JACKSON, Wyo. — Not news: housing in Teton County is expensive.

The numbers paint a pretty clear picture: People working in Teton County can seldom afford to live here. The median income for a two-person household is $81,760. The average cost of a single-family home? $1.08 million. In order to afford that, a two-person household would have to earn around $300,000 a year. Even to buy a condo or a townhome would require an almost $100,000 bump salary increase from the median income. Housing costs have skyrocketed over the years, and wages have not kept up.

The Jackson/Teton County Housing Department has long tried to bridge the gap between income and home affordability through deed-restricted housing. They pay for that in a number of ways, explains town councilor Arne Jorgensen, primarily through mitigation (requiring employers, for example, to provide a certain number of housing units to employees), and the town and county’s general revenue fund, which comes from standard taxes (property and sales, primarily).

There’s another option this year: SPET. This year’s SPET ballot includes a $5.5 million proposition “for the purchase of appropriately zoned land to develop permanently deed restricted housing thereon and/or the purchase of deed restrictions to house the local workforce.”

Still taxes, but collected more quickly and for a “specific purpose,” as the name suggests.

Courtesy Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department // April Norton

What purpose?

The ballot language around this project is less “specific” than others. The funds are not being collected for a specific piece of land or shovel-ready project — yet. Instead, they would go into the Jackson/Teton County Housing Authority Housing Supply account. The Town Council and Board of County Commissioners would then direct and authorize how those funds are spent.

But the purpose is still clear and concise, Jorgensen says: the $5.5 million will only ever be spent on increasing the Affordable Housing Department’s housing supply.

“The language is precise,” Jorgensen says. “The language is precise so that if we fail, we can’t go spend it on something else. It’s going to sit in that account until we get our act together.”

By fail, Jorgensen means fail to act. Fail to agree, fail to make a decision to build affordable housing on a plot of land the town or county already owns. Such has been the case with the plot of land at 440 W Kelly, which has been ripe with controversy and indecision. Town and county electeds have yet to agree on a course of action on that property.

But there’s plenty the joint boards have agreed on, Jorgensen points out, and there is still plenty of projects that will come down the pipeline. “Regardless of what people want us to do for housing, we need funding to do it,” Jorgensen says.

Jorgensen is firm about this: if you don’t like what elected officials are doing, hold them accountable. Don’t vote for them. But don’t take away the tools they have to work with.

“Holding back funding because of frustration isn’t going to change what we’re doing,” Jorgensen says. “If voters use funding tools as leverage, I guarantee we will continue to have these problems.”

Deed restrictions 101

The housing department provides deed-restricted housing to local members of the workforce. What does that mean, exactly? Deed restrictions “remove [a] unit from the speculative marketplace,” Jorgensen explains. They set limits on how much a housing unit can appreciate in order to keep that unit affordable in future sales. Different restrictions mean different things, but what all of them do is restrict the resale market of that unit.

A deed restriction is essentially an added cost that the Housing Department buys, explains Affordable Housing Department Director April Norton. It’s a way to “buy” affordability. Deed restrictions happen one of three ways: the Housing Department can buy a home on the market at market-rate, and purchase a deed restriction for that home from the seller. The Department can also buy deed restrictions from developers to ensure a certain number of units (above what is required) are deemed “affordable.”

There’s a third option, which Norton says the Housing Department hasn’t used yet but wants to: downpayment assistance. Say you want to buy a condo that requires a $100,000 downpayment. You don’t have $100k to spend. You have $20k. The Housing Department with put the remaining $80,000 in escrow and give it to you at closing. That $80k turns into a workforce deed restriction.

There are two kinds of deed restrictions: income-based and workforce. Income-based deed restrictions mean that only people who fall into a certain income bracket are eligible to buy or rent a deed-restricted home. Workforce restrictions allow anyone whose primary income comes from Teton County to purchase or rent, regardless of income.

“It depends on the type of property and its best use, and the goal you’re trying to serve,” Jorgensen explains.

Town Councilor Arne Jorgensen speaks at a SPET Election Forum at Teton County Library. Photo: Buckrail // Sarah Averill

What’s it cost? 

Money collected from SPET could go toward a number of things: buying land to build more deed-restricted housing; building housing on land the town and county already own; buying deed restrictions on units that already exist; buying deed restrictions at closing as downpayment assistance.

The tools the town and county already have — mitigation and general revenue — are working, but Jorgensen insists they’re not enough.

“We’re doing good work, but it means other things don’t get funded if it comes out of our general revenue,” Jorgensen says.

However they choose to distribute the money, Norton estimates $5.5 million can add between 55-75 affordable units to the market.

“We’ll look at multi-family projects coming up online and try to buy those first,” Norton says. “Then I think we’d most certainly invest some money into financial (downpayment) assistance. Also, buying land and developing.”

So the wheels are in motion, Norton says. The department just needs funding to keep them moving.

“If you don’t vote for it, we don’t have any money to fix the problem,” she says.

Jorgensen agrees. How this vote shakes out will say a lot about the community’s values.

“To me, housing is a community issue,” he says. “If we’re unable to put funding tools together, we need to have a serious discussion as a community.”

“This is a long game,” he adds. “That’s what makes this hard. It’s a long-game, and it’s complicated.”


Buckrail @ Shannon

Shannon is a Wyoming-raised writer and reporter. She just completed a master's in journalism from Boston University. Jackson shaped her into an outdoorswoman, but a love for language and the human condition compels her to write. She believes there's no story too small to tell nor adventure too small to take.