FEATURE: At Your Service

By on May 9, 2017


JACKSON HOLE, WY – Jack Maguire has lived in Jackson Hole most his life, and worked in the service industry almost as long. But when he returned home from college he saw no other option but to move back in with his parents. For 10 years, he has watched his co-workers sleep in their cars, dodge law enforcement in parking lots and campsites, or cram dozens of people into houses designed for families of four—all while working multiple jobs. He considers himself lucky, he says, that he has a room of his own.

A lack of affordable housing in the valley is neither a new problem nor an undocumented one. Brutal conditions for commuters this winter, combined with an impending historically busy summer, have refueled a series of discussions among electeds and the public about how exactly to house all facets of the population. Many of the solutions focus on “affordable” housing for the valley’s “essential” workers: first responders, teachers, town and county employees. Such solutions, however, tend to exclude who many consider the backbone of Jackson’s economy: service workers.

Essential numbers

By numbers alone, service industry employees are “essential” to Teton County’s economy. As a gateway community to two of the nation’s most renowned national parks, tourism generates millions of dollars in revenue every year. In 2015, visitors to Grand Teton National Park alone contributed more than $700 million to “neighboring communities,” Jackson the largest among them, according to a Chamber of Commerce report. It’s hardly surprising, then, that almost half of Teton County’s wage earners work in the service industry. Of the county’s top 10 largest employers, five of them are service-oriented: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Four Seasons, Xanterra Parks and Resort, Grand Targhee, and Snow King. Seasonal workers add up to 52,000 temporary residents during peak summer seasons to keep up with booming visitation.

But the nature of the work also makes service workers some of the hardest to house. Because it is seasonally dependent, it also encourages a certain transience. Home ownership isn’t an option, and despite efforts to keep up with cost of living, rents are still higher than service wages can afford.

“We’re making $14 to $15 an hour in Jackson, which is still pretty good, but with housing the way it is here you’re looking at definitely above 30 percent of your income paying for housing,” Maguire said.

Many workers have no choice but to live in their cars and camp, often illegally, on national forest land, in parking lots, and on the street.

Affordable housing projects are great, Maguire says, but do little to aid him or his co-workers. Maguire has noticed that such projects often cater to an already privileged demographic. “I’m really happy with what town council has done in terms of trying to get affordable housing to white, middle-class people,” he said. “The town homes through deed restrictions, those are awesome. But as far as service industry workers, they’re below that rate.”

White, middle-class people

Indeed, government subsidized affordable housing projects like the first two phases of the Grove, or the newly funded Redmond Hall units, are marketed for critical responders, government employees, teachers. The target demographic of affordable housing projects is indeed critical, local advocate and Shelter JH co-chair Mary Erickson says, but it’s also middle-class. Such projects are still unaffordable on service industry wages.

Housing advocates agree that one of the biggest challenges in providing affordable housing is product type. Until Redmond Hall, affordable housing projects focused primarily on home ownership—because it’s cheaper, Shelter JH board member Skye Schell says, and the return on investment is higher and more immediate. Rental projects, on the other hand, take time to turn a profit. There’s little incentive for developers to take on a project that could take decades to pay off. Redmond Hall is an affordable rental project, which means that tenants’ incomes cannot exceed 120 percent of the valley’s median income.

For a one-person household, that’s $76,776. By Maguire’s estimates, working even 60 hours a week on service industry wages falls $30,000 short, and qualifying for affordable housing does not guarantee being able to afford it.

The third phase of the Grove is slated to be the exception to this trend. Electeds selected Habitat for Humanity to take over construction of the project, which means that every unit will go to “category one” individuals, said Habitat director Kendra Heimbuck. All Habitat homes are ownership products, but homes are available to people with incomes between 30 to 80 percent of the area’s median income. For a one-person household, that’s $17,850 to $46,600.

