Jackson’s Housing Costs Exact a High Price on Residents

Four roommates symbolize the plight and flight of life in Teton County

The skyrocketing cost of housing in Jackson has forced many residents to move out of the area, and in some cases the state, including Kate Roberts, who recently packed up her possessions and her dog (shown here) and returned to Washington. (Courtesy photo)

By Madeline Thulin

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Kate Roberts spent the last six years planting her dreams in the rocky mountainsides of the Teton Valley.

The 31-year-old arrived in Jackson in 2016, having earned a degree at the Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She dealt with the same financial burdens that she knew many other people faced, such as student loans and car payments, but finding affordable housing in Jackson proved to be the biggest challenge.

“I have never been able to live in Jackson without more than one job,” Roberts said. “Sometimes I felt lucky that I was only supporting myself. But I was always needing a side job of some kind on top of my full-time work.”

In addition to working as the sexual health program coordinator for the Teton County Health Department, Roberts worked at Pica’s Restaurant. She also babysat, worked as a preschool teacher and, most recently, worked the night shift for the Community Safety Network in Jackson.

Kate Roberts had lived in Jackson since 2016 and worked multiple jobs to pay her share of the $3,400 monthly rent, but the landlord decided to sell the house and Roberts had to move out. The 31-year-old has returned to central Washington and has moved in with her parents until she decides her next step. (Courtesy photo)

Roberts paid for housing by attracting three other singles to help share the $3,500 monthly rental cost on a two-story house located less than one mile from Jackson Hole High School. Some roommates cycled in and out, but she managed to keep a foursome together the past 18 months. Besides Roberts, one roommate was a schoolteacher whom Roberts had met in college; the only male in the group was a fly-fishing instructor from the East Coast; and the fourth was a conservation specialist.

Then bad news arrived in August. The owner of the house decided to sell, and they had 90 days to vacate.

That’s when the reality of Teton County’s rocketing cost of housing literally hit home.

Teton County has the highest income from assets per capita in the nation, according to a study published Aug. 17 by the Economic Innovation Group. The cost of buying a house in Jackson shot up anywhere from 23 to 44 percent in 2020, according to the Jackson/Teton County Housing Department. That has forced some residents to leave the city, and in many cases the state.

The 1,935-square-foot house Roberts and her roommates rented now lists online for $2.45 million. It was valued at $870,000 in February 2020, according to real estate websites, and at $735,300 two years ago. The homeowner declined to comment.

The house sits on a half-acre and features three bedrooms, two baths and two living areas. Another two bedrooms, one bathroom and a second full kitchen are located above the garage. It was built in 1970 and was remodeled in 2005, according to the listing.

While the backyard was bucolic, with a small stream trickling through it and a bike trail nearby, the house needed repairs inside.

Christine Kiely, the roommate Roberts had met in college, said 6-inch mushrooms were growing out of the floor, the banister on the porch had broken off, the gutters were falling off and one ceiling had a hole in it. Still, the house was a beautiful bargain, Kiely soon learned.

Kiely, 31, taught at Munger Mountain Elementary School in Jackson the past four years. She searched around town for something—anything—but nothing was even “close to affordable,” Kiely said. All the other places she viewed went for about $2,500 per month – more than half of her monthly take-home pay as a schoolteacher.

Christine Kiely taught at Munger Mountain Elementary School the past four years, but she learned in August that she could no longer rent this house with three other tenants. The owner decided to sell it. Kiely could not find any other affordable housing in Teton County, so she moved to Seattle. (Courtesy photo)

“Jackson is a very desirable place to live, and people continue to move here for its natural beauty,” said Cindee George, an associate broker at Compass Real Estate in Jackson. “Remote working — during the initial COVID-19 outbreak and continuing now — (allows people to) work remotely, and they are choosing beautiful places to live like Jackson, which is adding to our housing shortage.”

Jackson attracts some of the wealthiest individuals with its natural splendor next to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park; another draw is that the state doesn’t charge personal income taxes on its residents. That’s a major financial incentive, George added.

The real estate agent, who moved to Wyoming with her family in 1999, also said, “With incredibly low inventory, housing in general is hard to come by, and with the recent price hike during COVID, prices jumped at all time high levels in a very short period of time.”

With all of that in mind, Kiely decided she had no choice but to move out of Jackson. She envisions getting married and having children in the next five to 10 years, and those goals no longer seemed financially feasible in Jackson, she said. Kiely returned to Seattle where she had earned her master’s degree in education, hoping to restart her career.

Meanwhile, Roberts faced a similar dilemma. She, like Kiely, couldn’t find affordable alternative housing when the notice to vacate arrived, so she relocated to her hometown of Wenatchee, in central Washington, about two weeks ago to live with her parents until she determines her next step.

