Housing Advocates Call for Changes to Teton County Land Use Regulations

Record prices on home sales in Jackson make living there unaffordable

This is an artist’s sketch of 17 luxury condominiums that a private developer plans to build in downtown Jackson along South Cache Street and East Pearl Avenue. Some residents are concerned that they will cater to short-term rentals and not help provide longer-term housing solutions for residents. (Courtesy photo)

By Shen Wu Tan

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Jackson resident Molly Gibbs has moved five times in the past few years, occasionally storing some of her possessions in her car during short monthlong stays in temporary housing. That way, she wouldn’t have to pack up all her stuff before moving again.

Now, the 32-year-old bartender lives with a family of three, occupying a spare room in the basement of a local councilwoman’s home so that she can afford her monthly expenses and still have some money left over. While Gibbs said it would be ideal to have a place to call her own, the high costs of housing in the area makes that impractical.

Molly Gibbs is a bartender at Continuum Bar & Grill in Teton Village. She lives in a spare room in the basement of a local councilwoman’s home so she can afford to remain in Jackson. (Courtesy photo)

“It’s extremely ungrounding,” Gibbs said about her moves over the last few years. “And it’s definitely prevented me from being able to fully see myself rooting here even if it’s a short- or long-term period just because, since I’ve lived here, I haven’t really had secure housing.”

The small amount of land available for development in Teton County, coupled with land use regulations that housing advocates say don’t allow for building more affordable housing, play a role in the record-breaking market prices and housing crisis for people like Gibbs.

The average cost for a single-family home in Jackson was $4.5 million in 2021, an “extremely unaffordable” price for most working people, said Bomber Bryan, a real estate agent with Compass in Jackson.

He noted housing costs have more than doubled in the past few years. In 2017, the average price for a single-family home was $2.1 million — less than half what it is today.

About 97% of the land in Teton County, home of the Jackson Hole valley, is considered protected public land, meaning it is off limits for construction, Bryan said. The valley sits among mountain ranges bordered by Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Teton.

Adding conservation easements, only about 1.5% to 2% of the land in the county is open for development, Bryan added.

“We have very little supply, and demand has only increased exponentially since COVID for the last two years,” he said. “I think people are fleeing the big cities and trying to find tax havens, which is a big attribute for Wyoming.”

The most expensive single-family home on sale as of Jan. 25 was priced at $48 million, while the lowest-priced single-family home was going for about $1.8 million, Bryan said.

“We have an all-time low of inventory, and demand is as equally as high as the inventory is low,” he said. “It’s on steroids.”

Only 40 vacant sites were available for development in December 2021, down from 87 vacant sites in January 2020 and 147 vacant sites in January 2017, according to Bryan. As of Jan. 1, there were only 41 single-family homes on the market, a drop from 139 homes for sale for the same day in 2017, he added.

Zoning and land development regulations have made it difficult to build anything besides luxury living units, said Devon Viehman, a broker at real estate company Engel & Volkers Jackson Hole. She said policies need to be redesigned to allow construction for housing that’s affordable to people in the workforce.

For example, she suggested changing zoning to allow for multifamily housing, not just single-family units, and “higher density” development to fit more units.

“If you own a property here, it’s a great time to be a seller and then you go retire somewhere else,” Viehman said. “But if you’re trying to buy here and you work here, last year was like a gut wrench to people. Their dreams of someday being able to get into the market and start trading up kind of went away completely.”

“I think we need to make it easier to build workforce housing and incentivize developers to do that,” she said. “And we need to make it harder to build the luxury ones. Because whatever we make it easier for them to do, that’s what they’ll build. These developers just want to be able to make money, and right now the only way they can make money is by building this one kind of product here.”

In addition to high housing costs, property values have dramatically climbed for some locals as new residents moved in, driving up property taxes and forcing some to pack up and leave the community.

Jackson Town Councilmember Jessica Chambers, who is offering her extra room in the basement to Gibbs, said while Teton County benefits from property and sales taxes from the newcomers, older residents are “adversely affected by spiraling property taxes” as home prices climb, particularly when they are on fixed incomes and purchased their homes decades ago.

Jackson Town Councilmember Jessica Chambers says zoning and land regulations need to change to allow for less expensive multifamily units to be built. She says the council is considering several options, including lot splits to allow smaller lots for smaller homes and increasing the allowed number of units per lot above three. (Courtesy photo)

“It’s completely unmanageable,” Chambers said.

