THE BUZZ: Housing Summit high on hope…low on inventory, funding

By on May 26, 2015
Norman Smith’s four-room log cabin homestead near Blacktail Butte was valued at $5,000 in 1918. Shown here in 1912. PHOTO: JACKSON HOLE HISTORICAL SOCIETY & MUSEUM

Norman Smith’s four-room log cabin homestead near Blacktail Butte was valued at $5,000 in 1918. Shown here in 1912. PHOTO: JACKSON HOLE HISTORICAL SOCIETY & MUSEUM

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The Jackson Town Council and Board of County Commissioners held a two-day housing summit for the public last week. While it was at the beginning of Old West Days, it wasn’t anything like the annual old-timey festival.

How times have changed. A 1900 census of the valley tallied 638 people living in 191 households. Today’s conditions find a county challenged with housing low-to-mid-level income residents who totaled 22,268 in a 2013 Census. Those are astounding numbers that mark growth of a county once too poor and too unpopulated to meet even minimal state standards. State legislators intervened with a special act to create Teton as the state’s 22nd county in 1921.

“Skepticism will not be tolerated here,” said joint town-county planner Alex Norton early in Thursday’s proceedings. At several points, there seemed little room for anything but skepticism on finding solutions to a housing crisis measured by column inches in local classified ads.

Valley economist Jonathan Schechter has emerged as the leading skeptic after a few brow-raising, “inconvenient truth” comments that have found more allies than opposition. “There’s no housing fix,” Schechter claimed in his regular newspaper column. A bold statement, if unpopular. Talking about a solution has been Jackson Hole’s favorite obsession leading into the anticipated summer crunch. The two-day seminar provided more bluster than buoyancy as local leaders and stakeholders tackled weighty issues involving government’s role in easing hardships by increasing workforce-housing inventory.

Elected leaders will have a hard time convincing voters to add a penny to sales tax in order to generate a dedicated source of funding for housing and transportation in the county. A tax increase was one of the more popular options to arise at the summit. The added penny would generate an estimated $12 million annually — a robust number that could build a few rental apartments and fuel a fleet of buses.

County Commissioner Melissa Turley backed the idea of upping sales tax to seven percent, saying at the summit that the increase would provide for a stable and significant level of funding. Former Housing Authority director Christine Walker said a sales tax increase would be a “game-changer.”

But judging from responses at the seminar, letters to the editor at The Planet, and comments found online, many Laissez-faire-minded taxpayers bristle at the notion of government involvement in the free market.

Some say market solutions are less likely to solve the problem no matter how hard developers are walloped by town and county exactions. The newly-minted, launched by valley thinker Pete Muldoon, sprang to life with a opening salvo on housing: “I think it’s important that we realize that market-based solutions are not going to work,” Muldoon wrote. “Tweaking the incentives for developers here and there is not going to work. The market doesn’t care about you, and it’s not interested in your sense of community or your needs. If you don’t have money, you are a non-entity in that system.”

Less likely than an added penny to sales tax is another proposed revenue stream option of a property tax or real estate transfer tax. The latter would need state statute revision and would undoubtedly meet with stiff resistance from other parts of Wyoming where Teton County is viewed as an unsustainable playground for the rich and famous.

The debacle over planning for The Grove is the final impetuous needed in getting the Housing Authority under a joint town-county umbrella. Politicians have been hinting at the idea of restructuring the agency and all indications from the two-day summit are TCHA can play a major role in helping to alleviate the housing shortage in the valley, but will likely do so under the purview of both the town council and board of commissioners, if not a regional scope.

News that Habitat for Humanity is seriously considering giving up on building in Teton County put a punctuation mark on the end of the housing summit. In a statement released by Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Teton Area, reps from Habitat expressed discouragement over high land prices and burdensome regulations that may cause the agency to seek out neighboring counties as more sustainable alternatives to building homes in Teton County.

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