FEATURE: Houses of the Holy

By on May 3, 2016

Striving to get ahead, get a home, in the poverty of paradise lost.


JACKSON HOLE, WY – Last summer was a preview. The hell unleashed on the valley’s quality of life included traffic jams, rising crime rates, and impossible wait times on everything from an ambulance to appetizers. It was clear evidence of a community bursting at the seams with wealth and want.

And it will get worse before it gets better.

“If you think we had a crisis last summer, hold on to your hats,” Smokey Rhea said. The commissioner who once manned the front lines at the Community Resource Center said she and her fellow electeds are working feverishly to come up with solutions. No idea, no matter how far-fetched, including tent city labor camps and regular buses to an added bedroom community as far away as Pinedale, has been left off the table.

Government answers have been hampered by a lack of funds and a present subsidized housing project so maligned in the media it has caused the disintegration of the very organization designed to help build affordable housing. The private sector has done little to help, historically, and even those willing say government red tape makes it impossible. And then there’s the “haves.” When land near homeowners is identified as potentially suitable for workforce housing, they cry “anywhere but here.”

May Day, May Day!

May is the cruelest month in Jackson. As the valley greens up, so, too, do the bank accounts of businessmen and property owners. Motels toss hundreds of locals into the streets as they prepare to once again lodge the visitor. Landlords jack rents or just plain evict month-to-month tenants, legally, as the prospect of banking a month’s rent in one weekend is too good to pass up.

If the annual spring shuffle isn’t taxing enough, add to that the eviction of some 300 renters from the Virginian Apartments as that complex undergoes redevelopment.

Mary Erickson, the director of the Community Resource Center (CRC), called the Virginian ordeal a “wake up call.” And she, for one, is getting tired of hearing how it’s always been tough to make a go of it in Jackson.

“I hear that a lot: ‘We’ve always had a housing problem,’” Erickson said. “Well, I think the nature of it has changed. Low-wage workers used to mean seasonal workers out of college. More and more we now have a year-round community of low-wage earners that have families. That’s a very different dynamic than where we were 20 or 30 years ago. Then you have compounding problems like evictions, rent increases—and soon you are squeezing more and more people into less and less space.”

CRC conducted an informal poll amongst 26 of the 56 units at the Virginian Apartments. It identified a demographic far more engaged in the community than typical couch surfing college kids. The average tenant has been living in the apartment complex for 10.5 years. They have spouses and children, and hold down multiple jobs at restaurants, hotels, construction firms and grocery stores. All but one said they had no idea where they will go when they are tossed out. The ‘one’ was a single mother of three. She said she is returning to Mexico where there is more opportunity.

Rosie Read, one of two immigration lawyers in town, said she sees the homeless daily and faced the prospect herself once since her arrival to Jackson 16 years ago.

“My clients are being squeezed beyond their limits and are being forced out. Their rent is going up 40 percent and the Virginian is closing,” Read said. “With every one of these crises that keep hitting this community, there are more and more people vying for less and less places. And it’s not just my clients, but I was almost out of a home a couple of years ago because my landlord decided maybe he was going to rent to a friend for more than I was able to pay. I had nowhere to go and if I leave I don’t know who does my job. This is affecting every socio and economic segment of the population.”

Town and county officials discuss housing woes at the May 2015 Housing Summit. (Photo: teton  county)

Town and county officials discuss housing woes at the May 2015 Housing Summit. (Photo: teton  county)

Tenant tenets

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Whether to Star or Teton valleys, or gone for good, the soul of Jackson Hole goes to bed at night in another county or state. On Monday, newspapers announced the departure of two key town employees to Victor, Idaho. They weren’t the first to ditch their commute for quiet. They won’t be the last.

Dozens of longtime residents have fled. They were business owners, teachers, nurses, first responders—people who make this community what it is, said 18-year resident Jorge Moreno.

Moreno was homeless before he landed a place at Blair Apartments. He was nearly bounced from there last summer along with his wife and two kids when his rent increased from $1,250 to $1,800. He said things like that are causing people to leave the valley.

“Everybody says we have a crisis. I believe we have an emergency,” Moreno said. “I know fear and anger drive this discussion. But have you felt what it’s like to be evicted, to be told you are not going to be able to have a place to support your family?”

Even those that manage to scratch out a living here are barely hanging on. One caretaker, who wished to not be identified, said she lives in a place rent-free but it’s not without its challenges.

