town — just 1,400 square feet, more than 70 years old, worth about $715,000; their mortgage payments run about $3,600 per month.)

Opponents of the big proposals also talk about preserving Jackson's "Western small-town character." That's also debatable. If you live in town, when the weather and tourist traffic allow, you can bike or walk to stores and theatres and the library, with views of publicly owned hillsides and peaks. And the desire for small-scale in-town developments fits with a national trend, says Clark Anderson, the Colorado author of a recent Sonoran Institute study on housing demands. "More and more people want walkable neighbourhoods, convenient to shopping, jobs and recreation, with a sense of place — neighbourhoods that feel like they have character."

But Jackson is also the kind of Western small town where an art gallery will sell you a prehistoric rhinoceros skull for $35,000. Other stores specialize in Tahitian and South Sea pearls, fantastic antler chandeliers that sprout bare-breasted mermaid sculptures, and mink coats dyed in a purple jaguar pattern. Ten life-size bronze wolves are displayed on a sidewalk near the square — for $85,000 you can buy the whole pack. A few blocks away, there's a 41,000-square-foot Center for the Arts with spaces for dance, theatre, music and painting. Those are also part of this community's character, so the defenders aren't saving a typical Western town — far from it.

The clearest example of NIMBYism, according to many — especially those who favour the smaller affordable housing projects — is Peter Moyer, a flamboyant lawyer and avid trout fisherman, whose resume boasts both Princeton and the Marine Corps. When I meet Moyer in his office near the square, he offers me his pet ferret for stroking (it has soft fur and sleeps in a file box), and we marvel at the 103-kilogram tarpon that he's displayed on a wall; after he caught that monster fish off the Florida coast with a fly rod and measly 16-pound line, Outside magazine named him a "Badass of the Year" in 2008. (He released the tarpon and had a sculpture of it made for display.)

When we shift to affordable housing, Moyer says, "I have concerns about the push. Affordable housing sounds great, you love that diversity in a community, but you have to be careful how it's done." Then he criticizes "affordable housing zealotry" and "the angst" over people who think they're "entitled to housing in Jackson." He cites the "wonderful small-town atmosphere" and warns me, "If you try to house anyone who wants to live and work here, it's going to become a city."

Like other opponents of affordable housing projects here, Moyer does more than just talk. He fired off a lawsuit against the County Housing Authority, because he opposed one of its smallest projects — which was proposed in his neighbourhood — among other reasons.

Moyer's lawsuit dragged on in state courts for six years and reached the Wyoming Supreme Court twice. He prevailed on some of the lawsuit's claims but finally the Supreme Court's second ruling came down against him, and the case apparently expired. Moyer sees it as a "victory" because he aired his complaints and slowed down the Housing Authority. The county spent more than $100,000 defending the lawsuit, according to Christine Walker, the Housing Authority director. Moyer "wanted the Housing Authority to abandon the project and sell the land," Walker says, "and he failed."

(Walker's housing saga: She moved to Jackson as a ski bum in 1989 and got a series of jobs that led to her becoming the Housing Authority director in 2006. She camped out for the first year, then lived in someone's garage. About 15 years ago, before the big price boom, she and her husband bought a lot in South Park and built a home; they sold that house and now live in an "eclectic workforce housing neighbourhood" that includes cabins and yurts, southwest of town. "It's not a desirable neighbourhood for second homes," she says, which helps make it affordable for her.)

The recession that hit in 2008-'09 relieved some of the housing pressure. Some businesses closed, and the construction industry tanked, so there was less need for housing for workers. But the housing problem will almost certainly get worse as the economy improves. And the next demographic wave — hundreds of local baby boomers who will retire over the next five years — will exacerbate the problem. Many of them, working as teachers, nurses and so on, bought free-market homes decades ago, before the big price increase. If they move away after they retire, their homes will sell for far more than most workers can afford; many will be bought by rich people as vacation homes. And if the retirees stay in their homes, whoever takes their old jobs will need different affordable housing.

The first draft of the new comprehensive plan, produced in a gruelling five-year process that included more than 40 public meetings, again called for big, dense developments in South Park and other suburbs to alleviate housing pressure. Again, residents, conservationists and other "small-town" advocates rebelled against those aspects of the first draft, so planners once more dropped them. The final draft, approved by the county and town governments in 2012, is far less ambitious, calling for small new pockets of affordable housing, scattered wherever the neighbours might be more receptive.

Now the interested parties are arguing over crafting specific regulations to carry out the new plan's general goals. Trevor Stevenson, director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, says, "It will be some of the hardest community planning any place in the country has done."

The current head of the county planning department, Jeff Daugherty — who commutes over Teton Pass and has been hit by an avalanche while doing so — offers a familiar observation: "Many people in our community are very engaged and have strong opinions." With the economy so linked to tourism and the tastes of rich people, Daugherty says, "We're dependent on preserving these scenic vistas and open space, the Serengeti of the West, along with the quality of life for our residents."

