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Unequal City


Born in Jackson, Wyoming, Vennie lives in the 56-unit Virginian Village ... Robust tourist numbers have corresponded with soaring real estate prices. A recent Forbes article documented how high demand and a dearth of inventory drove property prices up ...


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Photography by Ryan Dorgan Longform Unequal City How wealthy tourists have gentrified Jackson Hole, Wyoming, into a housing crisis By Megan Barber @megcbarber Jul 6, 2016, 10:00a tweet share pin Rec In March 2016, the family of 11-year-old Ventura Garcia Perez, otherwise known as "Vennie," received an eviction letterBorn in Jackson, Wyoming, Vennie lives in the 56-unit Virginian Village Apartment complex with his parents, his four-year-old brother Dominic, and his dog CharlieThroughout this summer, the owners of the Virginian are evicting several hundred tenants on a rolling timeline so the apartments can be remodeled and sold or rented at higher ratesNow, despite having jobs, going to school, and being active in the community, Vennie and his family, like so many others in Jackson, have nowhere to live. Jackson is in Teton County, one of the richest counties in America, where the wealthy flock in order to take advantage of Wyoming’s lack of income tax(Jackson is the city; Jackson Hole, as it is more widely known, is the name of both the larger region and the ski area.) Known for skiing, its proximity to two popular national parks, and billionaires who skewed the county’s 2013 average income to $300,000, Jackson was also recently named the most economically unequal city in the United StatesFaced with rising rents and a dearth of new housing developments, the ski town is experiencing an affordable housing shortage that’s more reminiscent of San Francisco than a town with a year-round population of 10,000 people. In the past, young, slightly naïve nature lovers "moved to a ski town" in search of themselves, never-ending powder, and fresh mountain airThese ski bums lived in mountain towns for one season or 20, sometimes heading back home and sometimes putting down rootsHousing wasn’t always easy to come by and it certainly wasn’t cheap; crashing on a friend’s couch became a rite of passage, usually before finding more secure lodging and gradually integrating into the fabric of ski town life But now, resort communities like Jackson are at a crossroads, struggling to balance a booming tourism-based economy with a severe shortage of places for residents to live. The same thing that makes towns like Jackson attractive to tourists and residents—a focus on nature and conservation—makes developable land and housing scarceJackson sits at the gateway of two national parks, Yellowstone and Grand Teton, with 97 percent of the land around the town federally protected. Each summer, millions of tourists travel through Jackson to get to the parks, and according to the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, more people are visiting Teton County than ever beforeMore than 4.1 million people toured Yellowstone National Park in 2015, up from a 2014 total of around 3.5 millionAnd with the national parks system celebrating its centennial anniversary this summer, Jackson is braced for record numbers of tourists. if (window.ChorusAds) { ChorusAds.showAd("mobile_article_body"); } else { if (SBN.Ads._deferredAdsEnabled) { SBN.Ads.queueAd("mobile_article_body"); } else { SBN.Ads.showAd("mobile_article_body"); } } A boom in the wintertime economy has also stretched housing needsJackson boasts two ski areas (Snow King and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) and a local airport with direct flights from 14 citiesFueled by good snow and a healthy dose of El Niño hype, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort recorded its second best winter in 2015-2016, totaling 560,400 skier visits. Robust tourist numbers have corresponded with soaring real estate pricesA recent Forbes article documented how high demand and a dearth of inventory drove property prices up 31.2 percent in 2015 compared with the previous yearThe median sale price of a home in Jackson hit a whopping $1.76 million last yearWhile that may be affordable to one of the many celebrities who own property in the ski town, it’s out of reach of your local cook or concierge. By all metrics, Jackson is in the midst of an economic boomMayor of Jackson Sara Flitner acknowledged, "I think the economy is hot right nowWe are experiencing higher levels of visitation than we have in the pastOn the one hand, that’s a great high-class problem to have because our coffers are paid by sales tax dollars." if (window.ChorusAds) { ChorusAds.showAd("native_ad_mobile"); } else { if (SBN.Ads._deferredAdsEnabled) { SBN.Ads.queueAd("native_ad_mobile"); } else { SBN.Ads.showAd("native_ad_mobile"); } } But while there are jobs aplenty in Jackson, housing can be near impossible to find"Property and inventory are scarce," says Flitner"So the economy is fully recovered, and you have a scarcity of land, and a higher demand for employees." The backbone of Jackson’s resort-based economy is the service industry, with nearly 45 percent of all wage jobs contributing to tourismAccording to numbers collected by the city of Jackson, temporary workers swell the town’s population by 52,000 people in the summer and by 