THE BUZZ 2: Storm Blows Roof off Housing Crisis

By on January 17, 2017

How a community of commuters hurts Jackson Hole during emergency situations.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – A winter storm that hampered access to the valley last week highlighted this area’s enduring housing crisis. From START Bus and schools to the service industry, Jackson was scrambling while its commuter population could not get to work.

Barry Staples is a START Bus driver who lives in town. “We had seven drivers that couldn’t get to work from either end. That meant the commuter buses were not running. That, in turn, means that many individuals that take the commuter buses also did not make it to work.”

Transit director Darren Brugmann confirmed Staples’ stories of START’s current squeeze. He said START is no different from other employers in town. “Many of our employees travel to work on our own buses,” Brugmann said. “We’re at the whim of mother nature also.”   

Schools were also affected. For the first time since 1979, Teton County School District closed its doors partially due to a lack of essential staff to drive school buses and to open the schools. According to Teton County School District spokeswoman Charlotte Reynolds, almost 30 percent of the 495 people who work for the district live outside of the county.

Indeed, employers all over town felt the crunch last week when workers countywide couldn’t get to work. But people like Christine Walker, workforce housing solutions consultant for Navigate, said this should not be surprising. “When we have such a large percentage of our workers living outside, of course there will be problems,” she said. “Hopefully this will be a wake up call for people to support housing solutions. It’s not that difficult to say ‘yes’ to something, such as a 1 percent sales tax to provide housing to people that’s safe, warm, and welcoming.”

The exact number of people who commute into the valley is hard to quantify, Walker noted, but approximately 40 percent of the workforce is coming from elsewhere.

According to the Town of Jackson’s most recent workforce numbers, 47 percent of its full- and part-time staff lives outside of the county, that’s 53 of 112 employees. And of the town’s critical response workers, 57 percent are beyond the county’s borders, 36 of its 63 critical workers.

But just focusing on critical workers is problematic. People tend to think in terms of critical service providers as most affected, Walker noted, and not of the people who live paycheck-to-paycheck and who lost a day or two of work due to the storm. That could make or break a family, she said.

Preventing shutdowns, Walker explained, like last week, is “typically why government gets involved in housing—to maintain a local workforce with housing that is affordable to them.”

Given Jackson’s tourism based economy, it has even more “essential” workers because even when things shut down the tourists are still here.

Adam Barton, a SkyWest employee at Jackson Hole Airport, has commuted from Victor for six years. “This is the first winter since I’ve been here that it’s been a real issue,” he said. “Usually they close Teton Pass in the evening, but it’s been closed in the mornings and during the day.”

However, Barton says he has it relatively easy, unlike some of his friends who work in restaurants. He said the airline doesn’t punish employees who can’t get in or are late due to closures (though they don’t get paid). And, he said, other establishments, like restaurants, require their employees to use an alternative route. “That would bother me if my employer forced me to [drive through the canyon]. It’s two and a half hours each way instead of 45 minutes,” Barton lamented. “And to ask a lot of people to drive in those conditions, especially if you’re part-time?”

Some are trying to learn from last week’s town shutdown. Rich Ochs, Teton County’s emergency management coordinator, hopes to use last week’s scenario as a planning tool.

“We don’t have a good handle on it,” Ochs admitted, regarding how the valley’s various departments are affected by the closures of all major arteries.

“The situation we had last week was bad. Although we lost [Highways] 191, 22 and 89 due to the snowstorm, it could be wildfires, earthquakes, landslides, a dam failure in the future. We could have things happen any time of year,” Ochs said.

The landslide in the canyon, Ochs added, took weeks to clear. “This could be a good place to draw on lessons learned and to share best practices for different folks. What is their plan for continuity of operation?”

He’s asking department heads to determine what routes impact their services the most in order to plan for the future. As people are getting pushed out of Idaho as housing prices increase there, Ochs says more people, especially hospital workers and patients, are commuting through Hoback Canyon, making that artery more important than in the past. The Cliff Creek fire this summer, which forced closure of the canyon, Ochs noted, revealed that.