One of the groups that oppose the big developments and four-storey buildings — Save Historic Jackson Hole — even sued the town government over the new plan, trying to force a referendum allowing voters to overthrow it. (Due to a legal technicality, the group couldn't sue the county government at that stage.) The new plan should be even tougher about limiting development, says Armond Acri, the group's executive director, who has a bushy grey beard and an affable but precise manner. He moved to Jackson for its outdoor recreation, scenery, wildlife and small-town ambiance 17 years ago, and worked as a travelling engineer on construction projects — Hershey candy factories around North America — until he became Save Historic Jackson Hole's executive director about five years ago. Like Bloom and many others I interviewed, Acri lives in South Park. But reflecting on his battles against the big proposals for more housing there and elsewhere, Acri says, "Some in town want us to become more urban. The real question is: How many people can you put here and keep things the way they are?"

Acri, like Moyer and to some degree Bloom, thinks that Jackson's housing problem should be addressed mostly with rentals, free-market houses, and long-distance commutes. "It's always been hard to live here," he says. "That hasn't changed."

Many of the threads here show up in other towns. There are roughly 76 community land trusts in the West, creating affordable housing through a mix of donations, grants and government funding, according to the National Community Land Trust Network, based in Portland, Ore. They range from the Alaska's Juneau Housing Trust to T.R.U.S.T. South LA in metro Los Angeles. "The community land trust movement is maturing and able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the model," so that banks understand "it's safe to invest" in projects and loan money to buyers, says Melora Hiller, the head of the network.

The OPAL Community Land Trust — "Of People And Land" — develops affordable housing on Orcas Island, in Washington's San Juan Islands chain, where workers have to commute by ferry. OPAL has done an 18-lot affordable neighbourhood and other projects that put 24 homes on four acres and 32 homes on 7.25 acres; they include modulars and "840-square-foot cabin-like homes."

The Community Housing Trust of Santa Fe, in New Mexico, has developed nearly 700 units of affordable housing. Its director, Sharron Welsh, says that conservation ethics have sometimes conflicted with affordable housing goals.

The Santa Fe government, recognizing the crisis more than 20 years ago, bought an 863-acre suburban parcel, and, with the trust's help, it's been developed into a master-planned community called Tierra Contenta: in rough numbers, a total of 2,500 affordable homes, with another 1,000 in the works, along with open space, schools, a library and shops.

"There were countless hours of public hearings and debates, but polls showed that the public thought affordable housing was the number-one priority, and public opinion prevailed," Welsh says. Santa Fe has a unique atmosphere, but it can pull off a big affordable housing development like that, because it doesn't have quite the natural environment — and the environmental defenders — that Jackson has.

The cost of housing causes a lot of churning, as people arrive in Jackson with high hopes and then give up and move away. "We lose a lot of good folks that could provide service to the community, because of how difficult it is to get housing," says Mark Gocke, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department staffer who's lived in Jackson for 18 years. (The Wyoming Department of Game and Fish gives Gocke a housing subsidy, on top of his salary, to help him pay for his 1,600-square-foot house in South Park — $200 a month when he moved here, and now roughly $867, another clear indication of the rising cost of houses.)

"We see more and more people trying to cling to any kind of housing — especially people with low-paying service jobs and people who've been laid off," says Smokey Rhea, director of the Community Resource Center, a Jackson social services nonprofit. "We handled 550 cases last year, and most were living with more than one family in a single-family unit. There was a two-bedroom trailer with a single mom and two kids living in one bedroom, and a single mom and her two kids in the other bedroom, and a man renting the hallway so he could sleep there. We have a lot of single people who sleep in their cars and do couch-surfing when the weather is bad."

Toward the end of my visit, I meet brown-eyed, dark-haired Miriam Espejel on her lunch break, in the Quiznos sandwich shop where her aunt works.

A single mother of two, she entered the Housing Authority lotteries for three years without being selected, and was on the waiting list for a Habitat for Humanity house for a year. Eventually, she put in 500 hours of volunteer work on Habitat houses, satisfying that program's requirement for "sweat equity." Finally, in 2008, she was allowed to buy a plain 1,200-square-foot Habitat house in Bloom's South Park neighbourhood. It was only $150,000, and because Habitat also gave her an interest-free mortgage, her monthly payment is only $450.

As she recalls the community effort that provided the house, her eyes glisten with tears, and she pauses, dabbing her cheeks with a Quiznos napkin. Jackson, she says, "feels like home now, because we have a home."

Ray Ring, an HCN senior editor, has been based in Bozeman, Montana, for 19 years. This coverage was supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund. © High Country News

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