Some of the property taxes go to the county while a portion is collected by the state, which then distributes the funds to other counties for their school districts. In 2020, 21.3% of Teton County’s property taxes were distributed to state schools, while 56.4% were distributed to local schools within the county, according to the assessor’s office.

“New residents are driving up property values,” Chambers said. “‘Zoomers’ are taking up housing stock, pushing actual local workers further out of the community. Essentially, people of greater means, who are telecommuting, are driving up rents.”

Before the pandemic, people could rent a three-bedroom, two-bathroom single-family home for $3,500 a month, according to Viehman. She said rent for that kind of house now ranges from $5,000 to $20,000 a month.

To address the housing crisis, Chambers said zoning and land regulations need to change, like allowing construction for multifamily units while also securing alternative funding sources, such as municipal bonds to build more affordable housing.

She also said decreasing lot sizes in Jackson could help create more housing. By increasing lot sizes, the goal was to get duplexes or triplexes built; however, larger single-family homes were constructed instead, she noted.

Some possible amendments to land development regulations that the Jackson town council is considering include reductions in parking requirements for deed restricted small units, lot splits to allow smaller lots for smaller homes to provide ownership opportunities for an underserved portion of the workforce, increasing the allowed number of units per lot above three and changing the requirement of only one owner per lot to permit multiple owners per lot, according to Chambers.

Clare Stumpf, a coordinator for Shelter JH, a nonprofit in Jackson engaged in political and housing advocacy work, said her nonprofit also is working to ensure county officials pursue every possible avenue to get access to federal grant dollars, some of which could be used to fund housing.

Although she would like to stay in Jackson, Gibbs, who is living in Chamber’s basement, said she is constantly thinking about moving out of the area because of the high housing prices.

“It’s exhausting to always be thinking about it and just not to have any real roots put in and thinking realistically if this is a place where that’s possible,” she said. “It’s torturous because this is a place that I put a lot of effort in for three years to build community. It would be really sad to think about leaving after three-and-a-half years.”

Viehman, the broker at Engel & Volkers Jackson Hole, said many investors are buying properties in Jackson with cash offers, making it difficult for locals to secure housing. She added at least half of the home buyers last year came from out of state, mostly from California and Texas.

“If things continue to go the way they are with new developments of luxury freaking condos where no one can afford to live except for out-of-town people who come in, it’s going to drive the character of this community out, which is so ironic because that’s why people move here, a part of the beauty and grandeur that is this place,” Gibbs said.

Stumpf, the coordinator at Shelter JH, noted a bunch of luxury condos along South Cache Street and East Pearl Avenue are under development a block from Jackson’s town square and next to an older hotel and a couple of beloved local businesses, such as Thai Me Up Restaurant & Brewery and Ranch Inn. Chances are all the units will be short-term rentals, she said, and the community in general doesn’t want to see more short-term rentals in town.

“There’s a lot of short-term rentals that are already taking up units that we have that could be rented to locals,” she said.

Zoning downtown allows for short-term rentals, Stumpf added, and it is difficult for people in the community to understand why town councilors can’t just say no to a project like the condos at Cache and Pearl.

“It’s because it’s legal,” Stumpf said. “I know there is at least one town councilor, maybe more, who wished they could say no to this project. But if you say no to a project that’s legal to a developer who’s done their due diligence, you’re opening yourself up to a lawsuit. So, their hands are tied until we change the rules.”

Real estate broker Viehman described the Jackson community as split between developers of luxury homes and people who don’t want to see more of these types of units constructed.

“Our community is very divided right now,” said Viehman. “And it’s people who are angry about these luxury town homes being built, these luxury developments. They don’t want to see them anymore. They’re fed up and I don’t blame any of them for it. But we cannot make the developers the enemy because they are doing what they are allowed to do by our rules right now. So, people who are really fired up have got to join me in pushing for our elected to change the rules. That’s how we’ve got to get our community back together.”

While Gibbs is grateful for her housing situation, she acknowledges it is not a long-term solution.

“I think our community would benefit so greatly, in so many ways, from human services to recreation to literally everything, if we could have more sustainable, affordable housing access because the community is suffering and stretched so thin,” Gibbs said.

She added, “You don’t want to see this town turned into Disney World, and that is what it feels like sometimes.”

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