A Housing Crisis By Any Other Name

By on April 18, 2018

Town and county duke it out over affordable homeowners’ right to rent rooms

Rooms for rent in Jackson are not all that easy to come by. (Wikimedia Commons)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – “I think it’s OK to beat a dead horse. This is really important to our community.”

That was Teton County Commissioner Chair Mark Newcomb’s response to accusations that the discussion about new housing rules and regulations had dragged on too long. Specifically, town councilors and county commissioners struggled to agree on whether to allow affordable homeowners to rent spare bedrooms in times of need.

Current regulations don’t allow it except under “exigent circumstances.” At an April 11 special joint information meeting, the town and the county boards spent almost two hours debating whether to change the rule.

In the end, both boards agreed to expand the definition of “exigent circumstances” rather than change the rule completely. The decision means that homeowners who have a bedroom to spare still have to apply through the town for permission to rent it. Now, town and county staff will have to come up with a definition that is fair to both homeowners and desperate tenants.

It’s simply about giving homeowners the option to rent, Mayor Pete Muldoon said. “We talk about exigent circumstances of the owner, but what about the exigent circumstances of those who don’t have units?”

The divide was more linguistic than it was ideological—county commissioners and town councilors alike agreed that housing as many people as possible is consistent with their goals. But town councilors, in particular Muldoon, Jim Stanford and Don Frank, wanted to be more liberal in who might be allowed to rent.

Frank called it “unconscionable” to leave open bedrooms “underutilized when we have people sleeping in cars.”

Still, councilors posited two hypothetical scenarios that highlighted a key difference in how this rule would benefit community members. In Frank’s scenario, a working couple lives in a two-bedroom unit and has a kid go off to college. Suddenly, they have to handle paying for a college education, Frank said. But if they could rent their kid’s bedroom out for the nine months of the year it’s unoccupied, it could “make a heck of a difference” in the family’s expenses. It would also provide a bed to someone who might not otherwise have one.

Stanford posed a slightly different scenario—a less likely one, he said, and mostly meant as a joke. He called it the “You, me and Dupree,” a reference to a movie about a newlywed couple who invites a friend to crash at their house. A person loses their housing, and a friend offers their spare bedroom.

The former scenario would likely qualify as an “exigent circumstance” under current definitions.  Electeds, especially Muldoon, want to account for both. The displaced person is the more desperate one, Muldoon said, and their circumstances are “exigent,” too.

But a majority of commissioners worried about the implications of allowing such a program under any circumstance. For one, there could be financial repercussions—it would be more work for staff, and might even require hiring additional staff, Newcomb said.

Such a program also runs the risk of people buying into affordable housing for the purpose of making money, Newcomb worried. “There’s a lot of subsidy going into these units,” Newcomb said. “We have to reconcile that there’s a huge demand for these units, and enhancing the ability to profit is only gonna increase the demand more.”

Stanford referred back to his “You, Me and Dupree” scenario. It’s already hard to buy a home, even an affordable one—he’s done it, he knows. The last thing a new homeowner wants is someone crashing in their basement.

“You work half your life to be able to own a roof over your head,” he said. “I worked really hard to get deed-restricted housing. It would have to be a really pressing situation.”

“The whole point of buying a house is to get out of all the roommate scenarios you’ve endured through the years,” Stanford later told Planet Jackson Hole. And, he added, he’s been through it all.

In the end, Muldoon, Stanford and Frank were convinced that the current system would be good enough with an expanded definition of “exigent circumstances.”

“In my mind, the conversation starts with the owner of a unit who needs extra income, and rents to someone in need,” Frank said. “The more I’ve listened, the greater my education. I can live with that compromise.”

Commissioner Greg Epstein held firmly to his support.

“Land isn’t getting any cheaper,” he said. “We should maximize everything we have.” Still, he was outvoted three-to-one in the county with Commissioner Smokey Rhea absent. The town voted unanimously in favor of keeping the current “no rentals” rule but expanding the definition of “exigent circumstances.”

“This is about helping a friend, helping somebody in need,” Stanford said. “There should be a way to do that, and I think the housing department is going to be careful in crafting language to allow exactly that.”

But here’s the other catch: This is all likely to be even more difficult under new housing regulations. A big goal of the new housing rules is to optimize space, and minimize vacant rooms. The new rules set new minimum occupancy standards—a couple is no longer eligible for a two-bedroom unit unless they have a kid or a dependent (who they can claim on federal tax returns). So, Frank’s hypothetical “kid goes off to college” scenario might still apply down the road, but otherwise new deed-restricted homeowners aren’t likely to have a spare bedroom to rent anytime soon.

That’s hardly ideal for family planning, Epstein pointed out. But on the other hand, it gives people who already have kids a higher chance of being drawn for a home that fits their family.

“The best way to get those families in units is not to enable two people in a two-bedroom home that’s not having a baby,” Macker said.

The ordinance to add these new rules to the town’s housing municipal code passed on first reading, and has two readings to go before it becomes law. The Board of County Commissioners voted to send the ordinance into 45-day public comment period before final approval.

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