More than 97 percent of the county's land is public, owned by federal, state or local government agencies, leaving only 78,000 acres of private land for development. Beginning in the 1970s, as the two local ski resorts and the park drew more tourists and raised Jackson Hole's profile, waves of middle-class immigrants like Bloom moved here, and rich people rushed to establish vacation homes. Locals reacted by ratcheting up regulations on private land with a 1994 comprehensive plan, and then got tougher in a new plan whose details are being hammered out even now. The regulations include "overlays" on the county map, which protect wildlife habitat and scenic views by restricting -- although not quite banning -- development on roughly 48,000 acres.
In addition, conservation easements more or less forbid development on 22,000 acres, mostly but not all within the overlay districts. And nearly 20,000 acres of the private land is too steep to build on, a mosaic that also overlaps with the overlays and easements. There are specific bans on construction within 300 feet of any trumpeter swan nest, and within 150 feet of cutthroat trout spawning areas, and so on. As a result, there's a lot of private open space, and even in town, it's hard to get permission to build anything taller than two stories, even if the proposal includes affordable housing.
The grass on the valley's protected private land is turning green and being grazed by horses, cattle and elk, as Bloom continues the tour, showing me what he considers good restricted affordable housing -- small projects of a half-dozen houses here, a half-dozen townhomes there, scattered throughout many neighborhoods. "They're simple and functional, and they fit right into the neighborhoods," he says. He's served as an adviser for efforts like these and he rattles off the jargon, including more than a half-dozen categories of "affordable housing" and "attainable housing." (The restricted prices range from less than $100,000 for a one-bedroom townhome to more than $500,000 for four bedrooms.)
There are three main players running the restricted homes, all founded in the 1990s: The Teton County Housing Authority uses tax money and money extracted from developers for building and managing 360 houses, townhomes and condos that people can buy, plus about 400 rentals. The Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust is a nonprofit that uses donations, grants and public funds to build or acquire 107 homes, ranging from studio apartments up to three-bedroom houses. Habitat for Humanity, a much smaller program, has built a few dozen houses for the neediest buyers.
The restricted homes are much cheaper than free-market homes, because the county agency, the nonprofits and developers provide subsidies that average more than $200,000 per unit, according to Bloom. But they amount to only a tiny fraction of the total number of homes here, and to get one, you have to go through a Kafkaesque screening and linger on a waiting list. Complicated formulas determine what kind of home your income qualifies you for, and you're evaluated on other factors, such as the number of years you've lived in Jackson, the kind of job you have and the number of hours you've volunteered for local causes. In the Housing Trust's system, ambulance drivers rate higher than teachers, while teachers rate higher than restaurant workers. The County Housing Authority uses a lottery combined with a less-complicated screening process, but even so, every applicant must have lived in Jackson at least four years, and "critical service providers" like EMTs and volunteer firemen get priority. Applicants often wait years without being picked.
"It can be very frustrating," Zeenie Scholz tells me. She attended middle school and high school in Jackson; her stepfather served on the board of the Housing Trust in its early years; she worked for a series of local nonprofits and now she's on staff with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance -- and she says that she applied to 20 Housing Authority lotteries over five years without success. Finally, she got a Housing Authority one-bedroom condo for $142,000.
Those living in the restricted homes, now or in the recent past, include local officials and politicians, business owners, the headmaster of a private school, musicians, teachers, nurses, ski patrollers, a brewmaster, the bus system's supervisor, and federal employees who work at places like the elk refuge and the national park. If you're a single person making up to $118,000, you can qualify for the biggest Housing Authority units; often the greatest demand is for the smaller units intended for people who make less than $80,000. Most local incomes fit within those boundaries, but applicants get mired in the waiting lists and lotteries, and the restricted homes, while often intelligently designed, tend to be small. Owning one is not as good as owning a free-market home: You can only sell to someone who formally qualifies for affordable housing, and if you do sell, you can't cash in on equity gains as much as you could in the free market.
Meanwhile, tough land-use rules require commercial and residential developers to provide a calculated number of affordable housing units or pay a fee that goes into the county's program. If you're building a single 8,000-square-foot house, your affordable housing fee would range from $10,890 up to around $80,000, depending on the date you bought your lot and other factors. The thinking is, the house and its occupants will require carpenters and landscapers and appliance repairmen and so on (chaffeurs and personal pilots are part of the formula), and all of those workers will need their own housing. Some employers provide housing voluntarily to recruit and retain reliable workers; the hospital bought an old motel, for instance, and converted it to employee units. But that kind of housing is hooked to your job: If you're laid off, fired or quit, you lose your home.
Bloom has served on the board of the Habitat for Humanity program, but he's something of a Darwinist when it comes to restricted housing. He believes that the free market is pretty adept at providing affordable homes, especially rental apartments, even though free-market apartments go for about $600 to $900 per bedroom, and often a renter has to pay more than $1,500 up front (first- and last-month's rent, plus a security deposit). Recalling the decades that he and his wife saved to buy their South Park house -- three bedrooms on a half-acre, worth maybe $700,000 to $800,000 today -- Bloom says, "We had to earn our way into a free-market house."