5,000 people in the winterIt is often these service workers who have nowhere to live. While much of Teton County is zoned to discourage density (and therefore affordable housing), Jackson’s status as a vacation spot makes the situation more extreme: at least 43 percent of homes sit empty because they are predominantly used as vacation homes for the wealthyFew housing units have been built since the recessionAccording to data from 2014, between 2000 and 2010, Teton County added over 2,500 housing units, a growth of almost 25 percentBut from 2010 through 2013, only 460 new units were built, which equates to a growth rate of 3.2 percentThe growth in the housing supply has not kept pace with the number of people working in Jackson—in that same three-year period, the county gained 2,125 jobs. To make matters worse, many of the larger affordable housing complexes have been taken off the marketIn early 2015, worker housing in downtown Jackson was demolished to make way for a Marriott Hotel that’s still under constructionNot long after, developers cleared out mobile homes at the corner of Kelly Avenue and Millward Street to make way for new apartmentsLong-term residents in the run-down Pioneer Motel were forced out after the building’s owner (the Bank of Jackson Hole) deemed it unsafeMany rooms lacked electricity or water, and still they were rented out at a cost of $570 per month. In summer 2015, tenants in Jackson’s 294-unit Blair Place Apartments received notice that their rents would increase by more than 40 percentA two-bedroom unit’s rent rose from $1,250 to $1,800The complex’s owners justified the increase by saying they were following "a market adjustment." Jorge Moreno and his family were some of the many residents affected by the Blair Place rent hikesWhen Moreno, an active volunteer and former case worker at the Latino Resource Center, realized how much his rent was about to go up, he thought, "I’ve invested so much in this community, and now all of a sudden I am going to lose it." Moreno spent hours surveying 200 tenants at Blair Place in an effort to put a human face on the rent hikesHe and other community members eventually negotiated for the 40 percent increase to be spread out over two yearsMoreno’s rent is now $1,500 for his two-bedroom apartment, and he knows he will likely have to move when the second 20 percent increase occurs next yearStill, he’s gratefulThe negotiated solution bought his family "another year of hope." On the eve of Jackson’s busy season, the most recent loss of available rental units at the Virginian apartments has created what Mary Erickson, executive director at the Community Resource Center in Jackson, calls a "perfect storm." Before the latest evictions, housing in Jackson was already tightNow, Erickson remarks, "We just don’t have anywhere for the people to goThat’s what’s making it an emergency." When faced with rising rents, evictions, or the inability to find housing, Jackson workers have few optionsSome are able to find alternative apartments, although vacancy rates are often less than 1 percentJackson also has an inventory of approximately 1,488 affordable housing units, but the supply of working housing is shrinking relative to vacant second homesIn 2000, local residents occupied 75 percent of the homes in JacksonToday, an estimated 62 percent of Jackson’s workers live in Teton CountyThere are simply not enough housing optionsEven using outdated 2010 census numbers, less than 11 percent of Jackson’s housing units are deemed "affordable" through deed and income restrictions, rent restrictions, or other permanent protectionsThe percentage is likely less now. Those faced with homelessness often move into the homes of friends and family, swelling the occupancy numbers in one- and two-bedroom apartmentsErickson acknowledges that according to the lease agreements at the Virginian apartments, only 100 people should have been affected by the 2016 evictionsIn reality, more than 200 people were living in 56 units, with multiple families cramming into a two-bedroom home. An informal survey conducted by the Community Resource Center after the Virginian evictions found that most tenants had no plan for where they would live nextOne woman told surveyors, "I don't want to leave Jackson because here is where I have a job and where my daughters go to school." Nearly all of the families asked for whatever help was available. That help included donated tentsEspecially in the summertime, camping (both legal and illegal) becomes widespread in the National Forests surrounding Teton CountyMen and women live out of cars, or camp in places like Curtis Canyon, a campground 25 minutes northeast of town where the daily camp rate is $12Campers often move between different sites to avoid the five-day camping limit, have little access to water, and shower at the recreation centerSo many people were forced into camping in June 2016 that Flitner talked with Bridger-Teton Forest Supervisor Tricia O’Connor about organizing a labor camp of some kind on forest land, but a partnership now looks unlikely due to the time it would take to perform an environmental analysis to assess a potential site’s feasibilityO’Connor told the local publication Planet Jackson Hole, "While this may have looked at first blush like an easy fix, it is notAnd we don’t have any other easy fixes for this summer." I don’t want to survive