FEATURE STORY: For Rent? Forget it! Housing crisis hits home hard

By on May 26, 2015
Too good to be true? Prime location. Cozy one bedroom. Plenty of light. F/L/D, NS/NP. “Poverty with a view” has never been more apropos.  PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

Too good to be true? Prime location. Cozy one bedroom. Plenty of light. F/L/D, NS/NP. “Poverty with a view” has never been more apropos. PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – “It was like walking in on your partner with someone else.”

That’s how Caroline Croft Estay remembers the day not long ago when her landlady told her she was selling the home that she and her family of six rents in East Jackson. The Crofts had just cleaned the carpets to get ready for a walkthrough and were planning to ask their landlady about staining the deck and planting a garden.

“We had a verbal agreement to stay,” Estay said. “I was expecting to sign a lease and [then] I was told she’s selling. It just feels like nobody’s got each other’s back now when it comes to housing. Everyone is out for money. Did we not learn anything karmaically from 2007?”

Last June, when Christie Koriakin wrote the perennial housing crisis story, “God’s Country, Renter’s Hell,” for The Planet, she profiled Jared Rogers, an executive chef who had been living in his car for the past six months because he couldn’t find a decent place to live. Rogers has since moved out of the state to pursue paragliding, but the roadblocks he encountered trying to find an affordable place to live for him and his dog resonated with folks across the valley. Jackson’s housing crisis continues to swell and, on the heels of the inaugural housing summit in Jackson, we were compelled to check in with more folks one year later.

In 2015, property values are climbing back to their peak before the recession began in 2008 and with inventory low, many renters are being pushed out of their homes with little time to search for a new one before the summer workforce arrives. This tightens the rental market further.  Appraiser McKenzie Hammond said she is seeing home values increase 1 to 5 percent per month this year, which has been encouraging owners to sell.

But the limited supply of rental properties leaves a lot of Jackson residents in the lurch. As a single mom with two kids and a dog, I happen to be one of them. Hold on, there’s a knock on my home office door.

“I’m so sorry,” offered Realtor Sarah Kerr of RE/MAX Obsidian Real Estate, the listing agent for my Hall Street townhouse. She stopped by unannounced to drop off a sign. “I always feel bad for people like you who are caught in the middle.”

I wish she wasn’t so nice.

Estay’s landlady had tears in her eyes when she told her she was selling, she said. Indeed, these are emotional times.

Caroline Croft Estay, one of many renters who got “sold out.” PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

Caroline Croft Estay, one of many renters who got “sold out.” PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

When you receive the dreaded news, a sobering set of questions comes to mind: Will we have to leave the valley? Move to Victor, Driggs, Alpine or Alta and commute? Or will we find a place that we can barely afford? Every three bedroom that I’ve seen is double the price I’m paying. So I’m looking for something with two bedrooms now and my best leads have come by word of mouth.

“I’ve been told by landlords that they no longer advertise their places in the newspaper or through online vehicles simply because of the sheer number of respondents,” said Planet Editor Robyn Vincent, who just moved under duress after her West Kelly Avenue home was sold the same week it went on the market.

In its Comprehensive Plan, the town and county set a goal of housing 65 percent of the workforce locally, a goal that some feel is unrealistic.

County Commissioner Melissa Turley said she thinks the county’s goal to house 65 percent of its workforce is possible, “but not without a dedicated funding stream and a coordinated, effective housing effort.”

Turley added, “We’ve done great work to house our workforce over the last 20 years — in fact, as the owner of a deed restricted home, I am proof of that — but it is projected that we might need as many as 280 new workforce housing units every year for the next ten years to meet our goal of housing 65 percent of the workforce locally.”

Jorge Moreno made Super 8 his home for weeks. PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

Jorge Moreno made Super 8 his home for weeks. PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

The Grove, a mixed-use project near the Teton County Library with 20 rental apartments and 48 units for sale, is Teton County Housing Authority’s first foray into the rental market. The rentals, expected to be completed by Aug. 1, are the first phase of a three-part project on Scott Lane and Snow King Avenue with commercial space below and two floors of apartments above. Funding was recently approved for the second and third phase of freestanding condominiums for sale.

“The reason the first phase is being built with rentals was a response to a need for them,” Housing Authority Board Member Brian Siegfried said.

The lottery process for a modern one-, one-plus-, two-, two-plus-, or three-bedroom rental ended this week. I entered, even though they do not allow dogs.