Two main factors contributed to why Roberts left Jackson, she said: the price of housing when she lost her lease and how COVID-19 had affected her health.

Roberts referred to “the absurdity of the situation of trying to find a rental now versus four or five years ago” in Jackson. “I feel like I felt very lucky that I had a stable place for that amount of time.”

She admitted that she “had heard that things were getting more expensive but hadn’t really experienced it myself. I was just hit across the face with the reality of it. It was such a shift that I wasn’t expecting to feel so quickly. It was very bizarre.”

Brian Shott (at right) enjoys a fishing outing in Jackson with Pat McNamara, a friend from college in Rhode Island. Shott works as general manager of the Jackson Hole Fly Fishing School. Shott, 27, was the only one of four roommates who found alternative housing in Jackson after they were forced to vacate the rental house they shared for several years. (Courtesy photo)

Roberts also had experienced chronic fatigue from COVID-19. “It felt pretty impossible to isolate from the others (in the house),” she said. Kiely had contracted the virus twice while they lived in the same house.

While Kiely and Roberts have moved to Washington, one of their roommates, Brian Shott, was the lone member of the foursome tenants to find alternative housing in Jackson.

Shott, 27, was in the middle of the fly-fishing season when he and the other tenants learned that they needed to move out of their rental house on Hi-Country Drive. The Philadelphia native works as general manager and lead instructor at Jackson Hole Fly Fishing School and has lived in Jackson for five years. Shott also works out in the mixed martial arts community, and it was that connection that helped him find another place to live in Jackson.

“(I) didn’t really have time to look for housing,” Shott said. “My Plan B was just to move in with buddies or friends if I couldn’t find a house to move into, just to get me through the time period when I could start looking for something. I reached out to (my martial arts coach) Tyler Davis and told him what I was looking for, and when I would have to move out. He got back to me and said, ‘I figured out the perfect spot.’”

Davis, who owns a real estate company in Jackson, manages the Old West Cabins where Shott is renting a room. It’s a few miles south of downtown Jackson on Highway 89. “He was stoked to have people he knows there,” Shott added.

He pays $1,000 per month, only $125 more than he paid at the two-story house with Kiely and Roberts.

“I got upgraded for very little, and we get snow removal, and we get a big dumpster, so our trash program is taken care of,” Shott said. “In a lot of ways, I get more bang for my buck now.”

Shott, whose passion for fishing grew while he attended college in Rhode Island, admits that rent in Jackson is “crazy” compared to what you would pay elsewhere, but he adds that he gets to live “in an amazing place, so I’m not too upset about it. I moved to Jackson knowing everybody wants to live (here) and things are going to be unique to that. I was prepared for that and know that it is a tough place to live.”

Carolyn Prescott, the other roommate who lived with Kiely, Roberts and Shott, remains the least certain of her next step.

She completed a five-month teaching assignment with AmeriCorps in Jackson in the winter and spring of 2016, left Wyoming for a while and then returned in January 2018. While living in Jackson, Prescott also earned her master’s degree in geographic information science and cartography at the University of Wyoming.

Prescott is spending time in the southwestern part of the United States and plans to spend the holidays with her parents in the Midwest before deciding on her professional career and where she will settle down next.

The cost of housing is not lost on Jackson and Teton County officials.

“For over three decades housing in Teton County has been unaffordable for the working class,” according to the 2020 Jackson and Teton County Annual Housing Supply Plan, published by the Jackson/Teton County Housing Department and housing boards. “That trend shows no signs of changing with housing prices at near all-time highs and incomes, while higher, not rising fast enough to keep pace.”

According to the plan, in 2019, a household needed to earn at least $94,000 to afford a median condominium in the area priced at $555,000. To afford a median single-family home of $1.6 million, the household income would need to be at least $280,000. And prices have gone up even more since then. The median single-family home has increased to $2.28 million, according to an update in April 2021, putting it out of reach for all median wage earners in Teton County.

“The last year a single-family home in Teton County was affordable for a household earning (the) median family income, Whitney Houston was belting out ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ and Tim Brown won the Heisman Trophy (1987),” the plan said.

George, the real estate agent, said economic forces are also impacting longtime residents in Jackson.

“With increasing pricing in housing, the assessment of value of real estate is increasing, and this results in higher property taxes,” she said. “Locals may be moving or need to move as they cannot afford this significant jump in property taxes.”

Roberts said she did not realize how stressful living in Jackson was until she recently moved back to Washington, but she has no regrets about the last few years. She participated in the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance’s Leadership Institute while she lived there.

Will she miss living in Wyoming?

“I think that with time I will,” Roberts said, “because I think that I met some of my best friends there, and learned to grow into who I am. It was a really formative time.”

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