THE BUZZ 2: Housing Neutrality

By on June 21, 2017

Some say forget the emotions, just give us the numbers.

An artist rendering of Sagebrush Apartments

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The clock is ticking for Joe Rice’s 90-unit apartment complex on 550 W. Broadway, known as Sagebrush Apartments. Town councilors moved to continue a vote to approve the Planned Unit Development (PUD) and sketch plan to a special June 27 meeting, despite Councilman Don Frank’s objections that people in need of housing don’t have time to wait. But some worry any new developments, no matter how dire the need, also come with consequence. New developments, Brian Siegfried said, are merely putting fingers in an overflowing dam. Real housing progress, he argued, requires a complete shift in the conversation, and it might require questioning how much growth Jackson can stand.

Siegfried, who was on the Housing Authority Board from 2013 until it was dissolved last year, says that housing is graphed on two axes: “units available, and people in the homes.” In other words, supply and demand. Housing conversations, he said, tend to focus solely on increasing the supply. But as long as demand continues to increase, the town is never going to catch up.

“We’re always talking about the number of homes, whether we have the right amount of roofs for people to be under,” Siegfried said. “The other question is do we have the right amount of workers? If we reduce the number of workers … the relationship would be more in line with the goal of housing 65 percent of the community.”

Any new development or housing solution, Siegfried said, still encourages growth. Housing 10 or 20 or 90 people in the short-term is great for those people—but how many new people does it invite? And how many jobs does it create for other people who will inevitably need housing? “If we approve that, or anything, we should also be talking about how many more workers can be invited,” he said.

Siegfried said he is not anti-growth, nor is he against solutions that put roofs over people’s heads. But conversations about housing, he said, should be driven by numbers.

“We need to have non-emotional, fact-based data-driven conversations about how this is all going to play out over the years,” he said. That was the idea behind the 2013 Employee Generation by Land Use Study, which explores the relationship between new development and need for affordable workforce housing. The Nexus study, as it is otherwise known, offers formulas to calculate that relationship precisely. That, Siegfried said, is how all housing conversations should proceed.  The numbers themselves can be debated, he said, “as long as we’re talking about the math and the actual variables on a non-emotional scale. Emotional arguments are distractions from the real issues, the real potential manifestations of these decisions.”

Siegfried has a term he wants to see catch on: housing neutrality. The idea, he explained, is that any potential development idea should be “scored on a housing neutrality score. Similar to how the US congress scores bills, it gives people on both sides of the debate a number developed by an unbiased formula.”

In other words, each new development should be assessed based on how many housing units it will provide versus how much need for housing it will create. The score should be just about even.

Housing, by the numbers

Siegfried extols the 65 percent housing goal, which was put forth in the 2015 Housing Action Plan and the 2012 Jackson/Teton County Comp Plan, because it’s impartial. “It’s one of the geniuses of the comp [comprehensive] plan,” he said. “We can always ask the question, ‘will this decision move us closer to our goal, or further away?”

And that, Councilman Don Frank said, is precisely what the town council does. Frank estimated that Teton County now houses about 59 percent of its workforce — just six percent under the goal. That’s approximately 2,700 units, or $1.2 billion worth. The Housing Action Plan estimated that the town would have to build 200 deed-restricted units per year to catch up with its workforce.

But Frank says deed restricted housing cannot be the only solution. “It’s not a simple thing to find the appropriate property, available funding, realize and build housing in a market as dynamic and aggressive as ours is,” Frank said. “We have to use a variety of tools, and have a willingness to experiment. We need to use private capital if it’s available and suitable … move the build risk off of the public.” Such was Frank’s rationale for supporting the LDR text amendment exempting new apartment buildings from affordable housing standards: to incentivize the private sector to step in and add more units, another equation of supply and demand.

One of the biggest conundrums the Nexus Study presents, however, is that all developments—even those that create housing units—also create a need for more housing. The study identifies three types of labor needs for residential development: construction, operation and maintenance post-construction, and critical service providers. For example, the study calculated that a subdivision of 10 3,000-square-foot single-family homes occupied by Jackson residents creates a need for less than one unit of workforce housing. Based on estimated salaries for construction workers and post-construction laborers, workers would need a $108,000 subsidy to afford a home. Land Development Regulations mandate that at least 25 percent of all new developments be affordable. But each new development, Siegfried says, encourages even more growth and invites new members of the workforce into town.

Siegfried’s own neighborhood, Melody Ranch, “at the end of the day invited more workers than it housed,” he said. “But it’s the best thing that ever happened to me and 75 other families, so that’s really important to realize.”

Emotions and action

There is merit to Siegfried’s desire for unbiased, unemotional conversations about housing, Shelter JH chair Mary Erickson said. But as a local housing advocate, she has also seen the change that emotional arguments can make. Erickson, who spoke in favor of Sagebrush Apartments at Monday’s town council meeting, recalled Shelter JH’s inaugural 2015 march to town hall that brought about 100 residents to town chambers. “I do feel like it changed the conversation,” she said. “It changed some of the tenor of the conversation—put a sense of urgency around it.”

But sometimes, she said, “You do have to get down to business.”

Perhaps the most effective way to effect change, she suggested, is finding a balance between pathos and reason. “Maybe the trick is figuring out when is the right time [for emotions versus numbers],” she said.

One thing Erickson is sure of is that these conversations are ever-evolving, and not always clear. “People take for granted that we’re all on the same page, when we’re obviously not,” she said. “It still feels like we’re not all necessarily in agreement about what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Keeping that 65 percent target in sight, Siegfried said, is the simplest way to bring the conversation together.  “I think I’m on an island here— I’m not on either side, I’m just about having more fact-based conversations about the ramifications of our decisions,” he said. “I really believe in the 65 percent.” PJH

About Shannon Sollitt

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