Searching for solutions

Tom Evans, a longtime Jackson real estate broker, said the town’s policy to build affordable homes is not filling the gap. What we need, he says, is more rental apartments. He sees two viable options: One is getting the town to lease land designated for commercial developers to a private entity to build apartments. The other option is to build a tunnel to Victor, Idaho where rates are also on the rise but in comparison to Jackson, affordable housing opportunities abound, Evans said.

“The county should not be in the housing business,” he said. “We’ve been missing the boat. The people buying aren’t buying half-a-million dollar condos, they are buying $5 million houses. They still need their house cleaned and their lawn mowed. Those are [the people] who we need rentals for. With all the money we’ve spent we could build a tunnel through to Victor to create more opportunities for people to live in an affordable area in free-market conditions.”

Siegfried, who is also an associate broker at Sotheby’s, said more than half of the workforce housing is already produced by the private sector.

Turley agreed that private business plays a role in creating viable living options in the valley.

“If the free market could solve our workforce housing challenge, it would have already happened,” she said. “There are ways local government can facilitate the free market construction of workforce housing, but this problem won’t be solved without creating more publicly or privately subsidized housing.”

Town Councilman Jim Stanford highlighted the crisis at a recent meeting when he suggested creating a municipal campground for seasonal workers. A campground in town would relieve the pressure seasonal workers put on Forest Service campgrounds and the dirt roads to them and put an end to the “cat and mouse” game they have to play to find affordable housing.

“Curtis Canyon was never meant to be a commuter corridor,” he said.

Homeowners who are illegally renting their homes to vacationers are playing another “cat and mouse” game, he said.

“We are losing a lot of housing to short-term rentals for tourists so that people can make a buck,” Stanford said.

For the past two years, Stanford has been an advocate of cracking down on illegal short-term rentals, a proposal that was shelved last year. He has also advocated for a project to build rental units near Hall and Redmond streets and zone for more housing and less commercial property.

“If we zone for more (hotel) lodging, the deeper the hole we are in,” he said.

Housing experts and politicians involved in the first-ever housing summit last week talked a lot about raising sales taxes to create a funding stream for affordable housing — a measure that would require voter support in an upcoming election. There was also widespread support for restructuring the housing organizations so that there is more collaboration. In addition to the Housing Authority run by the county, there is the nonprofit Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust, which is actively seeking funding for a project on Hall and Redmond streets, and Habitat for Humanity, a private nonprofit that is not affiliated with the government.

“One of the big conclusions that the Housing Authority stated is that we are interested in creating a more regional housing authority, including Teton County, Idaho and even Sublette County,” Siegfried said.

An independent report on affordable housing funded by Don Opatrny, a private investor and chairman of the board at the Center for the Arts, identifies “inefficiencies,” “frictions” and “inconsistencies,” in the town and county’s affordable housing policies. The report, culled from interviews with more than 70 housing stakeholders, says the community would have to build two and a half Groves per year to meet a housing needs assessment from 2007. Its author, Katy Niner, said Opatrny took an interest in the housing crisis after attending town council meetings and listening to the heated debates about the proposed Comprehensive Plan for potential commercial development.

It comes down to supply and demand. More hotels leads to greater demands for low-wage workers who need affordable housing, and means less space to house them. The demolition of the old Western Hotel — where dozens of low-income people were displaced — to build a Marriott is a prime example.

“I’m hopeful it was helpful at the summit,” Opatrny said. “A lot of the issues we raised were on the whiteboard.”

In its recommendations, the report calls for an overview of the county’s 1,488 affordable, deed-restricted units and suggests concentrating high-density housing by offering incentives to build and create open space in order to avoid street canyon effect with too many tall buildings downtown. Other ideas include a partnership between the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce and the town and county to develop housing for rent for small business owners and their employees.

The study also addresses two population-related issues that are not often brought up in public debate. It says that the focus on two-to-three bedroom units is not serving the growing elderly and Latino populations. Latinos who uphold the service industry on which the tourist economy depends are “most at risk of displacement through the natural forces of redevelopment,” the report states.

What about the Latino community

As housing gets tighter, Latinos are being marginalized because they have large families and they may not have documentation, said Daniela Botur, a board member at the Latino Resource Center.

“These are major issues, particularly for Latinos who have not been a part of the conversation so far,” she said.

Jorge Moreno is a case manager at the Latino Resource Center. He said not a day goes by when he doesn’t receive a call about the housing crisis.

“People are losing their homes suddenly or trying to maintain the housing that they have,” he said. “We have clients who say landlords are raising the rent from 20 to 100 percent. They are forced to live month-to-month with no contract to protect them. They don’t want to do contracts for a year.”

