Vacation resort replaces affordable housing in Teton Valley

Once-affordable towns near Jackson Hole have become real estate magnets since the pandemic.

 

Homes in East Jackson, Wyoming. The Jackson area has the highest levels of income inequality in the U.S.

The residents of the Rockin’ H Mobile Home Park in Victor, Idaho, found eviction notices attached to their doors in June 2020. The park had recently been acquired by the business next door, a summer vacation getaway called Teton Valley Resort, which offers RV hookups, tipis, luxury cabins and a spa. These are boom times for Teton Valley’s outdoor and tourism business, and the resort wanted to expand.

The residents were given 90 days to vacate — not enough time under a state housing law. Brian Stephens, an attorney with the Intermountain Fair Housing Council, which represents several of the families involved, noted that trailer park evictions present special issues. “There’s a piece of property to move,” he said. “You’re not just leaving an area; you’re finding a new place to put your home.”

This was the issue for Mario and Celerina Hidalgo and their five kids. Their neighbors all left, but the family remained, fighting the eviction in court. In spring 2021, development began in earnest around the Hidalgo family’s trailer: An excavator dug trenches and toppled a tree outside their front door. A digger idled for several hours outside their window one day. Workers put up a chicken wire fence around their yard.

“We felt really scared and threatened. Not having anywhere to go, we felt like everything was closing in on us,” Mario Hidalgo said in September. “It was terrible,” added Dario, his 18-year-old son.

 “You’re not just leaving an area; you’re finding a new place to put your home.”

The new owner, Randy Larsen, framed most of these incidents as misunderstandings. He grasps why the Hidalgos are upset, he said, but city zoning laws forced him to build a sidewalk near the family’s trailer.

Asked about the loss of affordable housing due to the park’s closing, Larsen responded that seasonal workers use his RV spots during the summer; last winter, he said, he provided about 80 rentals for employees at Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee ski resorts. He also offered the Hidalgos and other families in the park free housing in a bunkhouse-style building on the resort. “I’m really honestly a guy that wanted to create some housing,” he said. “There’s a crisis here.”

On that, Larsen and the Intermountain Fair Housing Council agree. For Stephens, this case is about more than one trailer park. Displacing working families to make way for vacation cabins is the Mountain West’s housing crisis, distilled.

“This was one of the last affordable housing areas in Teton County,” he said.

Cabins at Teton Valley Resort in Victor, Idaho.

TETON VALLEY SITS JUST WEST of the Idaho-Wyoming border, beneath the jagged peaks of the Teton Mountains. The regional economy once relied mainly on agriculture, but today it’s dominated by outdoor recreation and tourism, driven by Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the ski resorts dotting nearby slopes.

Over the mountains to the east is Jackson Hole. Dubbed “a tax haven with a view” by local real estate firms, Jackson, Wyoming, attracts some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people — including Christy Walton, widow of Walmart heir John Walton, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt — billionaires who flock to the area, snapping up multimillion-dollar mountain properties. This is due in part to Wyoming’s lax corporate disclosure laws and lack of income, inheritance, estate, real estate sales or capital gains taxes. America’s most extreme levels of income inequality are found in the Jackson Hole metro area.

A small army of service workers cleans the mansions, serves the drinks, runs the chairlifts, grooms the ski slopes and mows the lawns of the hyper-wealthy. For a long time, they could find an affordable place to live over the mountains and across the border, in towns like Victor or Driggs, Idaho. The mobile home park reflected this reality: All the residents were Latino families, and many, like the Hidalgos, worked for tourism-dependent businesses. Mario and Celerina Hidalgo moved to Teton Valley from Mexico in 1999, then worked packing potatoes and cleaning houses before they found better jobs in local restaurants. Recently, Mario Hidalgo noticed that affordable rentals were becoming increasingly scarce, even as more tourists seemed to visit every year.

