Apartment complex shot down by town

Joe Rice with FN's Guy Fieri

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The takeaway from a town meeting Monday night where a restaurateur wished to build a large apartment complex to house his employees and other lower-income members of the local workforce was this: It ain’t about you, Joe.

Council members balked again on a text amendment to land development regulations (LDRs) that would allow Joe Rice’s Sagebrush Apartments to skirt around current regulations that say when a developer builds something, he/she must mitigate the impacts of their development by providing affordable housing. Rice argued that his entire project was inherently affordable housing—some 90 or so apartments—and thought current LDRs should be changed to remove barriers to private sector engagement in creating workforce housing.

Councilmembers agreed the apartment project had merit but three of the four in attendance last Monday were not prepared to alter LDRs for a few reasons. There was no guarantee the development could one day be sold, for example, and new owners could jack rents as high as the market would bear. Electeds also were made uneasy by the lack of restrictions concerning who could live in the apartments.

“When we craft policy it’s not about who’s a good guy or what promises are made,” councilman Jim Stanford said. “The only way to deal with landlords is through deed restriction. I think deed restriction is important. That said, I think there is some merit to this project. People obviously support this specific project. But it’s not about the assurances made here today.”

Former Housing Authority head Christine Walker spoke on behalf of the applicant saying, “Current rules discourage these developments. There is a reason there have been no apartment projects in the last 20 years from the private sector. The system is broken and it needs to be fixed. We need to change rules not just for this project but for all the private sector to get rid of barriers and make it easier.”

Walker received assurance from town planners that if the Sagebrush Apartment development were ever sold, old LDR rules would then kick in, requiring the new owner to build 20 affordable units for every 100 units on the ground. Still, it wasn’t enough to dissuade Mayor Pete Muldoon.

“[Deed-restricted affordable housing] are the Holy Grail of workforce units. They’re extremely valuable to the community,” Muldoon stated. “They can only be rented to people who work here, who make no more than 120 percent of area median income, and do not own any residential real estate. These deed restrictions last forever, and they are an extremely valuable public asset that benefits those most in need.”

Muldoon added that there would be no actual restrictions on who could live in the apartments Rice was proposing. “The free market is not interested in providing affordable housing. The free market has one goal, and that goal is maximizing profit,” Muldoon stated.

Rice defended his request, saying, “You can’t keep employees when you can’t house employees. People come up to me all the time and ask, ‘What is the issue?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s easier to get a hotel approved than this. How many people have come to you with a 90-unit apartment building? I would venture to say zero. Because at the end of the day it’s all about the money [for them].”

Councilwoman Hailey Morton-Levinson was the sole town leader to back the text amendment, which had the approval of the town’s planning department.

“I agree with staff. Apartments are part of the solution and want to see them built,” she said. “I stand by the Housing Action Plan that says we should be looking for ways to remove barriers to workforce housing. I think it’s kind of funny that 20 percent of zero is zero when you get nothing built.”

Stanford encouraged Rice to simply try his apartment project through a PUD [planned-use development)—a more specified tool that would apply to his project only. “This is a text amendment that is supposed to be approved for generic projects. If we wanted to consider the benefits of this particular projects, wouldn’t it be best to do so through PUD?” the councilman asked.

Rice has a PUD version of Sagebrush already in the process and scheduled for an upcoming meeting. That route, however, takes longer and is more expensive for developers. But it would, argued Stanford and Muldoon, provide more guaranteed affordable housing into perpetuity for the tradeoffs Rice was asking for.

Rice and company said they will bring back the text amendment one more time when Don Frank is present. The councilman missed Monday’s meeting, but has expressed his backing of the proposal to change LDRs. Still, that would likely result in a 3-2 vote against, as councilman Bob Lenz also appears to be balking at the request.

“I just assume doing it with a PUD,” Lenz said. “A text amendment is just a little more than I can handle.”

Rice’s project will once again come before the council at their next regularly scheduled meeting on April 4.