Building truly affordable housing for low-income residents is “difficult to do,” Heimbuck said, which is why Habitat relies on volunteers to help build their homes. In fact, one of Habitat’s criteria for applicants is their willingness to partner with Habitat and put in hours of “sweat equity” on their new home.

The Grove’s newest units will look slightly different than the first two phases, Heimbuck said. To keep it affordable, Habitat simplified the structure, kept buildings to two stories, and decreased overall square footage per unit.

There’s another layer to these conversations that often gets overlooked. Race plays into everything, including, or especially, housing, Erickson said.

Schell explained further: In the service industry, there are often two demographics at odds with each other: 20-something white kids, and Latinos. The Latino population comprises much of Jackson’s workforce. They are also often the most vulnerable when it comes to housing.

Jorge Moreno co-founded Shelter JH with Erickson in 2015, and has a handful of theories why. First of all, “most of our poor people, also happen to be Latino,” he said. They are the backbone of the service industry, and often don’t make enough to afford government subsidized housing. And market rents are even higher.

Moreno himself has been victim to the housing crisis a handful of times. He was a tenant at Blair Place Apartments in 2015, when his landlord increased rent by more than 40 percent. Moreno was able to work out a deal then, and split the 40 percent rent hike into two-year increments—20 percent in 2015, 20 percent this year. Now that the second increase has arrived, Moreno doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to afford it. He says if he is forced out of Jackson, he’ll likely leave the valley for good. Living in Victor or Alpine, he said, would be “like a bad marriage for me. Being so close to the place that I love and not being able to engage with it … it’s just gonna kill me.”

Research supports Moreno’s fears. A report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine documents myriad impacts of geographic location on health. One of the factors, it reports, is how living outside of one’s community impacts healthy behavior. Long commutes coupled with long work days puts drivers at risk. Living on the outskirts of a community also limits access to healthcare, and disproportionately restricts such access for low-income earners.

But science aside, multiple road closures this winter demonstrated how difficult and dangerous it can be to live far away from where you work.

Moreno’s initial rent hikes inspired him and Erickson to start Shelter JH, a nonprofit housing advocacy group. One of Shelter’s biggest challenges, advocates agree, is housing the Latino workforce. For many, documentation status makes them ineligible for housing, or afraid to even apply.

But “there is nothing in the law that requires you to present documentation status for a place to live,” Erickson said.

In fact, according to the Fair Housing Amendment Act of 1988, landlords cannot discriminate based on certain things, including race and ethnicity. They could not, then, single out a tenant based on their presumed country of origin. A landlord could, however, require everyone in the building to provide proof of citizenship or residency, which is not a protected status.

But even those with legal status are subject to abuse and exploitation, Moreno said. “A lot of [Latinos] are being taken advantage of not only by employers, but also by other landlords. They’re taking advantage of the necessity of housing.” Landlords, he said, know that their Latino tenants will never complain, “for fear”—fear of being evicted, of documentation status, of a language barrier. The stakes are high. So they tough it out, work multiple jobs to afford rent, and stay quiet. “Those voices are never gonna be heard,” Moreno said. Especially not if they’re being driven out of town.

Constructing community

Longtime locals like Roger Hayden also feel the repercussions of the housing crunch. Hayden has lived in Jackson for 24 years. In that time, he estimates he’s lived in 12 or 13 different places in the valley, including four years in Victor. His most recent relocation last month was the result of a housing domino effect: Hayden was renting a house in East Jackson. His landlord’s daughter lives in Blair Place Apartments. Her lease is expiring, and her rent is increasing too much for her to afford. “She can’t stay here and she needs a place to stay, so her mother is booting me out,” Hayden said.

Hayden looked for a new place through every social channel he had. He posted on Facebook and Mayor Pete Muldoon posted on Facebook on Hayden’s behalf. He went through every contact in his phone. All his efforts produced two “maybes.” One of the “maybes” turned into a “yes.

“I just lucked out,” Hayden said.

The housing problem isn’t new, Hayden acknowledged. He ran for county commissioner in 1998 precisely because of it. “It was an issue back then, it always has been.”

