Homelessness and Housing Shortages are a Big Problem in Luxury Resort Towns like Jackson Hole
Lack of affordable housing is pushing many of the working class—ski instructors, waiters, hotel staff—to live out of tents or in their cars, if they want to stay in Jackson Hole.
Illustrations by Meaghan Garvey
Jackson, Wyoming is so full of beauty, it's almost hard to believe: the Teton Range cutting a fierce silhouette against the sky, night skies that contain more stars than you knew existed, wild animals roaming free across the vast landscape. Jorge Moreno, a resident for 17 years, knew he wanted to settle in Jackson after his first trip there, to visit his sister who was working in a local restaurant at the time.
"It was a really warm feeling," he recalled. "It was a place where you could ride your bike everywhere, and walk down the street at night. Everybody was so friendly. Everybody knew each other."
Many of the working- and middle-class locals in Jackson have similar stories, of feeling so drawn to the place that they did whatever it took to make it their home. At one point in time, the epitome of this experience was the "ski bum": someone young, drawn to Jackson by the beauty and adventure, who worked just enough to get by, and slept wherever possible—maybe in an apartment shared by too many people, maybe in a car. People could start out that way and then, eventually, put down roots.
But Jackson Hole has become a place where many of the working class can't put down roots at all. The town has always been a playground for the ultra-wealthy, and over the last few years, home prices have risen back to pre-recession highs and rents have skyrocketed. Many hardworking locals—the people who build and maintain the area's luxury vacation homes, run its multi-million dollar tourism industry, and create that appealing small-town charm—are being pushed out.
Lack of affordable housing is a vexing problem for many resort communities, including other Western ski towns like Aspen, Vail, Big Sky, and Sun Valley. But the issue is particularly intractable in Jackson due to limited space: 97 percent of the land in Teton County, which contains Jackson Hole, is federally owned and protected. The federal lands include Grand Teton National Park, parts of Yellowstone National Park, and parts of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The focus on preserving all that natural beauty means space for development is strictly limited in the county of 22,000 residents.
On top of that, zoning in Teton County has long been designed to discourage density. On its face, the reason is to preserve Jackson's small-town character and natural beauty. But the effect is to prioritize the wealthy second-home owners of Teton County, who own big houses on big pieces of land, and who would prefer not to look out their windows and see apartment complexes where the other half live.
Based on mean income (which the IRS uses for its tax statistics), Teton County is the wealthiest county in America. In 2013, the most recent year for which county data is available, mean income in Teton County was $296,778, compared to the national average of $62,483. That average is obviously driven up by a small number of mega-rich residents; for comparison, according to a regional housing survey in the county, the area's median income was $65,000 in 2014, versus a national median of about $53,000. The result is that while the typical Jacksonite is wealthier than the typical American, most Teton County residents can never hope to buy a home there. In the first three quarters of 2015, the average home in the county sold for $2.14 million. Condos went for over $800,000.
In 1986, the median home price in Jackson Hole was 354 percent of the median income. By 2010, it was 1,400 percent of the median income. Wages have not increased apace with real estate values, so most of Jackson Hole's wage workers are renters. A 2014 Teton County study found that 52 percent of renters had low or very low incomes; 39 percent of homeowners, on the other hand, made over 120 percent the median income in the county.
Concern about Jackson's lack of affordable rental housing has risen over the last few years. The words "housing crisis" have become more common in local discussions. That crisis reached a fever pitch this past July, when the owners of Blair Place Apartments, Jackson's largest rental complex, announced they were increasing rent by 40 percent. Moreno had barely lived at Blair for two months, and his rent was set to increase from $1,250 per month to $1,800.
"While they're talking, people are leaving. These are firefighters, public school teachers, nurses—people who make this community what it is." — Jorge Moreno
Before moving in to the apartment, Moreno, his wife, and their two young sons had been homeless for about three weeks. They had been living with Moreno's parents, but when they decided to put their home up for sale, the young family was forced to move out. For about three weeks, they stayed in motel rooms and with friends, and seriously considered leaving Jackson, until they found what seemed like a permanent residence at Blair Place.
Devastated by the proposed rent increase, Moreno went door-to-door, talking to his neighbors, asking them to write letters about how the rent hike would affect their families. He took those messages to a Town Council meeting, although he says he often wondered if the work was worth it, as elected official seemed focused on commercial development over housing.
"While they're talking, people are leaving," he said. "These are firefighters, public school teachers, nurses. We're losing the people who make this community what it is."
In the face of public outcry, the Blair owners eased off slightly, opting to spread the rent increase over two years. But Moreno is quick to point out that the issue isn't limited to Blair Place. "Blair brought the issue into the spotlight because it's a 300-unit complex," he said. "But everyone else was doing it."
Moreno is just one of many Jackson residents who has experienced a period of homelessness. The local paper features pages and pages of help wanted ads, especially in the busy summer season, but only a handful of rooms for rent. There simply aren't enough beds to go around. Plus, there is virtually no rent regulation in Teton County, which allows landlords to jack up the rent whenever they want. Many property owners offer leases that end in April, so they can raise rent for the summer. And as in so many cities, the popularity of Airbnb has led many owners to take what were once long-term rental units off the market and use them as cash cow vacation rentals.
