Jackson, Wyoming

As I roam around this resort town in April to meet conservationists who battle affordable housing projects, I'm struck by a tongue-in-cheek take on the argument in the Jackson Hole Daily. Smack on the front page is a photo of a pair of geese  facing off against two ospreys over possession of a manmade nesting platform. The birds' conflict has been highlighted for several days, and now the news is: Jackson's bird-lovers have erected a second nesting platform near the first, in the hope that the geese and osprey will accept separate but equal facilities. "By mid-morning, the housing crisis had been solved," the Daily observes wryly.

The newspaper's back page advertises real estate for humans: ordinary houses and condos for about $1 million each, vacant rural lots with a view of the surreal Teton crags for more than $2 million each, and a "perfect getaway" house at the best ski hill for about $3 million. And those are bargain prices, compared to the most expensive houses around here.

One bright morning, with fresh snow glaring on the Teton peaks, Rich Bloom is waiting for me in a cafe just off the town square. A gray-haired dynamo with sharp blue eyes, he came to Jackson from California when he was 18 to climb the Grand Teton. He settled here in his late 20s, and, with college training in ecology and environmental ed, he spent 300 weeks as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, and 20 years with the Teton Science School. Now he makes his living as a financial adviser, specializing in "environmentally responsible investing." When I mention affordable housing, he says, "It's an old story, and it's around us -- constantly."

Nearly everyone here has a personal housing-related saga, and Bloom recites his own: When he moved here 33 years ago, he rented a 200-square-foot cabin that was Science School employee housing. Then he and his wife, Becky, bought an unfinished two-bedroom house across the state line in Idaho, where prices are much lower, and drove the dangerous road over the 8,431-foot Teton Pass -- a 45-minute commute on a good day, and much longer, or completely impossible, during blizzards and avalanches. Eventually, they leveraged the Idaho house into a Jackson condo, and finally, eight years ago, bought an actual house in Jackson.

Other desirable Western towns also struggle with housing, of course, so some of the facts sound familiar: Between one-fifth and one-third of Jackson's workers -- more than a thousand people on average -- commute long distances because they can't afford to live here (the number of commuters fluctuates with economic ebbs and flows). Most live in Idaho and use the Teton Pass road, but some make even longer commutes from distant parts of rural Wyoming. Many other Jackson workers live crammed into small and rundown places. The median price of Jackson homes listed a few months ago was just over $1 million. That's more than 10 times the median household income (a calculation that includes earnings from investments), about 15 times the median income for individuals, and 20 times the average wage for local jobs. Economists agree that anything higher than three times annual income is unaffordable.

Yet Jackson is in a class all its own, because of its environment. This is the gateway to a unique array of wild landscapes: Grand Teton National Park, several other alluring mountain ranges, a great stretch of the Snake River and the sprawling National Elk Refuge. Thousands of elk, along with grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, bison and bald eagles, share the valley -- known as Jackson Hole -- with passionate anglers, hunters, wildlife watchers, skiers, kayakers, climbers, mountain bikers and hikers. The town square is famous for its massive arches of stacked-up elk antlers, and moose occasionally wander the streets.

To protect the environment and the community's "character," conservationists and other slow-growth advocates have done more than support vigorous land-use regulations similar to those imposed by other resort towns. They've also battled ambitious efforts to build affordable housing for workers -- "restricted" homes priced far below the free market, managed by well-meaning entities, as well as free-market homes designed to be within reach of the better-paid workers.

Bloom and I climb into his sage-colored Subaru and drive a few minutes to the fiercest battleground -- South Park, a suburban area on the flats just southwest of town. Hundreds of acres in South Park are already covered with homes on small lots -- many of them built decades ago -- and more than 1,000 acres stand vacant, apparently ripe for infill. Over the past 10 years or so, affordable housing advocates, county planners and landowners have attempted three big developments on South Park's vacant land. The proposals varied in detail, but they would've created more than 1,000 new affordable homes in both restricted and free-market units. Neighbors, conservationists and other opponents exerted enough political pressure -- including petitions and a ballot measure -- to kill all three proposals.

"This is the most contentious" area around Jackson, Bloom says, but "I don't see these as battles -- these are discussions with people you know very well." Bloom himself led the rebellion against a 2007 proposal called Teton Meadows Ranch. He lives in Melody Ranch, a South Park neighborhood next to that parcel, and he organized several other neighborhoods into an umbrella group, South Park Neighbors, which helped gather 1,200 signatures on a petition opposing the development. He acknowledges that its vision of 400 restricted affordable homes plus 100 free-market homes on small lots –– all woven in with permanent islands of open space –– would have resembled his own neighborhood. "It's hard to be perfect -- we're all hypocrites one way or another," he says.

Honoring his lethal campaign against the development, the leading local environmental group, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, gave Bloom a "Hats Off award" in 2008 for his "dedicated efforts to get citizens involved in keeping Jackson Hole wild and beautiful." The pattern holds: Some affordable housing advocates and planners still want to do big South Park projects, but every time, they hit the same opposition. Sometimes they're even hit for proposing small affordable housing projects elsewhere in Jackson Hole. And in fact, most people on both sides do see it as a battle.

"People are here because they want to be here. We have a lot of passion about this place. But it's like high school, with a hell of a lot of money, terribly hormonal, a lot of adrenaline rushing all the time," observes the head of a local think tank, who prefers to remain anonymous. "People can get very impassioned over small things, and affordable housing hits a raw nerve. 'If your vision screws up what I think makes this place great, I'm going to fight you to the death.' "

The environmental champions usually win in Jackson Hole. But despite everybody's good intentions, many of the workers end up paying the price, using whatever currency they can manage.

There are no villains in this tale. Jackson is a high-powered community, with about 21,000 people in the town and suburbs. They've formed more than 200 nonprofit organizations, an incredible number for a community this size, and a few of the nonprofits are focused on the housing problem. So is the government of Teton County, which is more or less synonymous with Jackson, the only incorporated town. And so are employers, developers, landlords. They provide as many decent affordable homes for workers as they can, but it's not enough. The community throws just about anything imaginable at the problem, even sending commuter buses over Teton Pass equipped with state-of-the-art "Insta-Chains" -- when the road is slick, the bus driver flicks a switch and chains automatically wrap the tires.