“My friends think I’m so lucky that I don’t pay rent, but I pay about $1,500 a month in bills that would typically be the responsibility of the property owner. I pay utilities of course, but also snow and trash removal, landscaping, maintenance—it adds up,” she said. “Also, the owners visit Jackson Hole more frequently than they used to. When they fly in for a week or two to visit, or any of their friends or family come, I have to get out. Me, my cats, any trace of my living there has to be erased. This is often in the summer. There is nowhere to go then. In all, I have to move four or five times a year; put my stuff in storage and sleep in my car for a week or two at a time. I have a place and I’m thankful for that, but pure joy? Not always.”

Other renters live in constant fear of ticking off their landlord in some way.

“Your rental is never secure,” said one resident. He didn’t want to be named for fear of losing his place, a $1,200 studio, 40 minutes from town. “I’ve done favors for my landlord that were originally in exchange for rent. I watch their pets when they are out of town, or I plow the drive occasionally, or I fix things all the time, myself, with my own money. I used to get rent knocked off for these things but I stopped even asking for that. I have a month-to-month lease and I don’t want to jeopardize anything or do anything that could make my landlord throw me out or jack the rent for summer.”

That renter originally found his place two years ago for $800. When summer came, the landlord hiked the rent another $200 a month. The same thing happened last summer.

“I know a lot of people that really sweat their situation every May when a landlord could easily double the rent for the next five months. They’re happy to have your monthly check in November or April, but by July they act like you are stealing from them,” he said.

Elena Hernandez said the same thing. “If something is not working and we [complain], they say, ‘Get out of here, then.’ So my husband and I fix the apartment with our own money,” she said. “I’ve been 14 years living in the Virginian Apartments and now I am homeless. I don’t know what I can do. My husband and I have both have two jobs and we are helping our son pay for college. We can’t move further away to Victor or Alpine because we work so much.”

Classified crisis

The Chamber of Commerce has been taking a temperature of the valley by looking at the classifieds. One glance and it’s easy to determine whether we are in a boom or bust cycle. Column inches devoted to Want Ads compared to Rentals are at an all-time radical ratio. Pages of jobs flaunt signing bonuses and possible housing. The rental section, on the other hand, is microscopic save for a few “Housing Needed” ads.

“Forget affordable rentals, there are no rentals. Period,” said Stacy Stoker, who heads the management side of the partially defunct Housing Authority. “It’s pretty much a zero percent vacancy rate. The only place you can find in the paper maybe is a three-bedroom home in Wilson that’s renting for $4,500 a month and they only want a family so you can’t even get roommates to try and make it work.”

Stoker said Phase I of The Grove went fast. Nearly a hundred households turned out for a lottery on 20 rental units. The Phase II deadline is this week and hundreds more have signed up for the Category 1, 2, and 3 ownership units—23 in all—in that building. Another 89 put in for one available resale unit at 810 West two months ago.

Marisa Watsabaugh had to quit her job at a local property management company. Trying to find housing for new residents grew increasingly difficult until she couldn’t take it anymore. “I took dozens of phone calls that absolutely crushed me,” she said. “People who just got a job in Jackson and were looking for a place to rent. I had to be the one to say, ‘Good luck, I can’t help you.’ Meanwhile I was living on a couch myself. I couldn’t take any more phone calls with that kind of hopelessness.”

Teton County’s housing chart displays the currently unmet goal to locally house 65 percent of the workforce.

Teton County’s housing chart displays the currently unmet goal to locally house 65 percent of the workforce.

Rent to own

Any remedy from Big Brother won’t be coming anytime soon. The Housing Authority’s big chance to make an impact only hastened its demise. By straight math, units at The Grove are subsidized to the tune of more than $400k each. When public outcry over the project reached the ears of commissioners, politicians did everything they could to distance themselves from the albatross.

The Authority was gutted and restructured, with a new board in place on May 1 and a new hire on the way. Stoker will likely remain as the organization’s manager, overseeing the 800 or so units the HA has under its umbrella. Stoker did not apply for the position of director currently being advertised.

“I don’t want that job,” Stoker said. “It’s going to be politically charged. Everything is a fight. It’s going to be a challenging job and it’s going to be difficult, especially with no funding. What are they going to be able to do without any money? Whoever comes in and takes that job, well, more power to them.”

Stoker played the good company soldier. While everyone from her bosses to nonprofits and private citizens raked her and her organization over the coals for The Grove, Stoker took the heat.

