THE BUZZ: Gimme Shelter

By on April 4, 2017

Town council moves forward with an ordinance that would alter affordable housing standards on apartment complexes.

Council members ponder an LDR amendment proposed by the developers of Sagebrush Apartments.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In a rather unexpected turn of events, town council voted unanimously to draft an ordinance that would exempt new apartment buildings of 20 rental units or more from LDR affordable housing standards. So, rather than designating at least 25 percent of a development to affordable housing, all new rental units could be leased at market value. The concern among some councilors was that without deed restrictions, there is little to stop landlords from suddenly increasing rents and pricing out the “workforce” members these complexes are supposed to house.

The decision was the second housing action item the council has taken in as many months—it approved funding for the Housing Trust’s Redmond Hall affordable housing rental units in March. While last night’s vote does not advance a specific housing project, restaurateur Joe Rice is counting on the text amendment to break ground on his 90-unit Sagebrush Apartment complex on West Broadway. And the point of the amendment, proponents argue, is to get more housing units on the ground.

The vote also occurred moments—well, hours, but moments in government time—after a discussion about workforce camping sites reminded electeds just how dire the town’s housing shortage is. Mayor Pete Muldoon reminisced of the recent summers he spent sleeping in an RV. Providing legal camping sites in town, he argued, is a safe alternative to having people drive out to Curtis Canyon late at night. The conversation will continue in an April 17 workshop.

Ensuring homes are affordable

Time and time again, lack of affordable housing is identified as one of the biggest crises the town and county and its residents face. Teton County Public Health identified insecure housing as a public health issue, and last summer more than 100 people participated in Shelter JH’s housing march. The community has repeatedly expressed a need for more workforce housing, and town council, it seems, is making housing a priority.

Monday night’s meeting was also perhaps a lesson in the myriad approaches the town must take to address such a pressing issue. Subsidized affordable housing, like Redmond Hall, is great, said former mayor Mark Barron, but it cannot be the only solution. “If we think only taxpayers are going to provide the housing we need, we’re fooling ourselves,” Barron said.

Councilman Don Frank, who was absent in the last meeting and whose vote consultant Christine Walker and Joe Rice counted on, likened passing the amendment to dipping your toe in the water—there’s no reason not to try something new, he said. “You can talk about building a house, or you can build a house.”

Still, Muldoon and Councilman Jim Stanford were wary of the long-term implications of the text amendment. “I’m very concerned about the unintended consequences,” Muldoon said. Consequences, Stanford went on to outline, like rent hikes and apartment resale forcing people out of their homes.

What do people who have been priced out of their homes do? Stanford asked. “They come to town council to ask for help. And we can’t help them without deeds restrictions.”

Stanford said that letting the private sector do their thing is a temporary fix, at best. But over time, “the only thing that ensures affordability is deed restriction.”

Ultimately arguments in favor of the text amendment were strong enough to persuade Muldoon and Stanford to vote in favor. The version they passed, however, has a number of strings attached that make the amendment perhaps more palatable, and less risky, than previous drafts.

First, Frank suggested amending the definition of “apartment complexes” to buildings with 20 or more units, instead of the original 10 (for comparison, the Grove Phase I is 20 units). New unrestricted apartment complexes could not allow for short-term rentals. Frank also proposed a “sunset” that would allow electeds to reevaluate and perhaps eliminate the amendment in five years. Finally, owners of all new apartment complexes would be required to issue an annual report to the town council, so the council could monitor claims that apartments are inherently “workforce housing.”

“I’m persuaded,” Stanford said after hearing Frank’s suggestions. “Councilman Frank worked really hard to craft a compromise to eliminate long-term risks.”

Picking up the pace

Throughout the text amendment campaign, proponents argued that dense apartment complexes are inherently affordable. It is perhaps worth noting, however, that Teton County’s median rent in 2016 was $1,800 per month. It is the second highest amount among ski towns (Aspen, Colorado, is No. 1 with median rents at $1,950). The national median, meanwhile, is $1,164.

For some, that still only leaves them the option of shacking up in their car for a summer. Electeds and town staff are still weighing options to provide legal car camping sites to the town’s seasonal workforce. The conversation will continue in an April 17 workshop, but councilor Hailey Morton-Levinson said time is of the essence.

“You have to get it right the first time,” Morton-Levinson said. She reminded her fellow councilors that this was the “third year in a row we’ve talked about this in April or May.” While she would like to see something come of these conversations, she thinks they take at least a year. “We should start the conversation now, for next summer,” she said.

Monday’s conversation about workforce camping made for a powerful transition into LDR text amendments. While car camping is a temporary fix for seasonal workers, Frank said, building apartments actually puts roofs over peoples’ heads.

“The [text amendment] is an opportunity to take real action on housing that is clean, new, affordable, decent, and doesn’t contemplate people sleeping in parking lots,” he said. “I don’t want to look at a future where every year, we ask if people will be living in their cars.”

The battle isn’t completely won yet. The revised text amendment will undergo a series of three ordinance readings, beginning at an April 17 town hall meeting. PJH

[This story has been amended—the text amendment will not be enacted until it undergoes three ordinance readings.]

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