THE BUZZ: The Faces of Blair

By on July 21, 2015

If residents of Blair Place Apartments are forced from the valley, just who do we stand to lose?

This marks the first piece in a weekly series spotlighting community members who may leave Jackson in response to the more than 40 percent rent increase at Blair Place Apartments.

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(Robyn Vincent) Jorge Moreno says he may have to uproot the life he planted in Jackson after Blair Place Apartments announced a sharp rent hike in the midst of a historic housing shortage.

JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING – It’s Monday morning and a grey sky lingers over the maze of three-story buildings that house Blair Place Apartments’ 294 units. A cluster of ebullient kids and a few parents congregate around a school bus as a young girl prances to the bus with a sparkly pink backpack.

When the housing crisis first dug its claws into the valley, Blair Place was an affordable option for many folks including families, teachers, nurses and police officers. Rents at the apartment complex remained affordable, allowing residents to plant roots, while the prices of single-home properties and condos around the valley skyrocketed. However, many Blair Place residents, like caseworker Jorge Moreno, say that when their lease expires (the rent on Moreno’s two-bedroom apartment will rise from $1,250 to $1,800), they will surrender to the housing crisis and leave the valley for good.

Married with two young children, Moreno is a community advocate who, in addition to the casework he performs for Latino Resource Center, volunteers as a translator for various nonprofits and attorneys. He also is a board member of the Doug Coombs Foundation, which helps get low-income kids onto the slopes, and is a veritable civil servant to the Latino community. He prepares taxes and registers voters and knocked on doors to warn Latino residents when their homes would be demolished to make way for a Marriott hotel.

Moreno found his way into advocacy after a horrific accident, one that made him lose and then regain his faith in the community.

In 2012, Moreno was working as a diesel mechanic. For extra work in the off-season, he worked nights at Jackson Whole Grocer. While riding his bike to work one summer eve, the Mexico City native was blindsided by a motorist. Plastered to the car’s windshield, Moreno struggled to lift himself from a bed of smashed glass. But the driver had other plans for him. The motorist hit the throttle and Moreno’s body flew to the ground, smacking the pavement.

“Then he drove right on top of me,” Moreno said. “The last thing I remember was hearing the sound of the tires against the asphalt.”

Moreno woke up in a hospital bed, battered and bruised. Among his injuries were a broken arm, six broken ribs and a broken sternum. Dragged under the vehicle for 12 feet, Moreno’s body was bloody and raw where patches of flesh had been ripped away.

He did not have insurance at the time and pleaded with the nurse to release him from the hospital. After several days failing the nurse’s test, which was to walk without immediately collapsing onto the ground, he was finally cleared to leave. But Moreno was far from healed.

“I couldn’t get out of bed by myself for a month and a half after that,” Moreno said, explaining that the threat of mounting hospital bills, already at $60,000, urged his hasty departure. In other words, Moreno said he had no other choice.

Unable to work, Moreno and his family moved in with his parents, already grappling with their own financial woes. To seek outside help went against everything he knew. “When I was a kid, my parents had always taught me that if you need something you have to do it yourself,” he explained. But Moreno was desperate so he turned to the Community Resource Center, which cut him a check for $800. “It wasn’t a lot,” Moreno said, “but it was money I didn’t have at the time. It felt like they gave me a million dollars.”

Meanwhile, as the system failed to bring the responsible motorist to justice, Moreno became increasingly disillusioned and withdrawn. With too much time on his hands, he decided to volunteer as a translator for the Community Resource and Latino Resource centers. “They helped me when I was in need so I wanted to give something back,” he said.

That’s when everything shifted for Moreno. “Helping others became the best therapy I could have from my accident,” he said. “It became a part of me and I could not stop.”

Sonia Capece, executive director of the Latino Resource Center, was struck by Moreno’s resilience and passion to help people. It’s why she offered him a case manager position. “After all that he personally went through, he still believes that positive change is possible,” she said. “Jorge is able to connect with individuals and help them evaluate options and pursue dreams. He is a strong believer in the value of getting involved and being an active member of the community.”

Moreno, a self-taught English speaker, also began volunteering as a translator for several attorneys and the Teton County Access to Justice Center.

His work there is “invaluabe,” said Carina Ostberg, executive director of Teton County Access to Justice Center. “He not only provides free translation for us—I only have one other person who is willing to translate for free—but he is also willing to do it on really short notice and under circumstances less than convenient to him and his family. I have met with him and clients at 8 at night, and he has translated via phone when he has been too ill to leave his bed. His dedication is amazing.”

Moreno estimates he has volunteered about 300 hours of his time to translate for low-income clients of attorneys alone. And while he continues to advocate for the unheard, he is pragmatic about the lack of representation that working class people face here.

“Money has the loudest voice in Jackson,” he said. “They might not be able to hear us, but one day, they will see it.” Moreno worries that rising rents and a lack of housing will result in a radically altered community tapestry. “We’re going to have a place where people come here and spend money and then they leave and the lights are turned down,” he said.

In the case of Blair Place Apartments, Moreno points a finger of blame in a different direction. “I think the Town of Jackson needs to regulate how much Blair [and other landlords] can raise the rent,” he said. “This is the last place people turned to for relief from the housing crisis. When my family and I got here, we were so grateful to find a place we could call home. Now we feel like we have lost control again.”

Email Robyn Vincent at [email protected]


About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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