“I’m not the kind of person that throws anybody under the bus. I don’t do that,” Stoker said. “I don’t think that Christine [Walker, the project’s original designer and former head of the HA] had any bad intentions. The numbers were what they were based on what we built 525 Hall for. I think the whole thing was an opportunity for people who are anti-Housing Authority, and even anti-affordable housing altogether, to sling mud and that’s what they did.”

Stoker added, “I was born and raised here. I’ve lived here my whole life. I have a huge investment in this community. All the mudslinging that goes on in the newspapers … I don’t care about that stuff. The people who know me, know me. It’s just frustrating when people don’t get the facts correct. Tim Rieser, for example, never set foot in this office. Never one time.”

Rieser has been the most outspoken critic of The Grove. The clamor he instigated reached such a roar that commissioners decided last week to switch horses in midstream, handing off Phase III to a third party charity builder, Habitat for Humanity. Stoker is not convinced the move was a wise one.

“Partly I think it was a political decision. I’m not sure that they really thought out the process that Habitat uses to put people in their units. It’s completely different than how the HA does it. When you are using public money, in my opinion, it should not be a committee that’s deciding and cherry-picking what family gets to go in,” Stoker said. “And what Habitat presented, in my opinion, they didn’t have enough information. They just promised a lot of stuff. I don’t know how they are going to make this happen, I really don’t.”

Stoker also answered Rieser’s claim that the HA attempted to sell off Phase I of The Grove before it was ever completed.

“Yeah, we got a couple of offers on Phase I. We talked to the attorneys and they said we could do it, but the offers were less than it cost to build. But you look at them and you consider it; you should. You can’t just poo-poo it without thinking about it,” Stoker admitted. “Tim said we had secretly listed it. Which to me doesn’t make any sense. When you list something you are advertising it for sale. Secrecy is kind of gone at that point. But the commissioners didn’t have any interest in that and neither did our housing board, really.”

As far as the new structure of the HA, which commissioners and councilors believe will allow them more control over the agency, Stoker insists electeds signed off on every move the Authority ever made.

“There is this perception, and I’ve heard it said, that the Housing Authority went rogue. The truth of the matter is every piece of property that’s ever been purchased or developed by the HA has been approved by the county commissioners,” Stoker said.

As far as more day-to-day control, Stoker says be careful what you wish for. “I don’t know if they know what they are getting themselves into,” she said. “There is a reason why the Authority was created to begin with. It was to put the housing powers that a county has through state statute at arms length so they could stay out of a lot of political backlash. It shields them from having to deal with compliance issues and all of those things that come up that aren’t easy, and they certainly don’t want to be dealing with that on a daily basis. The hardest thing in the world is to make somebody sell their home.”

Deed restricted housing solutions at 810 West. (Photo: teton  county)

Deed restricted housing solutions at 810 West. (Photo: teton  county)

Handcuffing help

Elected officials promise help is on the way. They’ve crunched numbers, called for emergency summits, and churned out enough analytic paperwork to fill a two-bedroom duplex. But government efforts have been stymied by the perception that subsidized housing is too little, too late, for too much money. The private sector says it can help but current development regs have them hamstrung.

One developer says he can help with a shovel-ready project. Another says he has helped. Both claim the town and county say they want housing but don’t act like it.

Eric Grove is proposing an ambitious housing project on an odd acre of hillside property at the ‘Y.’ He wants to build 16 deed-restricted units that he hopes employers will sign long-term leases on to house their employees. In addition, he will construct four market rate homes to pay the bills. The property is the former home of Choice Meats and Thrifty Car Rental. Grove thought asking for a downzone from commercial to residential and offering to help alleviate the housing crunch in the valley would be a hit with the town council.

After unanimous planning commission approval, Grove’s project hit a roadblock called Budge Slide.

“All indicators were this is the kind of thing the community wants. This was an eyesore and I’m trying to make this a nicer looking area with housing for 30-something people,” Grove said. “Now, because of Budge Slide, I’m just being hammered and everyone is scrutinizing the heck out of it. I’m just running into a lot of roadblocks because of that issue. I’m the guinea pig, I’m the whipping boy for that slide.”

Grove said he has spent thousands of dollars on geo reports, soil samples, and water mitigation; all before an assurance from town officials that he’ll even get sketch plan approval. “I’m not a lavish guy. I’m not a developer. I don’t have deep pockets,” Grove said.

