THE BUZZ: This Is Home

By on June 7, 2016

Council stays the course to limit commercial development as citizens show up in droves for rally.

Residents of all stripes marched in the name of housing during a rally organized by Shelter JH on Monday. People began in town square and walked to town hall as a flurry of motorists honked their horns in support. Folks then spoke outside of town chambers and at the 6 p.m. town council meeting, where commercial zoning in the downtown’s core was the main agenda item. (Photo: Robyn Vincent)

Residents of all stripes marched in the name of housing during a rally organized by Shelter JH on Monday. People began in town square and walked to town hall as a flurry of motorists honked their horns in support. Folks then spoke outside of town chambers and at the 6 p.m. town council meeting, where commercial zoning in the downtown’s core was the main agenda item. (Photo: Robyn Vincent)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – “I want people to know we are listening, we will work to fix what is broken. [In Jackson] we are a cardiac patient. We are bleeding out in ways we haven’t seen before.”

These words from Jackson Mayor Sara Flitner illustrate the efficacy of citizen involvement concerning housing solutions.

The mayor’s remarks came during the standing room only town council meeting on Monday, June 6, where the first of three readings took place to finalize rezoning of downtown’s District 2. Approximately 100 residents attended the meeting, many of them to urge their town leaders to take emergency action on housing.

Their impact was clear. “This is a moment that defines who we are,” said councilman Don Frank.

Proposed District 2 land development regulations limit commercial building. District 2 includes the commercial core and much of the length of Pearl Avenue, plus blocks along Broadway and Cache near the town square.

But even with pressure from the Chamber of Commerce and various business leaders, including the lobbying group Think About it, JH, to reconsider or at least amend District 2’s final draft, the council didn’t budge. Instead elected officials fine-tuned a few items in the proposal with the intent of moving it forward quickly. Monday’s meeting included the first of three readings needed to enact the proposal into law. The second and third readings will take place June 20 and July 5.

“This is hard work,”Flitner said. “We are working nonstop to put a dent in this problem. We will not solve it unless we are working together.”

Working together is precisely the intent of Shelter JH, a grassroots campaign focused on galvanizing action on long and short-term housing solutions. Shelter JH organized a march and rally prior to Monday’s meeting. Shelter JH co-organizer and Community Resource Center director Mary Cobb-Erickson said the intention of the rally was to be inclusive and bring people together around housing solutions.

“We hope that this rally is the birth of a much larger campaign—YIMBY, or Yes In My Backyard,” Erickson said. “This community strongly supports housing.”

Preceding the town council meeting, a diverse group of about 50 people braved rain and hail to march from the town square to town hall carrying signs and cheering: “What do we want? Housing. When do we want it? Now.”

Francisca Moreno-Reyes attended the rally. She and her husband and two children live at the Virginian Village Apartments but are facing eviction next month. “We have not found a place to live,” she said ast ears filled her eyes.

Another resident of the Virginian Apartments, Aaron Feuerstein, the chef de cuisine at Trio and a 10-year valley resident, has to leave his apartment in less than two months at the height of the summer season. “Housing is not a Hispanic problem,” Feurestein said. “It’s a community problem.”

Artist and activist Aaron Wallis, who has lived in Jackson for nine years, added levity to the rally by marching with his “Sotheby’s Luxury Property” made from a cardboard box and plastic bag, decorated like a house.

“I feel like Jackson is getting hollowed out from the inside,” Wallis said. “It’s becoming a playground for the affluent. I’ve been homeless three times since I’ve lived in Jackson. You can’t have community without housing.”

Prior to the council meeting, rally attendees spoke about their struggles to find secure housing in Jackson. Eleven-year-old Ventura Garcia Perez, now a well-known figure in the campaign for affordable housing, spoke to the crowd.

“I live at the Virginian Apartments. But not for long,” Garcia Perez said. “We are still looking for a home. I used to have many friends nearby who wanted to play outside. Now all of them have moved away. It’s been hard finding a home that is not too expensive. Many families are struggling to pay rent. I wish people who have the power to make decisions for this town could give more opportunity to people who struggle to have things they need.”

Once inside the town council chambers, the mood shifted from spirited to subdued. The room filled with even more concerned citizens. Children sat on the floor at their parents’ feet, holding signs reading: “It’s not a crisis, it’s an emergency,” and “Homelessness is here in Jackson.”

Elisabeth Trefonas spoke about the housing crisis as a resident, an employer, and an immigration lawyer. Trefonas is supervising assistant public defender in Teton and Sublette counties, and is the only full-time public defender in the area. She said she is unsure if she can afford to stay in Jackson. She spoke of losing her best paralegal because that employee couldn’t find an affordable place to live after rent increased at Blair Place apartments.

“I’ve had several clients in jail ask if they could stay there because they had no place to go,” Trefonas said. “One client got permission from a church to sleep on their lawn. That worked well until the sprinklers came on in the middle of the night. He had two jobs but no place to be. He asked if there was a way he could go back to jail. Do you know how absurd that is?

“We are begging for your help,” Trefonas said, fighting back tears. “Please, do your job.”

Mayoral hopeful and Shelter JH co-organizer Pete Muldoon thanked the Council for their work on the District 2 zoning plan and urged the leaders to pass the current ordinance without amendment. He then spoke about the emergency housing recommendations that Shelter JH had brought to the meeting.

“We’re hoping that this rally will help not only our elected officials, but our community at large to understand and acknowledge the actual housing emergency in Jackson right now,” Muldoon said. “The next step will be for the town council to put in the time and effort to have a real, honest, in-depth discussion of possible short-term solutions, and to see if any of them could be effective. Planning staff has put good work into possible options, and Shelter JH has done so as well. We’re standing by ready to support you, but only you have the power to act.”

Cobb-Erickson provided the council with a signed copy of a memo with Shelter JH’s recommendations that included trailer towns, overnight RV parking lots, overnight street parking, driveway parking, and VRBO-style worker rental by owner. “We are aware that each of the emergency housing recommendations will attract immediate and loud ‘no’ responses from community members opposed to these recommendations happening ‘in their backyard,’” the memo reads. “Shelter JH respectfully asks you to consider the need and to listen to the members of the community who haven’t been heard.”

Later in the meeting, proponents of increased commercial and more powerful development tools in District 2 offered public comment. Chamber of Commerce president Jeff Golightly kept his remarks upbeat as he expressed concern that the proposal might not generate as much workforce housing as anticipated and could cause sprawl. Former mayor Mark Barron emphatically supported Golightly’s remarks, and appeared frustrated that the council was moving ahead with rezoning as-is.

Jay Varley said he won’t be able to develop his properties with the underground parking he values if the proposed rezoning went forward. Hotel Jackson owner Jim Darwiche tried to convince the council that workers don’t need to live in town because they enjoy driving an hour to work. “They love it,” Darwiche said.

The day after the meeting, councilor Jim Stanford said that the voices from Shelter JH have been heard loud and clear. “I’ve been listening intently from the first forum in April [when the eviction notices were served at the Virginian Apartments]. It made a deep impression on me and I’ve been looking for ways to help.”

Stanford also noted that the Town of Jackson has been working on affordable housing for the past three years, including a unique partnership with the Housing Trust for 28 units on Redmond and Hall. To date, the Town has contributed $1.65 million into the project and is looking to invest another $2 million. PJH

About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

You must be logged in to post a comment Login