It's impossible to know how many people are homeless or experiencing housing instability in Jackson. Homelessness is on the rise across Wyoming, due to similar housing crunches in areas that are booming because of oil, coal, and natural gas. But federal data, which showed that Wyoming had a homeless population of 1,813 in 2013, doesn't capture the many people who are sleeping in cars or tents for short periods of time. For some, like Moreno, that period lasted just a few weeks; for others, it lasts months or years.
No local government agency even has an estimate of how many people are camping or sleeping in cars instead of in homes. A shared town and county Housing Action Plan adopted in November claims that Teton County has a "deficit" of 340 workforce housing units. The plan estimates 280 new housing units would have to be built every year to keep pace with employment growth.
A portion of those workers are living elsewhere and commuting to Jackson; others are staying on friends' couches, or packing too many people into one apartment and hoping not to get caught. And many are living in their cars or camping illegally, especially in the summer. Lieutenant Cole Nethercott of the Jackson Police Department says it is illegal to sleep in a car or camp on public property in Jackson, but enforcement of that policy is complaint-driven. "We try to take a common sense approach, and we try not to issue citations if we don't have to," he said.
Jose Castro, deputy forest supervisor of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, echoed that reluctance toward harsh enforcement.
"Camping on public land is becoming very common when people don't have the means to live in certain areas," he said. "We know that if they had a place to go, they would go."
Mary Erickson, executive director of Jackson's Community Resource Center, says her organization has aided in 108 housing cases over the past year. Because those cases ranged from single people to families of six, she estimates the center has reached 380 individuals. Erickson says most of CRC's clients are working families in lower-wage service industry jobs, who come for help in the wake of eviction, sudden rent increases, or other loss of housing. In the winter, many of these families end up renting hotel rooms, but even that costs around $800 per month. Ultimately, she said, most of them end up leaving Jackson Hole.
Erickson pointed out that for years, the housing crunch has been disproportionately affecting the area's Latino population, which grew from 6.5 percent in 2000 to 15.2 percent in 2014. Ninety-two percent of Teton County's Latinos are employed, according to Erickson, but they are more likely to be employed in low-wage jobs and live in rental housing.
"We've been seeing these rate hikes at the lower end of the housing market for a long time," Erickson said. "Many Latino families are living in awful housing that really should be torn down, but then they would have nowhere to go."
Approximately 33 percent of the local workforce commutes to Jackson Hole, mostly from Idaho towns to the west, or Alpine, Wyoming, to the south. Both those commutes are about an hour's drive—manageable, until you consider that getting to Idaho involves driving over an 8,432-foot mountain pass and getting to Alpine means driving the similarly treacherous Snake River Canyon. Both these roadways are now frequently backed up with traffic. They are dangerous on a good day, and sometimes forced to close in the winter. Erickson says she has personally fought to stay in Jackson because she and her husband dislike the idea of working in Jackson and having their children in school an hour away. Plus, rents are on the rise in the commuter towns, too.
Single mother Theia Keyworth used to live with her son in one of Jackson's few restricted low-income rental units. But in her job at a local bank, she began making too much money to live in low-income housing, but not enough to afford a market-rate apartment. She was evicted in December 2014, and moved in with her parents in Alpine. Keyworth still works in Jackson, and estimates that she spends $200 to $300 per month on fuel.
"It feels like Jackson isn't my home anymore. It's been so overrun by people who have millions of dollars that the people who grew up here can't stay," she said.
Most locals I spoke to expressed frustration with the inaction of local government. In 2014 and 2015, there was a great deal of talk about housing—but the new Housing Action Plan doesn't include a whole lot of action. Its most concrete step is the establishment of a new administrative framework to manage affordable housing. It also promises to bring Jackson's existing 1,500 restricted affordable units under uniform management (currently, they are administered by several different local agencies and organizations).
The plan suggests that, going forward, much of the burden for workforce housing should be placed on employers. But Moreno points out an obvious problem with that: "Would you rather house a family of five or five employees?" Many large employers in Teton County already house their workers, but house the mostly young out-of-towners in what are essentially dorms.
Another problem many Jackson residents identify is that 60 percent of the county's lodging tax (a two percent tax added to every visitor's stay) is allocated to the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board. That money is spent on promoting Jackson Hole, which hardly seems necessary when the town is bursting at the seams in its busy seasons. In the summer of 2015, locals and tourists alike complained of outrageous traffic, overcrowded national parks and restaurants, and not enough workers to keep up with demand—problems all worsened by the affordable housing shortage.
Mick Dettmer, who has lived in Jackson since 1988 and been homeless for most of the last 16 years, thinks the county should do away with its current lodging tax and institute a new tax on all hotel rooms that would be directly used to pay for housing.
"Call it what you want—a 'toilet tax,' a 'blanket tax,' a 'pillow tax,' whatever. We don't need to spend money to get them here, we need money to take care of them when they are here," Dettmer said.
A similar idea is floated in the Housing Action Plan, but no consensus has yet been reached on how to pay for the housing Teton County needs. Among locals I spoke to, there was an overwhelming sense of despair that the problem won't be solved—and that as Jackson loses its working and middle-classes, it will eventually lose its character.
"It will be like Disneyland," Moreno said, "Once the lights are out, that place is empty. It has no soul. It's a place where you go to work and then leave."
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