Local Syndrome: The Jackson Hole Hijack, Part 3

By on April 26, 2018

The subtle art of defining a crisis without a solution

(Ryan Stolp)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – I conclude this trilogy of housing columns from a guest bedroom in my parents’ basement in Hoback. I am one of few residents of Jackson who are lucky enough to have their parents live in the county.

My family moved here from Upstate New York in 1994 when I was seven years old. Back then, my parents could have never predicted the future housing crisis they were setting me up to experience.

Normally, the word “crisis” is used to describe an event of immediate difficulty and danger, a period that harshly pushes the limits of those who must endure it. When pitted against other crises in the world, our crisis—a situation where a couple thousand people in a small pocket of the least populated state in America can’t find a place to live under $1,000 a month—seems to pale in comparison. That’s not to say it’s a flippant situation for struggling families and workers, but in some respect it seems like it shouldn’t be so damn difficult to solve.

Sure, with every discussion of the housing crisis comes ideas for housing solutions, but when are we going to reach that solution? Will our town ever take this idea of crisis seriously, or is the solution so impossible that it becomes easier to dismiss it than solve it?

For this final column, I spoke with Sophie (not her real name), who describes her position as someone who tries “to enable housing opportunities for people who are employed in Teton County.” Sophie is a born-and-bred local who built her home and raised her children in the valley.

“We built back in 1989, and it was much more affordable. I think when we finished building, we had a $90,000 mortgage on it. Yeah, I’ve had some good timing in my life,” she said.

We sat in her office in downtown Jackson surrounded by paperwork and bookshelves of three-ring binders. Because I was recording the interview, Sophie was somewhat guarded. Her outlook on her work is less than optimistic, and probably not the kind of perspective those who need housing want to hear.

Jackson is generally considered a safe place to raise a family and live a quiet life, but the housing difficulties create a culture of instability, and ultimately the area foments people’s fears of the future.

“The housing crisis affects everyone. It affects our social services, it affects the kids. My sons would love to move back home, but there’s just no way they could afford it anymore,” Sophie said.

Sophie works directly with housing hopefuls and developers, and has her finger on the pulse of every possible solution on the table. But even with all her experience in the field, she’s not confident there’s a way out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves in.

“There’s no silver bullet. We can’t solve it completely,” she said. “We need funding to build the housing, and we need land to build it on. We’re going to have to build in places where some people don’t want housing. And we need the political will to build that housing. Because the big question is, where the heck would we put 2,800 houses? Where do we even start?”

She said the number of egos and the amount of greed present in Jackson stifle progress. Special interests and lobbyist organizations like Save Historic Jackson Hole, she said, are part of the problem.

“It’s a very interesting name,” she said about the nonprofit that advocates preserving Jackson’s historic character. “I don’t know what exactly they’re saving. But the truth is that they have the money for ads. They can afford to be the loudest voice in the room.”

A big problem, Sophie said, is that the people who truly need housing in Jackson can’t afford to have an equally prominent voice in the discussion. Her comment reflected Cleo’s perspective on the same subject from part 2 of this series.

“They’re working all the time. They don’t have time to come to public meetings or give their public comment. We have to find a way to get those people involved or on board,” she said. “But the other side is relying on the fact that they don’t.”

Sophie also believes that the more affluent members of the community should be equally invested, especially if they own property. She acknowledged that property owners must pay a fee to mitigate the impacts their developments place on the community and in lieu of providing housing. But she also mentioned how important it is for second homeowners to invest in their second communities.

“[Second home owners] have a pretty big impact on our community. Because even though they’re not there full-time, there are people taking care of their homes, people who manicure their lawns, people who shovel snow and get the property ready for when the owners want to pop in or out. They are generating employees and workforce that probably need housing. Services are very important to them, but they don’t really pay attention. Because really, who is it that’s serving you coffee at Starbucks? Where do those people live? I think it’s easy for those people to go through life not even thinking about it.”

Unless there is a massive shift in land availability or an economic crash that suddenly puts a large number of properties on the market, there may be no end to this crisis. People will continue to buy expensive properties; workers will continue to come to Jackson in search of a new lifestyle.

When I asked Sophie if she had any advice for someone who’s just rolled into town, she smiled and took a thoughtful pause.

“Welcome to Jackson,” she said. “I hope you’re one of the ones who gets to stay.” PJH

About Andrew Munz

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