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Photography by Ryan Dorgan

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Unequal City

How wealthy tourists have gentrified Jackson Hole, Wyoming, into a housing crisis

In March 2016, the family of 11-year-old Ventura Garcia Perez, otherwise known as "Vennie," received an eviction letter. Born 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 Charlie. Throughout 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 rates. Now, 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 States. Faced 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 air. These ski bums lived in mountain towns for one season or 20, sometimes heading back home and sometimes putting down roots. Housing 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 scarce. Jackson 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 before. More than 4.1 million people toured Yellowstone National Park in 2015, up from a 2014 total of around 3.5 million. And with the national parks system celebrating its centennial anniversary this summer, Jackson is braced for record numbers of tourists.

A boom in the wintertime economy has also stretched housing needs. Jackson boasts two ski areas (Snow King and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) and a local airport with direct flights from 14 cities. Fueled 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 prices. A 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 year. The median sale price of a home in Jackson hit a whopping $1.76 million last year. While 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 boom. Mayor of Jackson Sara Flitner acknowledged, "I think the economy is hot right now. We are experiencing higher levels of visitation than we have in the past. On the one hand, that’s a great high-class problem to have because our coffers are paid by sales tax dollars."

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 tourism. According 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 winter. It 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 wealthy. Few housing units have been built since the recession. According to data from 2014, between 2000 and 2010, Teton County added over 2,500 housing units, a growth of almost 25 percent. But from 2010 through 2013, only 460 new units were built, which equates to a growth rate of 3.2 percent. The 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 market. In early 2015, worker housing in downtown Jackson was demolished to make way for a Marriott Hotel that’s still under construction. Not long after, developers cleared out mobile homes at the corner of Kelly Avenue and Millward Street to make way for new apartments. Long-term residents in the run-down Pioneer Motel were forced out after the building’s owner (the Bank of Jackson Hole) deemed it unsafe. Many 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 percent. A two-bedroom unit’s rent rose from $1,250 to $1,800. The 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 hikes. When 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 hikes. He and other community members eventually negotiated for the 40 percent increase to be spread out over two years. Moreno’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 year. Still, he’s grateful. The 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 tight. Now, Erickson remarks, "We just don’t have anywhere for the people to go. That’s what’s making it an emergency."

When faced with rising rents, evictions, or the inability to find housing, Jackson workers have few options. Some are able to find alternative apartments, although vacancy rates are often less than 1 percent. Jackson also has an inventory of approximately 1,488 affordable housing units, but the supply of working housing is shrinking relative to vacant second homes. In 2000, local residents occupied 75 percent of the homes in Jackson. Today, an estimated 62 percent of Jackson’s workers live in Teton County. There are simply not enough housing options. Even 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 protections. The 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 apartments. Erickson acknowledges that according to the lease agreements at the Virginian apartments, only 100 people should have been affected by the 2016 evictions. In 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 next. One 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 tents. Especially in the summertime, camping (both legal and illegal) becomes widespread in the National Forests surrounding Teton County. Men 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 $12. Campers often move between different sites to avoid the five-day camping limit, have little access to water, and shower at the recreation center. So 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 feasibility. O’Connor told the local publication Planet Jackson Hole, "While this may have looked at first blush like an easy fix, it is not. And we don’t have any other easy fixes for this summer."

I don’t want to survive in Jackson, I want to live in Jackson. And 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 Jackson. The towns of Victor and Driggs, both in Idaho, now house Jackson workers who commute 45 minutes each way. South of Jackson, towns like Alpine require more than an hour drive into work. When 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 emergency. Christine 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 live. But, 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 emergency. When 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 housing. Handmade signs read, "Homelessness is here" and "Yes, In My Backyard." Vennie Perez wore his own sign that day, carefully written in black Sharpie. It read, "I love my country. I love my community. I’m proud to be a part of a poor family. But 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 displaced. In addition to organizing rallies, Shelter JH has proposed to bring in fully equipped trailers to provide year-round lodging options for workers. They also want to allow Jackson residents to host workers and families’ RVs in private driveways year-round, something that current zoning laws prohibit. Other 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 camping. Lifting 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 problem. But I’m listening. And I’m still listening. And these are good people who want to help solve the problem. Too 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 crunch. The town of Jackson recently expanded bus service to help commuters living in nearby Victor, Alpine, and Driggs. It’s also providing incentives to the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust if it can begin construction this summer on new affordable housing. The Redmond Street Rentals project aims to build 28 one- and two-bedroom units of affordable, deed-restricted rental housing on the east side of town. It’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 budget. And 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 ballot. If 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 misdirection. The 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 issues. In June, the city hired April Norton, a former nonprofit program officer, to serve as director of the newly created Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department. But 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’ rights. Although 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 time. He 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 percent. Wyoming’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 conditions. Many 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 options. A 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 change. As Mary Erickson acknowledges, "We’re not going to get there with duplexes and triplexes, we need to allow more density. If 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 percent. To 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 problem. She says, "We tend to look for the perfect solution instead of a lot of good solutions. We never find the right location … it’s never right. But 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 solutions. And 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 destination. Christine 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 kids. Now, families make up a large percentage of Jackson’s at-risk population. As 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 jobs. What used to be college kids are now families. That’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 workers. As 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 problem. When 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 says. When Moreno surveyed his fellow tenants at the Blair Place Apartments, nursing students, nonprofit workers, and teachers were all struggling to pay for increased rent. Jackson’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 level. We think of ourselves as this great community, but that’s what’s at risk." Change is inevitable, Erickson believes. The 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 yesterday. But 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 lost. Jackson’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 a lift ticket? Or are ski towns about something else, something more than all of the second homes sitting empty?

This problem isn’t unique to Jackson, and towns like Telluride, Truckee, and Big Sky are all working to expand affordable housing options. But it’s in Jackson that the problem is most acute, and where so much of ski town identity is in flux. In a 2015 report on the state of the town, the Jackson-based think tank the Charture Institute proclaimed that the town had reached the end of the "ski bum era." No longer can "someone of limited means but tremendous passion ... move to the valley and, with hard work and a little luck, have a reasonable shot at making a permanent home." The cost of living has made that dream untenable.

Editor: Sara Polsky