in Jackson, I want to live in JacksonAnd what I’m doing right now is just surviving. If camping isn’t an option, especially for families with children, many are forced to consider moving outside of JacksonThe towns of Victor and Driggs, both in Idaho, now house Jackson workers who commute 45 minutes each waySouth of Jackson, towns like Alpine require more than an hour drive into workWhen commuting doesn’t make sense, workers in Jackson take the next logical step: they leave. Despite help-wanted signs in storefronts throughout the city, much of Jackson’s workforce has left"We’re going to have restaurants and stores and hotels that are understaffed all summer," Erickson says"And that impacts the guest experience." Jackson Hole Mountain Resort decided not to open its Couloir restaurant on the top of the Bridger Gondola for summer 2016 in part because they couldn’t staff it. The situation worsened so severely in May and June of 2016 that many proclaimed that it was no longer a housing "crisis," but was now an emergencyChristine Walker, a former executive of the Teton County Housing Authority, first moved to Jackson in 1989, and even then she had to camp until she found a place to liveBut, she says, now entire families are forced into homelessness"When you’ve got families who are camping because they don’t have any other choice," she says, "That’s an emergencyWhen you’ve got four people crammed into a tiny hotel room because that’s their only option, it becomes a public safety and health issue." In the short term, those most affected are the low-wage workers in the community, many of them with kids in schools"They’re having to make hard choices, basic need choices," Walker says"They’re having to choose whether to pay for shelter or food, shelter or medical care, shelter or education." The crisis boiled over on June 6, when more than 100 people braved pelting rain and hail to march to a town council meeting and demand action on affordable housingHandmade signs read, "Homelessness is here" and "Yes, In My Backyard." Vennie Perez wore his own sign that day, carefully written in black SharpieIt read, "I love my countryI love my communityI’m proud to be a part of a poor familyBut I feel sad, because my family and many other families don’t have a place to live." As of press time, Perez and his family had yet to find a new apartment. The severity of the housing shortage this summer has led to a surge of grassroots movements hoping to publicize the plight of Jackson’s struggling workforce. Groups like Shelter JH and the Awareness Project are working to put a face on homelessness, sharing the stories of those who have been displacedIn addition to organizing rallies, Shelter JH has proposed to bring in fully equipped trailers to provide year-round lodging options for workersThey also want to allow Jackson residents to host workers and families’ RVs in private driveways year-round, something that current zoning laws prohibitOther short-term options include permits to sleep in public parking lots as well as permitted overnight street parking. But while the town of Jackson is sympathetic to the plight of the homeless, the city isn’t ready to overturn decades of laws that have prohibited this type of in-town campingLifting the camping ban in Jackson "isn’t a long term solution," says Flitner"No one is coming to me and saying if you let me live in my car that would solve my problemBut I’m listeningAnd I’m still listeningAnd these are good people who want to help solve the problemToo often we demonize others because we don’t like their ideas or we have a different opinion, and that’s what is responsible for the lack of progress." The city has instead looked to other options to ease the housing crunchThe town of Jackson recently expanded bus service to help commuters living in nearby Victor, Alpine, and DriggsIt’s also providing incentives to the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust if it can begin construction this summer on new affordable housingThe Redmond Street Rentals project aims to build 28 one- and two-bedroom units of affordable, deed-restricted rental housing on the east side of townIt’s the only affordable housing project in Jackson that is shovel-ready, but even with approval from the town, the Housing Trust in late June 2016 was still short $6 million of its $12 million budgetAnd while it won’t help people struggling with housing this summer, the town council also approved the placement of a 1 percent General Revenue Sales Tax on the November 2016 ballotIf approved, the tax is expected to collect $40 to $48 million over four years, with 50 percent of the money going towards workforce housing projects. Many complain, however, that government efforts to solve Jackson’s affordable housing issues have been stymied by inaction and misdirectionThe Teton County Housing Authority was recently gutted and restructured, a process which has delayed shovel-ready projects and provided, as Christine Walker sees it, a "distraction" from the real issuesIn June, the city hired April Norton, a former nonprofit program officer, to serve as director of the newly created Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing DepartmentBut new rental units like the Redmond Street apartments will likely not be ready for tenants until summer 2017 at the earliest. Those affected by homelessness want to see more temporary housing