GUEST OPINION: Community must speak out to solve housing crisis

By on March 17, 2015
Photo credit: Christie Koriakin

Photo credit: Christie Koriakin

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The people who live and work in Jackson have for years trusted that their local government would look out for their best interests. They trusted that local officials would balance the needs of all the members of the community and enact equitable and sustainable policies that take their desires into account.

However, they have been busy cooking our meals, driving our buses, cleaning our homes, teaching our children, putting out our fires, serving our food, cutting our grass and plowing our roads — the list goes on and on. And they trusted that their government would look out for them, that it would not elevate the interests of money and development over the needs of the vast majority of its citizens.

That trust has been misplaced.

Today, we face a housing crisis of epic proportions, and I don’t use that word lightly. It’s a crisis that has been building for years, and shows no signs of abating. It’s a crisis that primarily affects those of low-to-middle income, those without political power. It’s a crisis that speaks to our values as a community.

Wyoming Public Media recently published a story about how members of our community are sleeping in beds in shifts. They wrote about how, in one of the richest counties in America, a schoolgirl is woken up at 5 a.m. in her rundown trailer — only a stone’s throw away from vacant multi-million dollar homes — because someone else needs to sleep in her bed.

Is this what we mean by “Town As Heart?” That’s a town without a heart.

And yet, instead of doing something about this travesty and the many more like it, our town council is deliberating over how much worse to make it. Instead of finding new, creative ways to build city-owned, affordable, long-term rental housing, it is discussing how much more of our limited land — land that our community needs to live on — it is allowing millionaire developers to make more money on. Instead of actively looking for ways to help those who need it, this council, under the previous mayor, approved the construction of a four-story chain hotel on land that could have housed more than 100 of our citizens. This is land that we need, and because of the actions of this council, it will now be lost for decades.

This is unacceptable. The starting point of this discussion should be the implementation of an original proposal from the planning staff for a residential district. That idea has been derailed by the interests of money and politicians to the detriment of our community.  That proposal should be the starting point but it would not be nearly enough.

I have no doubt another indignant sob story about property rights will be trotted out, as though those rights are absolute. They are not. Property rights exist to the extent that they benefit the community that grants them. You may buy property with an expectation of turning a profit, but you do not have the right to do so.

The value in a downtown lot is not derived from the views; those views are just as nice in Tetonia, Idaho. The value is derived from the community — from the workers who have built it and live here and who sustain it. And they also have a right to benefit from the increased value of that land, and from the community they’ve built, regardless of whether they or their parents were lucky enough to be able to buy some of it. That right must be balanced with property rights. Neither is absolute. It is this council’s job to fairly balance those rights, and to ward of those who would put a finger on the scale.

I’m not naïve. I realize that even if our town and county governments were to stop paying deference to the gods of property and money they would still be hamstrung by a state government that worships at those gods’ feet. But that is not an excuse. There are things we can and should be doing. No option should be off the table; no stone unturned. If it requires raising taxes, condemning property or using the powers of eminent domain, we should not flinch. We must use every tool at our disposal. We can do these things. We must do these things. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of our town hangs in the balance. If that sounds hyperbolic, think about that girl just across town who shares her bed with four others. Ask her if she thinks it is a hyperbole.

For years, the workingmen and women in this town have trusted their government, but not verified it. That ends now. We are watching. We are paying attention. We accept responsibility for our lack of oversight; it is, at the end of the day, inexcusable. We realize that it is difficult for you to hear our voice when the voice of money and development is talking even louder and never, ever stops. But we are talking now. We expect you to listen. If you are having trouble envisioning a better way, we will envision it for you. And if this council does not represent our voices, we will find a council that will.

For the first time in 12 years, we have a new mayor. And we have a relatively new council. It would be wrong for me to blame this council for the errors of the past. Some members of this council — Jim Stanford has been particularly consistent in this regard — have stood up for the working people of Jackson. I thank you, Jim, for what must be a generally thankless and lonely task.

You have the opportunity now to do the right thing. We have a responsibility to ensure that you do it. Let’s work together to make sure Jackson remains a town for all of us

This speech was addressed to Mayor Sara Flitner and the Jackson Town Council at a Jackson Town Council meeting on March 12.

About Pete Muldoon

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