It’s not new, but it is worse. Approximately 58 percent of Jackson’s workforce lives in Jackson—close to the community’s goal of 65 percent, as outlined in the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan. But that gap is hard to fill. The 2015 Housing Action Plan reported that the town would have to build 200 new deed restricted units per year for a decade to catch up with its workforce. Councilman Don Frank estimates Jackson is about 2,700 units and $1.2 billion short.

It’s hard to build a community, Hayden said, when those who work hardest to contribute have no place to live. Hayden considers himself one such community member. He lists his myriad contributions:  In addition to his 12 years as a journalist, “I ran for county commissioner in ‘98, I was on the planning commission after that for a year, I’ve been working for a couple nonprofits, conservation nonprofits, I’ve been a tour guide … I think I’ve contributed to the community a lot.” For Hayden, that young people like Maguire who grew up in the valley no longer have a way to call it home, “is a real tragedy.”

“The point is that we’re losing people that have been here a long time, that want to be here more for the community than for the skiing.”

Moreno agrees. The demographic split Schell identified between 20-somethings and Latinos becomes especially problematic when talking about families. The only people that can afford to rent a room, Moreno said, are single people willing to share one. “What happens with the families?” Moreno said. He says they’re being pushed away. “We’re talking about families that have been here for 20 years, and put up an effort to be a part of this community. What are we replacing our workers with?”

Tenant protections and pitching tents

Moreno says he feels increasingly more hopeless that Jackson will ever solve its housing crisis. The scale of the problem is just too big. “The more I dig into it the more I feel like it’s going to be impossible to fix everything,” he said. “It’s not just employee housing, it’s housing, period,” he said. “That means everything.”

But Moreno says tenant protections are a start. It is one of Shelter JH’s biggest action items moving forward. Such protections, he says, need to include rent caps so that situations like his in Blair Place could not happen.  “I think if there were at least tenant protections, that would help us start something,” he said.

The town council is in the middle of a handful of discussions about tenant protections. The last action item was to form a stakeholders group of landowners, public health representatives, Shelter JH advocates, and tenants to work together on a comprehensive tenant protection bill. The group’s primary focus is to review health and safety standards, and potentially implement stricter maintenance regulations, requiring landlords to inspect and maintain their property periodically. Councilors are also considering revisions to Contested Case Rules, which would take pressure off of tenants in reporting issues on property, like mold or leaking roofs. Shelter JH argues that tenants are vulnerable, and avoid reporting issues for fear of losing their lease.

But when it comes to actually creating more housing, the scope of the problem calls for a multitude of solutions. So far, the most affordable solution to housing a seasonal, service workforce is not really housing at all. It’s car and RV camping—legally. There are currently two camping proposals on the table: one is a private campsite that would offer RV space for a monthly fee. There is no timeline on that proposal, but it is on the table for this summer.

The second is a motion to legalize overnight parking in designated areas in town during peak season. This would allow seasonal employees to sleep in their cars without fear of legal repercussions, and without having to trek to Curtis Canyon late at night.

Maguire spoke in favor of camping at an April town hall meeting. It’s not a perfect solution, he said, but it’s a start. “At least we’re giving people an option,” he said. “You’re not getting hassled trying to sleep in your car.”

Maguire says the nature of service work is taxing enough, and relieving even one cause of stress would make a difference. “It’s pretty easy to get burned out, knowing you’re going to go to work to get your ass kicked for either one shift, or more than likely two shifts, five to six days a week with no vacation. It’s definitely stressful.”

But Jackson resident Tim Rieser is appalled by the proposal. Letting workers compete with tourists for parking spots so they can sleep in their car is “not just ignorant,” he said. “That’s fucking mean… that’s their solution? It’s ungodly.”