He says the location of his project is on a different side of the butte that continues to ooze toward Broadway and conditions there are total distinctly different. He also said he is willing to assume the risks involved in construction there. Grove continues to be frustrated at a costly application process made more burdensome by the emotion surrounding the butte’s perceived instability.

“Are we going to stop development completely around this butte because people now think it’s ready to slide?” he asked. “There was no concern about any of those things when the Search and Rescue building was thrown at me five or six years ago. That just flew right in because it was the agenda of this community to make that happen regardless of what us as neighbors felt. Andy Schwartz [county commissioner at the time] said it to me quite frankly: ‘If it’s for the betterment of the community, we’ll do whatever we want.’ That tells me something.”

Real estate developer Greg Prugh is wrapping up a 12-unit apartment complex near the Brew Pub. It was eight years in the planning grind.

“It starts with zoning, period. We have to be proactive and not reactive. And we need innovation. Do you want parking and landscaping, or housing? You can’t have it both ways. You are either for housing or are you not,” Prugh said. “[The community] just built a $70 million airport expansion. Direct flights to Jackson were a game-changer. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle. We’re on the map. You are going to have to build higher with smaller units and surrender some parking for a walkable community.”

Prugh’s urban redevelopment design ideas are too radical for some, but the developer does have a track record of getting things done. In addition to the redo of the trailer park he is wrapping up, he put the first public-private, affordable housing partnership project on the ground with 810 West. He insists the model of government-owned land with a long-term lease to a developer is the only proven way to get workforce housing on the ground. If land is government owned, housing projects suddenly start penciling for private developers.

“These housing gurus need to partner with private entities to get this stuff done. I heard the Housing Trust wants to raise $9 million to build 26 units. Is that the best use of money?” Prugh said. “Look, we run our office as a business. If we don’t make money, we don’t exist. We operate out of a tiny 600-square-foot office but we will sell almost $40M in the first quarter of this year. You don’t need all the overhead. You need to be lean and mean. Make the Housing Authority a management company concentrating on managing the units they have. What would that take, 75 thousand a year to manage all their units? People don’t want to see their money wasted.”

Anne Cresswell, head of the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust, said she is ready to break ground on the nonprofit’s first-ever rental project. Of the Trust’s 119 homes, only three are currently rentals. The shovel-ready project at Redmond and Hall will put 28 affordable rentals on the ground by next year if Cresswell convinces town councilors to match the Trust’s $6 million with another six. She is scheduled to go before the design review committee on May 11, the planning commission on May 18, and before the council on June 20 with the proposal.

“We are asking the town and county, given the urgency of the issue, to match our six million,” Cresswell said. “They have a lot of means available at their disposal. Bonding powers they haven’t tapped. Both sides of the parking lot have talked about proceeds from sales tax that are eclipsing projections. And the county has purchased a couple of parcels over the last few years, some of which we’ve agreed might not be appropriate for housing development and, if so, we think they should sell those assets to meet the needs of the community that are so urgent.”

Reaction Jackson

The discussion, this story of heartbreak, occurs at the height of every market bubble. In 2007-08, newspaper headlines read much the same. By 2010, the housing crunch was over. Like the tech crash of 2000, the recent housing bubble burst resulted in foreclosures and financial ruin for some. But Jackson Hole rebounds quickly. High-end real estate snaps back rapidly on the strength of better shielded whales seizing opportunity in the marketplace. As quickly as millionaires crash and burn, billionaires are fueling the next boom.

“What we see here is this community is very reactionary,” Stoker said. She’s seen it all before. A tight rental market in the 1980s was eased somewhat with the building of Blair and other apartment complexes. When aging apartments were being condo-ized like crazy 10 years ago, it sent rents skyrocketing until electeds put a moratorium on the practice. “And then the downturn happened and people were saying we don’t need to worry about housing anymore.”

Cresswell has seen the fluctuation as well. When times are good, more rentals are needed to whether the storm. “This June will be 13 years with the Trust for me,” she said. “I’ve seen the pendulum swing two times—in 2008, at the top of the market, it swung from full support for affordable ownership to affordable rentals. Now I think we are seeing it again. It’s a pendulum swing.”

Prugh says a smart and steady approach is needed regardless of the economic climate.

“They say we’ll have to build three Groves per year for the next 10 years to keep up with demand. That’s mathematically impossible. It’s not going to happen,” Prugh said. “But what we should be doing is getting the most units we can in good or bad, regardless of where we are in the economic cycle. We are going to have to be smart about it. Either acknowledge the valley is changing or we suffer.” PJH

About Jake Nichols

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