Locally drained

Another issue is providing relief for the critical response workers who do live in town and are forced to work nonstop when others are locked out. “We start to see the fatigue set in with all the overtime,” Ochs said.

Some of the more important people to have on the job, he said, are dispatchers, but they have a symbiotic relationship with responders. “Right now, we’re just lucky to have dispatchers living in the town and county.”

But Ochs says it’s hard to get continuity of operation plans in place for situations, such as last week’s storm, because personnel is in a constant state of flux due to high job turnover. “They move because they can’t afford to live here, it makes it really hard to plan.”

And lacking personnel, he said, compounds hazards. “Call volume goes up when roads are bad, but if no one is there to be sent out then calls just mount.”

Law enforcement was strained too on a day when emergency responders were more necessary than usual. The sheriff’s department was seriously understaffed. Lieutenant Tom Combs rattled off a list of those who could not make it to work: two patrol deputies, one patrol supervisor, two detectives, two detention officers, three court security deputies, and two civilian support personnel. “Fortunately no critical incidents took place,” Combs said, “however, with only two deputies on the road and a large number of collisions, all calls for service had significant delays and no follow-up was conducted in cases pending in investigations as there were no detectives.”

Worst-case scenario for a day like last Monday, he said, would be if there were a major criminal offense, injury of fatal collision, or multiple Search and Rescue calls with insufficient responders.

But Combs isn’t optimistic the community will be able to adequately address the housing issue. “As personnel who have been able to live within the community for many years retire, we will continue to see a decline in the number of essential personnel living here.”

Combs said safety is paramount and increasing the number of personnel always working and able to respond is a realistic but costly solution. He said if Jackson can’t accommodate its workforce and housing costs are rising in Teton Valley, Alpine, and Star Valley, where many responders live, the next objective is to keep people as close as possible, but not even that is fool proof as last week demonstrated.

“The other solution is for our community to seek ways to build truly ‘affordable’ housing developments if possible,” Combs said.

The town didn’t have a full crew of its employees either, including police officers, but they managed. “We were short,” said Jackson town manager Bob McLaurin. “There are 17 houses that we own. We had employees, not our full contingent but we were getting by.”

Recognizing the need to focus on the valley’s housing woes, the same day the storm shut things down, town and county officials unanimously voted to give Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust $1.95 million dollars for its Redmond and Hall affordable housing project. The project will provide 28 affordable rental units and has been in the works since 2013. There will be another vote in February for a final approval.

JH Community Housing Trust executive director Anne Cresswell said the storm highlighted the need for projects like Redmond and Hall. “We just have to start taking actions, making investments, making decisions, moving the ball forward—it’s never going to be perfect.”

Regarding last Monday’s meeting, Councilman Jim Stanford said, “It couldn’t have been a more fitting backdrop for that discussion.” Stanford says staffing shortages touched the entire community. “That’s why you need deed-restricted affordable housing that the town and county employees can have access to, as well as other pillars of the community.”

Though Stanford added that this kind of weather was at one time commonplace and people made do. “People just aren’t used to this. Twenty years ago, the pass would be closed the better part of a week.” He cited the growing demand for high quality services and the simultaneous refusal to allot resources to providing them. “We’ve gotten really spoiled with the canyon and pass being open. There’s only so much people can do.”

The town did receive some complaints from people, McLaurin noted, but he too said a lot of people just haven’t lived here long enough to remember “a good old-fashioned storm.”

“Everybody here does the job that needs to be done,” he said. “It’s a problem, it’s not the first time, won’t be the last.”

McLaurin says the town is working overtime, not just during last week’s storm, but in general. Snow removal is paramount in preparation for the next storm. The town is running out of places to put it all, which adds to the budget, as the town must hire contractors to haul snow away. He pointed to the snow pile at the rodeo grounds which has grown to enormous heights, where a small bulldozer has been working near constantly pushing snow higher and higher up the man-made mountain. PJH

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