GUEST OPINION: Don’t forget about Karyn

By on June 3, 2015

A healthy community means housing the middle class

Photo by Stacy C. Noland

Karyn Greenwood talks with Mayor Sara Flitner during a session of the Jackson Hole Conservation Leadership Institute. Photo by Stacy C. Noland

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – I’m often asked how housing fits into the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance’s mission of protecting the wildlife, wild places, and community character of Jackson Hole.

I usually start by explaining how when people who work here can’t afford to live here they are forced to commute up the canyon or over the pass, consuming significant amounts of fossil fuel, increasing traffic and wildlife-vehicle collisions, and spending way too much time away from their families.

Then I talk about the people who decide against a long commute and deal with unsafe and cramped housing conditions, camping, living in their cars, or housing costs that eat up most of their income.

But really, it’s about people like Karyn.

Three weeks ago Karyn told me that she and her husband were exhausted from the continual stress of trying to find an affordable place to call home, and had decided to leave Jackson Hole. With a degree in wildlife biology, years of experience working in conservation, and a husband who is a successful chef, middle class people like Karyn should be putting down roots in our community – not moving away.

Nearly all of us know people like Karyn who have trouble finding an affordable place to live in Jackson Hole. Most of us have friends who commute up the canyon or over the pass, but would love to live here if they could afford it. And many of us couldn’t afford to buy a house if we moved here today. It’s hard for our community to have character when the characters that define it pack up and leave.

With Karyn and the thousands of people like her in mind, I was honored to participate as a stakeholder in last week’s housing summit to help prioritize policies and investments that support Jackson Hole remaining a strong community, where at least 65 percent of people who work here can afford to live here.

As we kicked off the summit, the facilitators sagely reminded us that housing is only one piece of our community’s shared vision of a better future. As John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” In other words, it’s important to consider that policies and investments that advance our community’s housing goal will have consequences impacting our other community goals – with preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem at the core of our community’s vision of a better future.

So how can we balance our other community goals with ensuring that teachers, police, nurses, firefighters, and people like Karyn can afford to live here?

First, let’s admit that we can’t “solve” our housing problem. Demand for housing has outstripped supply for decades and because of national and global economic trends, this equation will only get worse. This doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up in surrender. It means we should cowboy up and accept this won’t be an easy ride.

Second, let’s not make the problem worse. This is the easiest and least costly thing we can do. It’s kind of astonishing that some well-intentioned but misguided people continue advocating for changes to the District 2 (downtown) land development regulations (zoning). Changes that won’t provide anywhere near enough housing affordable to people who work here while encouraging a dramatic expansion of commercial development, lodging, short-term rentals, and higher-end condos (i.e. second homes), generating new low-wage jobs, staffed by new low-wage employees, who need new affordable places to live.

When you’re in a hole the best thing to do is stop digging. Let’s work together to ensure updates to our downtown land development regulations use innovative, constructive, and balanced policy solutions that take us in the right direction (such as a two-tiered zoning system that would incentivize housing for people who work here and limit commercial development potential).

No, we can’t solve our housing problem downtown, but we can’t afford to keep kicking the can down the road while making the problem worse. We should zone to achieve outcomes that align with our values and make sure we get some housing for people who work here every chance we can, including downtown.

Third, let’s align our public investments with our values and vision of a better future. We should seriously consider a dedicated funding source (like a one-cent increase in the sales tax) that supports on-the ground construction of housing affordable to people who work here, along with improvements to public transit down the canyon and over the pass for the 35 percent of workers who don’t live here, and other community benefits like permanently protecting wildlife habitat and open space.

Here’s the thing. If we’re honest about our ability to solve our housing problem, avoid policy choices that would make it worse, and have the courage necessary to make public investments while advancing other community goals, we can keep middle class people like Karyn and create a better future for Jackson Hole.

About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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