The pandemic pushed this trend into overdrive. Part of this is the Zoom Boom — people with the option to work remotely have sent housing prices skyward in small towns across the mountain West. In a recent analysis of Zillow real estate data, Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research group, found a 15% increase in housing prices from July 2020 to July 2021 in Teton County, Idaho, which includes Driggs and Victor. Prices spiked to unprecedented levels in communities up to an hour’s commute from Jackson. (Meanwhile, in Jackson, the market, somehow, continued to climb: The overall sales volume through 2021’s third quarter — $2.166 billion — was more than double the previous high.)

This has implications for renters, too: Higher housing prices mean fewer people can buy, which leads to rental shortages. This is abundantly clear on the community’s Facebook pages, which are almost entirely consumed with housing issues. In late September, one frustrated resident wrote incredulously about a tiny home, less than 800 square feet, that was selling for half a million dollars. The competition for rentals is so fierce that posts from prospective tenants tend to read like job applications, complete with references and professional headshots. Some applicants describe living out of their cars on public lands. Pet-owners fervently vow that their pets are well-behaved. Many emphasize that they are longtime locals, members of the community who would like to stay here, if only they could afford it.

Joseph Goddard, for example, who runs a small construction and landscaping business and snowboards on weekends, learned this summer that he would lose his housing in the fall. After months of searching, he eventually found a place. He said the Driggs rental market is noticeably worse than it was even just a year ago. “The market out here has gone all the way to the damn moon,” he said.

This is not Teton Valley’s first experience with a housing boom. In the early 2000s, the county approved and platted new developments in droves. Then came the crash of 2008. Thousands of half-completed “zombie” houses were left scattered across the valley. With housing prices once again going gangbusters, the community feels a sense of whiplash, said Anna Trentadue, an attorney for Valley Advocates for Responsible Development. (Trentadue is one of the lawyers representing the Hidalgo family.)

Some people want to encourage new development; others want tighter regulations to promote the right kind of growth. Policy changes could be coming: Teton County’s planning and zoning commission is holding hearings regarding a possible overhaul of the county zoning system, which is outdated and offers few tools for controlling development. But the process is moving slowly. The change is desperately overdue, Trentadue said. “The floodgates are open for speculative development; the whole community can see that.”

The Hidalgo family’s trailer, surrounded by construction for new development by Teton Valley Resort. The family moved out in July, even as they continued to fight their eviction.

“We felt really scared and threatened. Not having anywhere to go, we felt like everything was closing in on us.”

BY MID-NOVEMBER, only the Hidalgo family’s trailer remained at what was once the Rockin’ H Mobile Home Park; the family itself moved out in July. They knew they would have to leave eventually, Mario Hidalgo said; they felt “smothered” by the resort. But the legal struggle between the family and the resort isn’t over. As of press time, the two sides were in the final stages of a potential settlement. And there is a separate active complaint, alleging racial discrimination and unlawful evictions, filed on behalf of the Hidalgos and three other families, before the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The process has been ugly at times. Larsen alleged that the Hidalgo family failed to pay rent. According to documents reviewed by High Country News, however, the family provided rent checks through July 2021, as The Teton Valley News first reported. Larsen then said that the resort returned the checks and accused the family of squatting. That same month, a resort employee told the Hidalgos they had three days to leave or the sheriff would evict them; the county attorney ultimately told the family’s lawyers that she would instruct the local police force to run any eviction actions at the park by her.

Mario Hidalgo said they would have left earlier, but the local housing crunch prevented it. “We kept looking for a new place to rent or a new place to move the trailer, but we couldn’t find a place that would accept us to rent or find rent within our range,” he said. Eventually, the family found a townhome in Driggs. At the trailer park, their lot fees were $500 per month; the rent at the new townhome is $2,300. It was the cheapest place they could find.   

Nick Bowlin is a correspondent at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy. 

Note: This story has been updated to reflect that an excavator, not a bulldozer, dug trenches around the Hidalgo family's trailer. 

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