THE BUZZ: A Penny for Your Housing

By on November 17, 2015

Debate ensues over how to raise taxes to fix valley’s deepening housing crisis and impending traffic melee.

Shower space in $600 rental. Water was not working either at time of visit. (Photo: Jake Nichols)

Shower space in $600 rental. Water was not working either at time of visit. (Photo: Jake Nichols)

The valley’s housing dilemma can be known by a quick scan of newspaper headlines/classifieds, during a 5-mph crawl down Broadway in July, or by attending a Joint Information Meeting where 10 local elected officials slog through the Housing Action Plan (HAP) and Integrated Transportation Plan (ITP).

But to truly feel the crunch it takes being homeless since August. Couch surfing and sleeping in a luggage-filled truck under the glow of a parking lot flood light. Running to a storage unit in Alpine for a crescent wrench and answering scant classified ads filled with 5BR, 4BA fortresses renting for $5,000 a month. And that’s only until April, when a blue-collar renter is booted for a VRBO blueblood who’ll drop 5 Gs a night for it.

A rental company in Katy, Texas, is currently offering one jewel of a listing. It’s a 200-square-foot shack 40 minutes from town in Red Top Meadows. In any other county in Wyoming, where the Tetons can’t be viewed, it might serve as a decent bully barn. Many valley residents – those who can’t truly “feel” the housing crisis – would call 200 square feet a cramped wine room in their palace. But in bizzaro world it is listed as a $600 a month studio. A lengthy credit check and references are required just to get in line for it. The rental firm received more than 41 calls and emails in response to the ad in the first three days.

Taking authority

But are we willing to take the necessary steps to fix the mess we’re in? What will it take?

The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance shared the results of a poll conducted on their dime earlier this spring. It asked registered voters whether they would be willing to tax themselves in order to build and bus our way through Jackson’s boom and gloom real estate cycle.

Yes, answered voters. If it takes an added penny of sales tax, 63 percent of respondents to the Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates (FM3) survey said they would do it. Further, three quarters of those polled said they couldn’t afford to live in Jackson Hole if they were moving here today. The same number knew of at least one person having difficulty finding an affordable place to live.

“It’s about what we thought,” said Craig Benjamin, executive director of the Alliance. “It told us this is worth having a conversation as a community about, as to whether or not we should present voters with the opportunity to align our investments with our values regarding transit and housing. These results show voters would be amenable to it.”

Town councilors and county commissioners have finalized a Housing Action Plan on the heels of the Integrated Transportation Plan. The guiding documents are in place. All that remains are the nuts and bolts of the “how” and “what” the community will be asked to pay for. It’s a process that has bogged on occasion in the details but BCC chair Barbara Allen and Mayor Sara Flitner are both generally pleased with the strides electeds have made in response to a housing and transportation issue that cracked the walls of Shangri-La this summer.

“I’m a 30,000-foot person, anyway. I don’t want to spend a bunch of time in the weeds as a policymaker,” Flitner said. “I appreciate how we are moving forward. I think things are moving quite quickly.”

Allen added, “I’m happy with the pace.”

While the organizational structure of a resurrected housing authority bedeviled some at the last JIM meeting, councilman Jim Stanford suggested his peers at least get behind two shovel-ready projects while they hashed out particulars.

“I’m always thinking: How much of an impact is this going to have on the people who are camping and moving away because of the uncertainty of housing?” Stanford said. “Restructuring of the Housing Authority is not what people who are being squeezed by the housing crunch are worried about.”

Benjamin agreed. “When you look at the driving forces behind the housing crunch our community faces, the structure of the Housing Authority is probably at the bottom of the list. If you don’t want to actually get anything done on housing, a protracted discussion and debate over the structure of the Housing Authority would be an incredibly effective way to not do anything,” he said. “Our housing crunch is driven by a bunch of issues we can’t control, like global demand and federal tax structure. But issues we can control also drive it – from how much commercial and lodging development we are allowing to how much housing we are zoning for and building. We really need to focus on those issues and just get the Housing Authority structure set up in a way that is the least politicized and is going to be the most effective.”

Tax and spend

The political debate now is how to fund housing and transportation relief in Teton County. A community priorities fund has been established as a policymaking piggy bank. Electeds are being extremely cautious in how they intend to approach voters next summer when a penny of special excise tax (SPET) is set to expire. A SPET ballot consisting solely of a $20 to $30 million item earmarked for housing and transportation projects could be put in front of voters in May or August. An added penny of general tax could also be proposed. Each has its own merits and downsides.

