THE BUZZ 2: Housing Watch

By on May 2, 2017

Council moves closer to relaxing affordable housing standards while continuing discussion on workforce camping.

Before Jackson’s workforce camping solutions including RVs and motor vehicles.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – As summer approaches and the town braces itself for record-breaking visitation, relaxing affordable housing standards and workforce camping remain housing items on center stage.

The text amendment exempting new apartment buildings of 20 units or more from affordable housing standards made it to third reading at Monday’s town council meeting. It was the second-to-last hurdle the ordinance had to pass before it becomes law.

Restaurateur Joe Rice and housing consultant Christine Walker introduced the text amendment with a specific project in mind: a 90-unit apartment complex on 550 West Broadway. Rather than apply for individual exemptions from affordable housing standards, however, Rice and Walker decided to challenge Land Development Regulations for all future high-density apartment buildings. Doing so, they argued, would incentivize developers to build more apartment buildings and make a dent on the housing supply.

The amendment was initially contested among electeds, even those who supported Rice’s development. Mayor Pete Muldoon and Councilman Jim Stanford worried that deed restrictions, which mandate that 25 percent of new developments be designated “affordable” housing, are the only way to ensure that housing units actually remain affordable. Walker contested that high-density apartment buildings are inherently affordable and workforce occupied, and that adding more supply will increase market rent value throughout town.

The ordinance in question last night includes amendments of its own that helped alleviate Muldoon’s and Stanford’s concerns. The original amendment proposed exemptions for buildings of more than 10 units. Muldoon changed it to 20, arguing that extra density will dissuade wealthy second-home types from moving in. The ordinance also has a five-year sunset clause, giving future councils the ability to evaluate it in five year’s time, and adjust or rescind as necessary.

While the council unanimously supported the ordinance as it was presented Monday night, Teton County School District board chair Kate Mead reminded councilors that each new unit of housing added to the town also adds approximately two new students to the district. She cautioned of a snowball effect: new housing leads to new families, which necessitates more housing and schools. “Every time we do this, we get a lot more kids in the community,” she said. “People get upset.”

“There’s a sort of blindness about what the ultimate impacts are,” Mead said. “People want housing, businesses want housing, because they don’t want to pay their employees enough to live here … An apartment building sounds great, but it doesn’t come without impacts.”

Former mayor Mark Barron, who has supported the amendment from the beginning and voiced his support at every opportunity, said that while Mead’s argument may be true, “I’m not sure that’s a completely fair concern.” Most of those new kids, he said, come from outside of Jackson, while the goal of this project is to house families that already live and work here. “I’m asking you not to put another barrier up to getting some apartments built,” he said.

Barron said that he had just watched town councilors “sweat bullets” over a conversation about workforce camping. “You’re bending over backwards for workforce housing,” he said, and every piece of evidence he has seen suggests that market rental apartments are affordable. “I would ask you to really consider this strongly,” Barron said. “Do you really want to add a barrier, or do you want to add workforce housing?”

Housing, err car camping for all

Councilors did, in fact, discuss workforce car and RV camping again during Monday’s meeting, but no definitive action was taken. The discussion will continue at the May 15 meeting, and all councilors but Hailey Morton-Levinson expressed tentative support for a pilot program this summer.

“I’d like to see it go forward with more information, and whatever else we need to get it going,” said Councilman Bob Lenz.

If it were implemented this summer, the pilot program would allow for overnight camping in a designated parking area. Campers would have to reserve their spot in advance, provide proof of employment, and pay a full summer’s deposit and campsite fees totaling $2,700. Originally, staff proposed using the lot in between the Rec Center and the Home Ranch lot. At Monday’s meeting, Parks and Rec director Steve Ashworth proposed allotting 13 camper spots in the town lot behind the Rec Center and Davey Jackson Elementary School. Those spots, he said, would grant campers access to water and limited power, but at a cost to the town. Pumping sewage and grey water would cost approximately $6,000, and electrical hookups could cost up to $30,000.

While no one offered public comment on the workforce camping discussion Monday night, the issue has been hotly debated for years now. Morton-Levinson said her objections to this year’s program are the same as they were last year: It’s too late in the game to implement anything successful for this summer. The town only has one chance to get it right, she said. “I still think there are too many things up in the air, too many items I’m not comfortable with. It’s going to tax staff to get it up and going for this summer.” Instead, Morton-Levinson said she would like to see this discussion continue in the summer of 2018.

But proponents argue that something as simple as allowing people to sleep in their cars would alleviate a lot of stress for seasonal workers. It would save them the hassle of driving up to Curtis Canyon late every night, or being woken up by law enforcement in the middle of the night because they were parked illegally. Lieutenant Cole Nethercott said he’s often fairly lenient on people sleeping in public parking lots, but “if we had a place to refer them to, it would certainly be helpful. Anything is.”

Frank agreed that the proposal wasn’t “fully baked,” but said he could support a “minimal” pilot program where “all we have to do is master leases and electricity.” His main concern was cost. Grey water and septic tanks, he said, are usually the campers’ responsibility. Why not keep it that way and save money?  “The sanitary condition of campers is the responsibility of the person that owns the camper,” he said.

Muldoon echoed Frank’s concerns, and said that as an “RV owner and previous resident” himself, the most important thing to provide is electricity. “I’m hopeful there’s a way to do this with a lower level of capital investment,” he said. “Electric is the main thing, but some very low level. You don’t need 30 amps.”

Not everyone was on board with the new location. Stanford said he preferred the original site, and would be even happier with a spot outside of town. He said he could “support information gathering for a pilot program, and could even support a pilot program, but I’m not sure this is the best location.”

Muldoon wants to keep working on a plan that could be implemented this summer. He plans to take a look at the site this week, and said he would meet with Ashworth and town manager Bob McLaurin to work out details for a simplified program.

If the council were to move forward with a pilot program for this summer, they would need to pass an ordinance allowing for overnight camping in designated sites. PJH

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