Saving the Real Jackson Hole: Without housing and a workforce, there is no quality of life in Teton County

By on December 6, 2017

Guess we better start stockpiling antibiotics and birthing kits in Jackson Hole. (Illustration by Sofia Cifuentes)

Let’s talk about the fight over affordable housing in Teton County, shall we?

Earlier this month, the Town and County Planning Departments released their final policy direction and recommendations for affordable housing in Teton County. The directives address ongoing issues like employment criteria for renting or purchasing restricted homes and what assets to include when calculating whether a person qualifies for affordable housing.

I spent quite a bit of time researching the proposed direction and what the changes would mean for Jackson’s workforce for this week’s Buzz 1 on page 9, which you can turn to for more on the topic.

During that research, I came upon the website for “Saving Historic Jackson Hole,” a nonprofit focused on “preserving the last of the “Old West.” The tagline got my attention.

According to SHJH’s website, “Jackson Hole is the ‘Last of the Old West’ and we think it should stay that way. We advocate responsible planning and development, strong community values, and respect for nature. We support our local neighborhoods in their desire to keep their character. We want to remain a sustainable community not dependent on growth.”

I’m admittedly a relative newby to JH — just under three months and counting — and Jackson is certainly more rural than many of the other cities I’ve lived in. Still, I’m not entirely sure I understand what’s left of the Old West to protect.

I have seen nary a shootout or even a horse on the road, making me immediately suspect of SHJH’s mission statement. I have seen an inordinate amount of cars, snowboarders, and the inside of Lucky’s Market, though, and while those things are unruly at times, none are quite as raw and lawless as the old.

Still, I don’t have to grasp the analogy to understand that folks in Jackson are concerned that the community’s explosive growth will threaten the town’s character.

I watched it happen firsthand in Houston. As more people migrate to an area for jobs, more housing is needed, and the desirable inner city areas are snatched up by wealthy swaths of people who want to live and work in the metro area. In turn, the minority communities who once resided in those neighborhoods are pushed into the fringes of the city in search of affordable housing. Transportation, access and marginalization become issues, and the displacement of the vibrant minority communities is disastrous for the colorful “character” of the city.

But as I dug through SHJH’s website, I realized that is not what we’re talking about here.

The fear of preservation in Jackson Hole is not stemming from gentrification; it is a concern about the loss of “historic” Jackson due to growth of the town’s population, and, in turn, the erection of taxpayer-funded affordable housing.

Don’t believe me? Just take a peek at SHJH’s weekly column, “The Other Side,” which they characterize as an ad focused on the “alternative side” of the big issues.

In the Nov. 22 column, “Housing Mitigation,” SHJH focuses on mitigation in Jackson.

Mitigation, or the housing provided by employers, is currently required at 25 percent in Teton County, which means that employers must house 1 out of every 4 employees.

According to SHJH, that number should be raised to 100 percent.

“Going to 100% helps preserve what’s left of the Old West. It’s a vote for a ‘livable Jackson Hole’ … Higher mitigation rates will put the burden of housing lower-income employees squarely on developers and big business owners where it belongs, instead of on taxpayers,” the ad reads. “A ‘real’ 100% mitigation requirement is a huge step in the right direction, so detractors already are claiming the high mitigation rate is onerous to developers and will stifle commercial growth. We say thank goodness. It’s about time!”

Given that Teton County is the wealthiest county in the nation, it seems laughable that there shouldn’t be a responsibility among taxpayers to help fund affordable housing. Even the towns and counties in the nation help fund housing for lower-income residents; why is Teton County any different?

In turn, it isn’t feasible to impose the bulk of housing regulations on businesses in Teton County. Smaller businesses — restaurants, bars and even this paper — would likely struggle to keep the doors open with the burden of providing housing in an area where housing is cost prohibitive for most people. Even if it forced the closure of a handful of smaller businesses in the area, it would still vastly change Jackson and the surrounding areas and compromise that “livable” atmosphere SHJH is fighting for.

The fight against affordable housing is reiterated in the nonprofit’s “Housing Fake Crisis” column from October 2017.

In it, SHJH states that the “false narrative that sees subsidized housing as a be-all, end-all solution for what ails us in Teton County rings of manipulation, not crisis. The 2015 Housing Supply Plan estimates the community needs to add about 280 units annually. That’s about 700 people a year, 3.3% of all the people in Teton County. At that pace, in 20 years we’ll have doubled our population with subsidized housing alone. More people will then live in government housing than free market housing.”

There are a couple of issues here. The first is that affordable housing is not a fake crisis in Teton County. It’s a real crisis because people need housing — yes, even poor people.

The second is that while idea of government housing outpacing free market housing might sound harrowing, allow me to remind you that the free market housing in Teton County has a median list price of around $650 per square foot, with the average home price clocking in at about $1.5 million. That pricing is absurd, and without “government” housing, Teton County isn’t likely to sustain a middle class or a workforce. Or, in turn, a town.

In that same ad, SHJH also inexplicably compares Jackson’s housing plan to Venezuela.

“The ‘Utopian’ dream local officials are pushing makes no sense. If enacted, it will bring pain and suffering to Jackson Hole just as it has every other place it’s been tried from Venezuela and Cuba back to the Bolshevik revolution.”

Guess we better start stockpiling antibiotics and birthing kits from other countries, because apparently shit’s about to get real in JH. The fall of the Teton pseudo-nation is coming.

The ad also states that the “well-intentioned people who champion affordable housing think they are smart enough to micromanage Jackson Hole into a Utopian society. A place where everyone gets what they want, and somehow no one pays for it. Do we want to keep sacrificing our deep-rooted community values like open space and wildlife at the altar of housing?” (Emphasis mine.)

The phrase “altar of housing” should not exist. Housing is not a luxury. It is a basic need and community values should have a place for helping less fortunate residents and the owls.

While the fight for preservation by SHJH is understandable — change is difficult, and investments need to be protected — what seems to be missing from the equation is that the community is made up in part by people who run the shops, open the restaurants and teach the kids. Those are the folks who can’t afford $4,000 in rent, yet they are the ones who help maintain the much-revered quality of life in Teton County. They make this town run from the ground up.

Why would anyone, SHJH or otherwise, want to make it harder for them to survive here? Without them, there is no “livability” to JH and no heartbeat to your town. Seems pretty counterintuitive to me. PJH

About Angelica Leicht

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