The SPET option was not considered in the Alliance research. Benjamin, instead, backs an increase in general sales tax.

“SPET is set up to fund specific projects. From a policy perspective, SPET doesn’t really work to fund housing investments in an ongoing fashion, and it works even more poorly in transportation because you are looking at salaries and the like,” Benjamin said. “If we want to fund Phase II of the bus barn or Phase III of The Grove, [SPET] works really well. But if we want to have a program that is designed to, say, get 50 units of affordable housing on the ground then having that ongoing revenue stream you can plan and budget on is a way more efficient for government to get more done.”

Stanford as well has been adamant about SPET’s inherent inability to fund operational costs after it runs out.“I don’t think [SPET] is the proper means of funding it. It is sort of a half measure,” Stanford said. “SPET was designed for specific capital projects and not for ongoing operation and maintenance. We saw it firsthand with the library when voters approved an [$8.5 million] expansion and then the library couldn’t staff the newly expanded wing.”

Using SPET might also disenfranchise other organizations looking to get their projects on the ballot next year. Central Wyoming College, St. John’s Medical Center, and a wildlife highway-crossing proposal are some of the potential uses for SPET money. If electeds go the SPET route, any other potential users would likely be shut out.

“I’m still waiting to see the full range of projects that are out there. I’ve only seen some sales pitches,” Stanford said. “Based on the interest I’ve heard about, I think there would be a lot of people disappointed if the lion’s share of SPET was taken up with housing and transportation. We also have many unresolved things like the landslide, the transfer station, state lands in the park, and the Parks & Rec shop expansion.”

Other electeds are concerned less with the best use of a new tax and more with which option will be an easier sell at the polls.

“Clearly it would be easiest to get a longer term, more predictable funding source – and that’s a penny of sales tax,” Flitner said. “But my gut feeling is our community wants to see what we are going to do with the money. In reading my crystal ball, conventional wisdom tells me we have the best chance to do something for housing and transportation if we don’t raise taxes, and if we have accountability with checks and balances.”

Allen also prefers SPET for the specificity. An additional penny of sales tax would be labeled as “housing and transportation” reserves but would truthfully be added to the town and county general fund, explained town administrator Bob McLaurin during a recent JIM meeting. It would be up to electeds and staff to make sure it truly was spent on housing and transportation.

“I would be leaning toward the SPET for this election. Government and the new structure is going to have to prove to the public that it will perform,” Allen said. “SPET holds government accountable a little more specifically than a general penny, which we wouldn’t necessarily be bound by.”

Commissioner Paul Vogelheim has been staunchly opposed to raising taxes for seven years. “I’m not a fan of a general sales tax increase. I’ve fought hard against it,” he said. “I don’t think we have earned the right to ask the voters for an increase in sales tax based on our approach to housing thus far. I would be OK with putting housing and transportation on SPET, though.”

Bearing the brunt

Benjamin doesn’t deny voters have the right to know and trust where their money is going, but he thinks electeds too often pass the buck when tough decisions have to be made. “We believe our elected representatives have a responsibility to come up with a solid plan for what these investments would be. That’s their job to come up with a good plan,” Benjamin said. “As a community, we’ve made around $200 million in infrastructure investments through SPET in the last few decades but we have not correspondingly increased operational revenue to fund that new infrastructure. So right now we have this situation where our local government is bursting at the seams in that they have all of these new things – that we like and that we voted for – that they are really struggling with how they are going to pay for moving forward.”

For voters feeling uneasy about a general sales tax increase binding future political leaders and possibly being misspent, Stanford pointed to the town’s strong track record of financial discipline.

Still, it’s about appearances. Marketing a tax increase to the public is touchy, even given the Alliance poll results, which suggest the community is ready to back their beefs with bucks. While the debate continues, so too does real hardship. The FM3 survey was conducted March 19 through April 10, 2015 – before Jackson was neck-deep in traffic and housing wanted ads. Town and county leaders are mulling their own poll to test the waters. Benjamin thinks the results will only be more favorable for a tax increase now.

“It was the quiet season then [when the survey was conducted]. Just speculating, but we do believe we would see a much stronger concern after the summer we just had,” Benjamin said. “And if these numbers were where they were during the quiet time, when there wasn’t a lot of traffic and the housing crunch wasn’t yet that bad, well, that tells us something as well.” PJH

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