NOT FOR RENT: Housing tight, working class squeezed out

By on August 20, 2013

82113feature1JACKSON HOLE, WYO – I usually don’t like to write myself into a story. In this case, however, I can’t extricate myself from it. I am as much a part of this tale as most everyone else in this valley, or the others west and south that attend to it. We call it a place to ski, ride, or otherwise explore for a season or two. But do we call it home? Can we?

Teton County, Wyoming, is a riddle wrapped in charisma. It’s ridiculous to try to figure it out. Economists can’t. Realtors can’t. It’s a valley whose glass is always half-full or half-empty.

When the economy is going balls-out, jobs are plentiful, cash flows like spring runoff, and a “For Rent” sign is scarcer than common sense at a Congressional committee meeting. Throw in a recession, depression, or the average November and it’s back to the 1880s – valley residents passing around the same worn out $20 bill for a while.

You can’t have it both ways in this town and that yin-yang constantly tugs at the fabric of this community. Never mind traditional economic indicators like sales tax revenue or number of building permits pulled; I can tell in one scan of the rentals whether Jackson Hole is scraping by or scraping the ceiling.

Landlords are quickest to react. When times are tough, they waive the damage deposit or last month’s rent. They might kick in for utilities. They suddenly become dog-lovers. Over the hill and in Star Valley, I’ve seen “first month’s rent free” offers. Yes, when nobody is building and tourists aren’t buying T-shirts, it’s possible to live like a king even with a dog, cat, horse and a Megadeth stereo system.

But when the valley gets a little jingle in her pocket, the tagline “poverty with a view” pops to mind. They use the phrase in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Bend, Oregon, but Jackson Hole takes the cake. Millionaires ARE literally squeezed out by billionaires in this valley. And the trickle-down theory of economics in Teton County means when it shines, it pours.

High times in Jackson shrivel the rental classifieds. First-time homebuyers are priced out of the real estate market or are coaxed into getting in over their heads. They end up renting the three- and four-bedroom homes that usually house 90-day wonders. Seasonal workers, in turn, wind up flopping in forest campsites. And, as usual, the middle-class suffers worst of all – too poor to buy in and too proud to couch surf.

Add a burgeoning VRBO market – both legal and not-so-much – and you’ve got even more units removed from the rental sector.

 82113feature3For Rent

Teton County Housing Authority executive director Christine Walker knows all about the hardship and struggle of getting a foot in the door in Teton County, even if that door is a tent flap.

“I moved here in 1989 and I camped my first summer here,” Walker says. “I’ve lived in a garage. I had to move around a lot. I didn’t mind it then but I couldn’t do that now. The hardest part was sometimes not knowing where you were going to spend the night.”

Walker is well aware of how tight the housing market is right now and, more importantly, how her agency has failed at times to alleviate the pressure.

“We have a fluctuating market and we tend to make the most mistakes when we try to react to it,” Walker says. “We are not looking to chase the economy. There will be times when housing will be tighter and times when it will be looser. Housing the workforce in Teton County is never something you solve.”

Walker says the Housing Authority might have misread the demand for higher-end ownership inventory like Category 3 and 4 “Attainables” that list for more than a half-million bucks. Some people’s hides get chapped when they know a subsidized home sits empty waiting on a mechanical engineer or commercial loan officer who can get under the $283,494 net asset max and $117,800 annual income restriction. One such available home in Wilson has three baths. Those rooms alone could house six Joe Rice employees.

And people who plunk down $549,000 for a home don’t want to be told what they are allowed to sell it for. This is free market territory and Walker knows this now.

“The main thing we’ve been looking at is having the free market function as naturally as we can without competing in it,” Walker says. “We don’t want to be creeping into the higher income ranges. We don’t want to get into that position with product like the Attainable 4 category.”

Walker is quick to point out that her agency is responsible for some 900 price-restricted rental units in the community and the Authority’s latest project, a 68-unit apartment complex called the Grove, is set to break ground next summer.

Walker says, “We look at the entire spectrum of housing. We arrange different income sectors with varying ownership and rental product. Where we see gaps, we identify need. That’s where we are when we are looking at the Grove. We see rental opportunities at the very low end lacking in the community. And also ownership opportunities in the Category 1 and 2 Affordable level.”

82113feature2 Housing Wanted

I was a bit shielded from the housing crunch when I first arrived to the valley in 1997. I hired on with Lost Creek Ranch and housing came with. After three years there, my first home in town was a suite at the Painted Buffalo Inn. I rented by the month. It was the year 2000 and there wasn’t a house, cabin, or apartment to be had anywhere for any price.

I learned my first lesson in Jackson Holenomics: Of salary, room, and board – the greatest of these is room. I took a part-time job in layout with the Jackson Hole Guide purely to get a first shot at the classifieds. If you waited until it printed on Wednesday, it was already too late.

So sue me. I know more than one first-responder who became a volunteer fireman so they could get bumped to the front of the line by various government-assisted housing programs.

Still, I couldn’t find anything. I had a cowdog, a trailer, and my last place of residence was a bunkhouse. I was a lessee leper to landlords. I finally placed my own wanted ad in the paper. It was blunt, honest, and slightly desperate. And unlike the dozens of other housing wanted ads, I was offering to actually pay rent, not just caretake.

I landed a place at the end of Wenzel Lane. I lived above an indoor riding arena in an efficiency apartment for $1,000 a month. My landlords were leasing the massive main building on an adjacent parcel. There was room on the property for keeping a horse. I got two. The place sold a month later.