units, rent control, and an expansion of tenants’ rightsAlthough Jorge Moreno only had to spend a month or two living in hotel rooms or staying with friends when his family was homeless in April 2014, it was an awful timeHe tried "to tell my wife and kids that everything was going to be fine, but I didn’t know it was going to be fine." A temporary trailer (like they "had in Katrina," Moreno adds) would have made all the difference"We’re willing to pay rent," Moreno explains, "we just need an option." Moreno also believes that landlords shouldn’t be allowed to raise rents by 50 to 100 percentWyoming’s property laws give landlords a great deal of power, and the housing shortage has meant that tenants have little recourse when faced with rent hikes or deplorable conditionsMany of his friends have never even seen a rental contract, Moreno says, and if they do have a contract, the terms are for as short as three or six months"We have no optionsA landlord can raise the rent at any time and there’s nothing we can do about it." In order to house the workforce needed in Jackson’s tourism-based economy, many think the makeup of the town will have to changeAs Mary Erickson acknowledges, "We’re not going to get there with duplexes and triplexes, we need to allow more densityIf we really want to house our service workers, we need to be looking at apartment complexes." Jackson’s 2012 Comprehensive Plan set a goal of housing 65 percent of its workforce locally, and in November 2015, it housed approximately 62 percentTo bridge that gap, zoning laws for the downtown corridor will have to allow for increased density. Christine Walker says that elected officials and the community need to capitalize on the grassroots movements striving to address the housing problemShe says, "We tend to look for the perfect solution instead of a lot of good solutionsWe never find the right location … it’s never rightBut we just need to be comfortable that it’s not the perfect location, or the perfect solution, but we’re going to have some really good solutionsAnd that will address our problems better than if we look for a perfect solution." To evolve, Jackson will also have to change how it sees itself"We still think of ourselves as a little rural community, and we’re not," says Mary Erickson"We’re dealing with very serious urban issues." Jackson is no longer a stopover for adventurers passing through, but a world-class, high-end tourist destinationChristine Walker believes the solution lies in looking to other "high cost areas like San Francisco, New York, Boston, to see what they’re doing to address housing their workforce." While housing has almost always been tight, the people struggling to find housing in Jackson are no longer just college kidsNow, families make up a large percentage of Jackson’s at-risk populationAs Erickson remarks, "We talk a lot about seasonal workers, but the real concern for me and the people I serve is one of the things that has shifted in the past decade or so, more and more people who are year-round residents, are trying to make a life here, have children, and are working at the very low end jobsWhat used to be college kids are now familiesThat’s shifting all over the country, right? A job at McDonald’s was never intended to be a job for a family, but that’s what is happening." The housing crisis in Jackson also disproportionately affects Latino workers, who now make up over 30 percent of Jackson’s population (up from 17 percent in 2010)Many Latinos are drawn to Jackson because of the community’s immense need for workersAs Jorge Moreno puts it, they want what everyone wants: "a better life for my family." Instead, Moreno and others are forced to deal with the constant stress of housing insecurity"I don’t want to survive in Jackson, I want to live in Jackson," Moreno explains"And what I’m doing right now is just surviving." But while lower-wage workers are suffering from housing insecurity, it’s important to note that this isn’t just a lower-income problemWhen a community can’t house its workforce, it has devastating effects for everyone"From tourists to residents to businesses to wage workers to families—everyone in this community is affected by the housing crunch," Walker saysWhen Moreno surveyed his fellow tenants at the Blair Place Apartments, nursing students, nonprofit workers, and teachers were all struggling to pay for increased rentJackson’s lack of affordable housing is eating away at the middle class, too. The Jackson community "is disintegrating," Erickson says"I understand that people don’t want things to change, but at the same time if we don’t do something to address this, we will change at a deep levelWe think of ourselves as this great community, but that’s what’s at risk." Change is inevitable, Erickson believesThe fight against density, development, the "Not In My Backyard" voice that influences so much of Jackson’s politics, all of it aims to preserve the Jackson of yesterdayBut just like in New York City, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, when housing costs make it impossible for diverse populations to live in the same place, something essential is lostJackson’s crisis highlights big questions: who is served in resort communities? Do ski towns exist purely for tourists, those who come and go and are willing to spend over $100 on

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