Rieser suspects town councilors don’t fully grasp the scope of the problem, and if they do they don’t want to make it visible. Letting people sleep in cars, he said, is a way to push the housing crisis out of public view. Rieser thinks the world should know. “I want to put this thing [campsite] on Broadway. I want people to say, Jackson’s got a problem … what is wrong with showing that you have problems and you’re working on them? [Electeds] would rather bury these people in the woods than say we’ve got issues and we’re gonna address them.”

Councilors Bob Lenz and Hailey Morton-Levinson say they want to ensure that any workforce camping solution be exclusively for the workforce. Morton-Levinson said she isn’t interested in a proposal that asks employees to compete with tourists for overnight parking. The solution would likely be some sort of permit system. But she also said she is wary of a pilot program that is rushed and poorly thought-out. “We have one shot to get it right,” she said. She worries about putting people in campsites without water or electricity. “I’m desperate to find solutions, too,” she said. “But we’ve got to watch out for these other issues.

Roofs and walls

As far as actual housing projects go, it has been a seemingly busy spring for town and county electeds. They have moved forward on two new housing developments in as many months.

Town and county have two affordable housing projects on the table: 28 units on Redmond and Hall have already been funded, and shovels have broken ground. Last week, voters approved $2.9 million for town and county employee housing at the Rec Center.

However, two other affordable housing initiatives were voted down: town and county employee housing at the START facility, and $4.05 million to replenish what was spent on Redmond Hall and fund additional projects. Affordable housing projects, some argue, are slow and beyond the scope of taxpayer responsibility.

Enter restaurateur Joe Rice. He posits that affordable housing standards hinder the development of new housing units. Such was his motivation for proposing a text amendment to Land Development Regulations (LDRs) to exempt new apartments of 20 units or more from affordable housing standards.

Rice has a specific project in mind: Sagebrush Apartments, 90 units at 550 West Broadway, which he says will house his employees and any member of the workforce that needs it. In the bigger picture, Rice hopes that eliminating deed restrictions will incentivize the private sector to build more units, provide more roofs, house more families and local employees. “The only way we’re going to solve this problem is through private development,” Rice said.

Rice and his partners argue that dense apartments are inherently affordable, and an increase in supply will lower market rents across town. “The market will take care of it, no doubt about it,” Rice said.

The amendment has made it to a final ordinance reading despite initial opposition from Muldoon and Councilor Jim Stanford. Both argued that deed restrictions were, in fact, the only way to ensure that housing remains affordable. But a series of amendments, including a five-year sunset clause that makes the ordinance less permanent, changed their minds for now.

Frank praised the amendment, arguing that housing solutions must be more diverse than subsidized affordable projects because the problem is diverse. The council has a responsibility to people of all income levels and all demographics, he said. “We don’t get to pick and choose.”

At this point, people like Moreno of Shelter JH say any kind of action that is taken is hopeful. He says he would rather see electeds make a wrong decision, and learn than take no action at all. “They’ve just got to take one step,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the right or wrong step, we’ve just got to start moving in any direction. We can’t just sit in this problem, we have done that already for too many years.” To start, Moreno said, “let’s take a look at what we have, see if that’s working, and ask employees if that’s what they really want.”

As for Maguire, he has seen plenty of his local friends leave town for good when they move out of their parents’ houses. Living in Jackson Hole on their own, he said, isn’t even a consideration for them. “It’s actually more of a running joke,” he said. So they move to Denver, or Sheridan, or Salt Lake—“never really back to Jackson.” Maguire, for his part, is leaving Jackson and the service industry for grad school in the fall. PJH

Shelter JH is a nonprofit housing advocacy organization pushing for, among other things, tenant protections for renters in Jackson. What will that look like, exactly? Shelter’s Skye Schell explains.

PJH: Shelter JH is a 501c4Why is that an important distinction?

Schell: We’re a 501c4 nonprofit, instead of a normal 501c3 nonprofit, so that we can get political and weigh in during elections. We can endorse, oppose, and support candidates so we can help keep great pro-affordable-housing elected representatives in office. Donations to a 501c4 are not tax-deductible, but that’s OK, because we’re all funding this together through our membership dues ($10 per month).