“The Greenbergs of New York will be assuming ownership,” I overheard the realtor explain to the renters I was renting from. “They were looking for something in the 5,000-square-foot range to accent their asset portfolio and this fills the bill wonderfully. The barn will have to go, of course. We’ll knock that down to open the view.”

I had two weeks to vacate. On the night I left, it was Thanksgiving, and it snowed pretty hard. I got a call from someone representing the new owners asking if I would please plow the driveway on my way out so they could get in. I told them to go to hell. I’ve always felt bad about that.

Then it was on to an apartment above the radio station where I worked. It was in an old building that once stood where Lift restaurant is now. It had no kitchen or sink. There was one electrical outlet. The place was so rickety. I remember the day I had to move out because it was being torn down for 43 North. The demolition crew arrived with this sorry-looking little bulldozer that looked like it could have lost a tug-of-war contest with a MINI Cooper.

“That’s all you brought?” I asked the contractor. “Shouldn’t you have a wrecking ball or something bigger?”

The bulldozer grunted and lurched forward, bumping the side of the two-story building gently. It fell over in a heap.

For the next six years I lived at the Teton Gables Motel – a place so ghetto I once heard a police officer refuse to let his wife stay the night when Teton Pass was snowed shut. He had been called there too many times.

I wasn’t about to move out, though. The room was free, including all the scratchy toilet paper I could use. And I knew what awaited me on the free market. The day I got the news that I was being laid off from the job attached to the motel room, I was devastated. Not about being out of work. Like the Westernism says: “I was looking for a job when I found this one.” No, I cried in my beer over having to scour the rentals again looking for something within a 45-minute drive that didn’t have “NP” in it.

I spent last summer living in my office, sleeping on a cot. It sucked but I was never late for work. Now I live in Red Top Meadows. It’s a haul, but I didn’t have to shoot my dog or sell my trailer. I even got a cat. But the real estate market is back on its feet again and a prospective buyer was out the other day looking the place over. I called a friend about her place in town. She said it’s on the market, too.

I’ve tried for an affordable house with the Housing Authority but never got picked. I was once fourth out of more than 200 for one of the houses on Old Schoolhouse Lane in Wilson. The thought crossed my mind to eliminate the first three applicants by any means necessary.

The Housing Authority on Monday announced via email what it called a “unique housing opportunity.” Apparently, the Authority was being asked by Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust to help them get rid of a $408,000 home in the Glory View subdivision. It’s Gold LEED certified.

I once lived in a place that had to be worthy of LEED certification of some kind. It was so energy-efficient it didn’t use any electricity or gas. It didn’t have either.

 FLD, NS/NP, basement apartment in Alpine – $2,400

When the going gets tough, the tough get going … to Curtis Canyon, Munger Mountain and Mosquito Creek. Want to know when it’s time to renew your real estate license? Whenever it’s tent city up Curtis. Authorities have had numerous issues at tenement tent row in Curtis Canyon and Munger Mountain as 90-day wonders have been forced into the sagebrush by a tightening housing market.

How tight is it? A quick scan of the’s free classified Web site shows “housing needed” listings from several posters claiming to be lifelong residents of Jackson. Some are well-established business owners. One ran for mayor last election. All of them put out on their asses with one dreaded phone call: “I’m listing the place.”

It’s always been this way in this valley. “It’s usually easier to find a job than a place to live,” Walker says.

The Housing Authority once went off the model that home ownership fulfills the American Dream. A white picket fence with a swing set in the backyard meant stability and investment in community. Attitudes changed after the crash. Study after study shows more Americans are open to paying rent rather than carrying a mortgage.

“We want to serve both the homeowner and the renter,” Walker says. “We want to create a diverse, well-rounded community that supports our local businesses. There is definitely that trend nationwide, and especially in this community there is a lot of talk about rentals. I will be curious to see how the market changes over this fall when the seasonals are up.”

A few October listings are beginning to trickle in, indicating river runners, bellmen, and lawn mowers were tying up some housing. What Walker doesn’t want to do is chase the economy. Affordable/employee housing mitigation rates (the exaction charged to builders for new development) were hiked from 15 to 25 percent in 2008 while the local housing market was going bonkers  – just in time to watch it crash.

It’s funny. Webster’s alt-definition of exaction is extortion and that’s exactly what most developers view it as. Town and County officials see it as a speed bump to new business enterprise that will result in job creation, which is good. However, this also brings dozens of 20-somethings with their Toyota Tundras and black labs to the valley, which could be bad.

There already are rumblings about lowering the mitigation rate in order to spur growth again.

“The right rate depends on how we are utilizing other tools. We are hearing it is difficult to be switching that rate and reacting to changes. When we are reacting, we are behind. Keeping a steady mitigation rate is helpful for everyone. I don’t really have a number in mind. I think the [current] rate is working,” Walker says. “We are trying to build the right product and not being reactionary. We are being thoughtful and long-term, methodically putting units on the ground.”

Walker noted several businesses are currently building housing for their employees, including JHMR, Whole Grocer, and the new Walgreens.

“The idea of affordable housing started with employers in the valley needing to find somewhere for their employees to live,” Walker says. “Then came the nonprofits and then government agencies like the Housing Authority. There has never been so many options and programs available for housing assistance. And we are getting better and better at this.”

About Jake Nichols

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