The recession that hit in 2008-'09 relieved some of the housing pressure. Some businesses closed, and the construction industry tanked, so there was less need for housing for workers. But the housing problem will almost certainly get worse as the economy improves. And the next demographic wave -- hundreds of local baby boomers who will retire over the next five years -- will exacerbate the problem. Many of them, working as teachers, nurses and so on, bought free-market homes decades ago, before the big price increase. If they move away after they retire, their homes will sell for far more than most workers can afford; many will be bought by rich people as vacation homes. And if the retirees stay in their homes, whoever takes their old jobs will need different affordable housing.
The first draft of the new comprehensive plan, produced in a grueling five-year process that included more than 40 public meetings, again called for big dense developments in South Park and other suburbs to alleviate housing pressure. Again, residents, conservationists and other "small-town" advocates rebelled against those aspects of the first draft, so planners once more dropped them. The final draft, approved by the county and town governments last year, is far less ambitious, calling for small new pockets of affordable housing, scattered wherever the neighbors might be more receptive.
Now the interested parties are arguing over crafting specific regulations to carry out the new plan's general goals. Trevor Stevenson, director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, says, "It will be some of the hardest community planning any place in the country has done."
The current head of the county planning department, Jeff Daugherty -- who commutes over Teton Pass and has been hit by an avalanche while doing so -- offers a familiar observation: "Many people in our community are very engaged and have strong opinions." With the economy so linked to tourism and the tastes of rich people, Daugherty says, "We're dependent on preserving these scenic vistas and open space, the Serengeti of the West, along with the quality of life for our residents."
One of the groups that oppose the big developments and four-story buildings -- Save Historic Jackson Hole -- is even suing the town government over the new plan, trying to force a referendum allowing voters to overthrow it. (Due to a legal technicality, the group can't sue the county government at this stage.) The new plan should be even tougher about limiting development, says Armond Acri, the group's executive director, who has a bushy gray beard and an affable but precise manner. He moved to Jackson for its outdoor recreation, scenery, wildlife and small-town ambiance 17 years ago, and worked as a traveling engineer on construction projects -- Hershey candy factories around North America -- until he became Save Historic Jackson Hole's executive director about five years ago. Like Bloom and many others I interviewed, Acri lives in South Park. But reflecting on his battles against the big proposals for more housing there and elsewhere, Acri says, "Some in town want us to become more urban. The real question is: How many people can you put here and keep things the way they are?"
Acri, like Moyer and to some degree Bloom, thinks that Jackson's housing problem should be addressed mostly with rentals, free-market houses, and long-distance commutes. "It's always been hard to live here," he says. "That hasn't changed."
Many of the threads here show up in other towns. There are 76 community land trusts in the West, creating affordable housing through a mix of donations, grants and government funding, according to the National Community Land Trust Network, based in Portland, Ore. They range from the Alaska's Juneau Housing Trust to T.R.U.S.T. South LA in metro Los Angeles. "The community land trust movement is maturing and able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the model," so that banks understand "it's safe to invest" in projects and loan money to buyers, says Melora Hiller, the head of the network.
The OPAL Community Land Trust -- "Of People And Land" -- develops affordable housing on Orcas Island, in Washington's San Juan Islands chain, where workers have to commute by ferry. OPAL has done an 18-lot affordable neighborhood and other projects that put 24 homes on four acres and 32 homes on 7.25 acres; they include modulars and "840-square-foot cabin-like homes."
The Community Housing Trust of Santa Fe, in New Mexico, has developed nearly 700 units of affordable housing. Its director, Sharron Welsh, says that conservation ethics have sometimes conflicted with affordable housing goals. The Santa Fe government, recognizing the crisis more than 20 years ago, bought an 863-acre suburban parcel, and, with the trust's help, it's been developed into a master-planned community called Tierra Contenta: in rough numbers, a total of 2,500 affordable homes, with another 1,000 in the works, along with open space, schools, a library and shops. "There were countless hours of public hearings and debates, but polls showed that the public thought affordable housing was the number-one priority, and public opinion prevailed," Welsh says. Santa Fe has a unique atmosphere, but it can pull off a big affordable housing development like that, because it doesn't have quite the natural environment -- and the environmental defenders -- that Jackson has.