So the reason to become a member is to create power together that none of us have by ourselves. Imagine if we had 100 or 1,000 members, and town council was considering approving new middle-class homes that a few loud neighbors didn’t want. We could say “1,000 of us will vote for you to keep you in office, don’t worry about those loud few.” That’s a game-changer.

PJH: Tenant protections are among Shelter’s top priorities. How did the organization land on them?

Schell: As we have worked with our membership of tenants and workers, we have found a tremendous need for basic tenant protections. Last summer, we knocked on hundreds of doors in apartment buildings around Jackson, and the No. 1 issue people asked us to work on was putting a limit on huge rent increases, and then putting in place other tenant protections. 

Wyoming laws disproportionately favor landlords and provide virtually no protections to tenants, and our local ordinances contain nothing at all about landlord-tenant law. When we don’t take care of our employees, it’s not only bad for them as human beings; it harms our community and economy by making it difficult for business owners to retain quality employees.

We believe it would be prudent to start with easier actions, such as notice requirements or non-retaliation rules, assess how they go, and then tackle more challenging and impactful areas, such as rent stabilization measures. We have asked the town council to pass ordinances and assist with changing the behavior of those that choose to mistreat tenants.

PJH: What are some of the additional protections Shelter JH would like to see for tenants, in addition to what’s granted under the Wyoming Residential Rental Property Act?

Schell: We have asked town council to evaluate a few areas of tenant protections: 

  • Notice requirements: additional notice before ending a lease. 
  • Non-discrimination: include sexual orientation and immigration status as protected classes in our municipality, and make it illegal to discriminate when it comes to housing, based on these categories.
  • Non-retaliation for situations not covered by the Federal Fair Housing Act (i.e. tenants complain about something covered in the Jackson tenant protections, that isn’t part of federal law, and then a landlord kicks them out).
  • Habitability: include major (critical) appliances in your habitability/repairs ordinance. We don’t want to see this used as a reason to force tons of renters out of their apartments, but we need minimum base standards of health and safety, and we want landlords to be responsible for having working critical appliances. 
  • Repair fund for landlords: use existing funds designated for affordable housing to support “preservation” of existing affordable housing stock. 

PJH: What about protected classes? What are they now, and how would they expand? 

Schell: Right now, our federal Fair Housing Act (and Wyoming law) includes seven protected categories: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status. Two important additional classes for protection are left out: sexual orientation/gender identity and immigration status. These classes are not protected under federal or state law; they could be under local law. Laramie recently passed an ordinance prohibiting housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Given our large immigrant population, and history of some property managers seeking to remove undocumented tenants, we believe that immigration status is another important category where we should draw a line against discrimination.

On May 13, 2015, Laramie City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting “discrimination of any person based upon his or her actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.” Laramie is the first city in Wyoming to implement such a measure and provide a process for gay and transgender people to file a complaint with the city if they believe they have been the subject of discrimination. The ordinance went into effect in June. https://www.cityoflaramie.org/index.aspx?NID=701 

PJH: Can you explain rent stabilization, rent caps, and rent control? Are these items Shelter JH priorities?

Schell: There’s been a lot of misinformation about “rent stabilization,” which is just putting a limit on massive and egregious rent increases, as opposed to “rent control,” which is controlling the cost of rents. We weren’t asking the town council to get into the market and tell landlords what they should be charging. We just asked that our community say, “Massive rent increases like 40 percent are too much, and not good for our community.” We recommended working with stakeholders including landlords, tenants, business owners and housing advocates to determine the appropriate percentage. For example, we know 20 or 40 percent are too much, but perhaps 3 or 5 percent or something similar, tied to inflation, would be acceptable. We are hopeful that at some point in the future, our elected representatives will look at the need and evidence and declare that there’s a limit to how much landlords should be raising rent. But for now, we’re just focused on helping move forward the areas where our community and town council are ready to act. 

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