Moreno knows the hardships firsthand after living at the Super 8 motel on and off for one month after his father suddenly sold his Rangeview home.

“I was going to take my wife and two kids to Oregon to stay with family and send money to them,” he said. “I was planning to camp or sleep in my car so I can provide for my family. All of the stuff I want to do for this community, everything was going to stop.”

A board member of the Doug Coombs Foundation who volunteers at the library to help with tax preparation and translates for various organizations, Moreno was on the cusp of leaving when he was lucky enough to find an apartment at Blair Place. The apartments across from the middle school have a waitlist of 60 people, he said.

Moreno described a sentiment that is becoming too common in Teton County: Losing your home and feeling desperate to find a new one.

“It changes the way you feel about who you are,” he said. “You are no longer in control of your life. You lose friendships and your community dreams and hopes.”

Losing a home and a business

My search to find people in the same boat as me — trying to decide what to sacrifice if they can even manage to stay in town — ended after I checked my email and walked around the block. I found three people with situations similar to mine. One is moving back east to my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., another is being priced out of her home and business and doesn’t know what to do, and then there’s the Croft Estay family.

Like Estay, Cathy Beloeil, owner of Café Boheme, says she knows what it’s like to feel like you are getting the rug pulled out from under you. She has moved four times in the past five years.

“Every time I move into a new place it gets sold,” she said. But losing her home, now in Victor, and her business both on the same day has her reeling. “Maybe I’ll find a piece of land to put a caravan on, then I’ll really be a bohemian.”

Former Mayor Mark Barron is leasing Beloeil’s cafe space, which is between the post office and Kmart, to Persephone Bakery to open a new restaurant.

Cathy Beloeil lost home and business on same day. PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

Cathy Beloeil lost home and business on same day. PHOTO: JOSH MYERS

“My error was I trusted him 100 percent,” she said, adding that she did not read the fine print to see that she didn’t have the right of first refusal on the cafe. “I understand that it’s their right to not want me here, but I would have liked the respect of being able to make an offer.”

Her attorney sent Barron a letter asking for options on a month-to-month, two- and five-year leases but did not get a response, she said.

Barron said he and his wife, State Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff “totally get the housing problem” and offer their employees housing for less than Housing Authority prices.

“As the original owners and tenants of the Seven-Ten Split café unit, we paid all the employee housing mitigation fees for that space,” he explained in an email. “Over the course of a five-year lease, we have forgiven many thousands of dollars in late fees, underpaid rent and discounted rent for the current tenant. Rather than kicking out the business for being in default, we worked with them to provide the opportunity to get through the entire term of the lease, which runs through May 31.”

Boloeil said she was able to get a month extension on her home in Victor but a sign in her café is counting down the days until her commercial lease ends.

A home for those who give back

With increased demand for rentals and fewer supply options, some landlords have become more restrictive about who they rent to. Even the Housing Trust, which used to ask about volunteer work and favor people who are community service oriented, is now only prioritizing emergency service providers. And landlords who used to consider pets are getting more restrictive.

Both Caroline Croft Estay and her husband Pete Croft have dedicated their careers to helping developmentally disabled kids and adults, sometimes taking care of them in their home or teaching them how to live independently. Pete is a fourth generation Teton Valley, Idaho native who works at C-V Ranch. Caroline is a licensed independent care provider who spearheaded the integrated employment program for Vertical Harvest to provide jobs for her clients. For the past two years Caroline’s tenth grade son and seventh grade daughter have volunteered at the Special Olympics. The couple also has two children under 3 years old and a dog.

I get exhausted just thinking about the logistics of their family. But when I walk over to their house for dinner, there is a clean and quiet hum of activity. After 15 years in Jackson, the Crofts were able to use their connections to find a new home. A friend’s neighbor who will be leaving this summer rented them their place in Cottonwood Park. Starting in August, they will pay almost 20 percent more than they did in East Jackson, forcing them to cut back on their budget. But they are relieved to be able to stay in the valley.

“I sent out a mass email and I had such an outpouring,” Estay said. “We had to stay in Wyoming for the kids’ school.”

Those were my sentiments exactly when I sarcastically posted on Facebook asking for a “three bedroom house with a fenced in yard for my dog, and Teton views by a babbling brook.”

God knows there’s nothing in the classifieds. No luck yet.

“Sure there are a lot of 20-somethings out there looking for housing, but there are so many families that are displaced now,” Estay said. “You have to be open to anything.”

About Julie Fustanio Kling

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