The housing problem tears at this community's fabric. "I'm constantly feeling bad about burning fossil fuels on my way to work," says Cory Hatch, a former Jackson Hole News&Guide reporter now on staff with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. He also commutes from Idaho over Teton Pass, dealing with the road's serpentine curves and a 10 percent grade that lasts five miles, along with seasonal glare ice, blizzards and the avalanches. "It's one-and-a-half hours a day I'm not spending with my family" or doing anything productive, he adds. He and his wife, Amy, have had harrowing experiences crossing the pass, witnessing wrecks, sliding around and just barely avoiding wrecks themselves. Last year, when she was very pregnant and two weeks overdue, another blizzard came down, and her contractions began. The hospital, like the jobs, is in Jackson, and they hit the road after midnight: He was at the wheel trying to maintain traction, while she knelt on the back seat getting a massage from the doula who rode with them. They made it to the delivery room in time and their daughter's birth went OK, but the whole icy drive while she was in labor "was intense," Amy says.
Typically, people who commute from outside the county don't spend their paychecks here, their kids don't go to school here, and they don't volunteer or vote here. And the cost of housing causes a lot of churning, as people arrive in Jackson with high hopes and then give up and move away. "We lose a lot of good folks that could provide service to the community, because of how difficult it is to get housing," says Mark Gocke, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department staffer who's lived in Jackson for 18 years. (The Wyoming Department of Game and Fish gives Gocke a housing subsidy, on top of his salary, to help him pay for his 1,600-square-foot house in South Park -- $200 a month when he moved here, and now $867, another clear indication of the rising cost of houses.)
"We see more and more people trying to cling to any kind of housing -- especially people with low-paying service jobs and people who've been laid off," says Smokey Rhea, director of the Community Resource Center, a Jackson social services nonprofit. "We handled 550 cases last year, and most were living with more than one family in a single-family unit. There was a two-bedroom trailer with a single mom and two kids living in one bedroom, and a single mom and her two kids in the other bedroom, and a man renting the hallway so he could sleep there. We have a lot of single people who sleep in their cars and do couch-surfing when the weather is bad."
Toward the end of my visit, I meet brown-eyed, dark-haired Miriam Espejel on her lunch break, in the Quiznos where her aunt works; they talk to each other in rapid Spanish. Born in a small town in Mexico, Espejel was 11 when her parents brought her to this area so they could work on farms and ranches and in motel housekeeping. While she attended middle school and high school in Jackson, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment with two siblings and her parents. Once she became a single mom with two kids of her own, she rented rooms in "pretty old rundown homes."
To cover her bills, Espejel worked one-and-a-half jobs for six years (as a full-time dental assistant and half-time receptionist), then got a better job as a pharmacy tech, which she's held for five years. She entered the Housing Authority lotteries for three years without being selected, and was on the waiting list for a Habitat for Humanity house for a year. Eventually, she put in 500 hours of volunteer work on Habitat houses, satisfying that program's requirement for "sweat equity." Finally, in 2008, she was allowed to buy a plain 1,200-square-foot Habitat house in Bloom's South Park neighborhood. It was only $150,000, and because Habitat also gave her an interest-free mortgage, her monthly payment is only $450.
"You should've seen the number of people who came out to help build my house -- they didn't even know me," Espejel says. "If it wasn't for that program, I wouldn't ever be able to buy a house. The people are very nice here -- we help each other a lot. It's wonderful not having to move around (from rental to rental) anymore. It's a feeling of security for my kids." As she recalls the community effort that provided the house, her eyes glisten with tears, and she pauses, dabbing her cheeks with a Quiznos napkin. Jackson, she says, "feels like home now, because we have a home."
Ray Ring, an HCN senior editor, has been based in Bozeman, Montana, for 18 years.
This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.