By Jen Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
Local and state government and non-profit entities are scrambling to provide affordable housing in the most expensive zip code in the country, Teton County, Wyoming. An acre of land here sells for around $1 million and the county’s priciest property, a 233-acre ranch, just sold for $35 million.
The severe housing shortage in Teton County has gotten worse in the past decade, according to a March 2022 Teton Region Housing Needs Assessment. Since 2010, jobs have increased twice as much as the number of affordable places to live. Currently, the assessment estimated a need for about 5,300 more housing units in the county by 2027.
Rental rates in Jackson can range from more than $2,000 a month for a studio apartment to $3,667 per month for three-bedroom units.
Teton County is at the apex of the affordable housing crisis in Wyoming, but other Wyoming communities are not far behind in the affordable housing crunch.Supply shortages are driving up costs and lessening availability in other Wyoming cities
– including Sheridan, Pinedale and Laramie among others.
By default, the county has become a case study for the rest of the state – for what works and doesn’t work – as the Wyoming Legislature’s Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee meets Friday in Casper. It plans to discuss potentially forming a state-wide housing trust fund.
What is the solution? Should the state enact a housing authority or trust? Should counties become limited liability companies (LLCs) and business developers? Should local governments subsidize housing through deed restrictions that cap property values and set rent based on income level through private public partnerships with city and county funds and private investors?
These are among the questions that remain as Teton County and other cities continue to grapple with creative solutions to house workers within the community.
Is Regulation The Answer?
Some national housing advocates believe government’s well-intended involvement is actually an impediment to providing affordable housing.
In an Aug. 5 joint letter from the National Apartment Association (NAA) and National Multifamily Housing Council (HMHC) to the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, the two authors argued that governmental involvement is crucial to helping to solve the problem but warned about adding yet another layer of regulations to the rental housing market that is already overlaid by strict local and state governmental control.
Citing a recent survey of national public and private housing professionals, NAA listed the top obstacles impacting municipality development community “not in my backyard” or “NIMBYism” and construction and land costs and availability as well as onerous restrictions.
“Even in communities that want and desperately need rental housing development, we face hurdles like zoning restrictions, rent control and other onerous local requirements (like building code provisions that have nothing to do with health and safety, land or infrastructure donation requirements and ill-fitting transportation and parking mandates),” the letter stated.
Together, the study concluded, these measures account for 41% percent of the project cost of providing affordable housing.
To this end, the two groups warned lawmakers to craft legislation that incentivizes states and localities to reduce barriers, streamline and fast track the rent control entitlement and approval process and provide density bonuses and other incentives to developers to include workforce units among other incentives.
They further encouraged the federal Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) Act, introduced in June by Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana. That bill aims to help eliminate discriminatory land use policies and remove barriers that depress the production of housing.
The letter’s authors argue that reducing barriers and streamlining and fast-tracking the entitlement and approval process would better help communities tackle their housing affordability challenges.
Cutting Red Tape
The Teton County Commission appears to be taking that advice with its recent 3-2 vote in July to eliminate the sketch plan step for 100% deed-restricted housing projects.
Deed restrictions cap the value of the property in perpetuity and are regulated by the local housing authority.
In Jackson and Teton County, deed restrictions require residents to work full-time for a local business or earn 75% of their income locally. Residents are also typically required to sign six-month rental agreements and not own real estate within 150 miles.The rental agreements usually also specify that tenants could not leave the units vacant for two months or longer.
This change in policy benefits projects such as the Jackson Street Apartments, a 57-unit apartment development in downtown Jackson. The project is an unprecedented private-public partnership between the Cumming Foundation and the Jackson/Teton County Housing Department that together formed a limited liability company (LLC) to provide 100% deed-restricted housing for local residents of varying income levels. The county under the agreement will receive 9 units designated for county employees.
The project is paid for via a joint donation in private land $11.5 million and an additional cash donation of $10 million in cash from the Cummings Foundation with Teton County funneling in an additional $10 million of public land and county funds.
Initially, the commission voted unanimously to form the LLC between the county and the private foundation, but ultimately, chose not to sign the operating agreement in May between the two entities after Commissioner Mark Barron raised concerns about the legalities of such a partnership.
According to Keith Gingery, chief deputy county attorney, the county decided to go a different direction from the LLC because of “legal concerns as to whether that was an appropriate mechanism.”
Instead, it appointed itself as the “manager” or “conduit” of the LLC. Gingery did not provide an explanation of what exactly that role entails but stated that the housing department has managed other housing projects in which it is primarily responsible for facilitating and terminating leases, maintenance issues and other normal activities of a housing manager.
As to concerns over transparency of transferring public funds into a private LLC, Gingery said that because the county is managing the project, the records will be open as will “everything occurring with the funds and land.”
Gingery dismissed concerns that oversight might draw the county into lawsuits should the LLC be sued.
“[The] county still has some protections under the Wyoming Governmental Claim Act, but you are right that potentially a slip and fall or other kind of case could come up,” Gingery wrote to Cowboy State Daily. “The LLC will have adequate insurance to cover any claims just like any other housing development.”
The nine-building, 65,888-square-foot project will be completed in four stages with an anticipated finish date of September 2024, according to the project website.
Vision For Largest Affordable Housing Development In 30 Years Ekes Forward
Several other housing projects are also currently in the works.
One of those is the Northern South Park Area on 225 acres off S. Highway 89 and High School Road, south of the Cottonwood subdivision in Jackson. The county is considering allowing development on land owned by Robert Gill and family and Kelly and Elizabeth Lockhart and family.
In July, the Teton County Commission voted unanimously to adopt the Northern South Park Neighborhood vision plan, which would develop up to 1,800 units, 70% of which would be deed restricted and 30% unrestricted or free-market units.
The last time a development with more than 40 small lots was approved was the Cottonwood Subdivision in 1985.
The Gill family initially submitted its own zoning application to the county in early 2020 to develop 65% deed-restricted housing and 35% free-market units on 74 acres with no public subsidies. This application was rejected by both the county commissioners and the planning commission. Instead, the county commission voted to contract out a study for a comprehensive vision plan of the private land.
The contract was awarded to a Berkeley, California, firm which took just under two years to complete at a cost of around $427,000.
Since 2015, the county has spent more than $1.3 million for various zoning and planning studies, according to figures provided by Ryan Hostetter, principal long-range planner, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Cowboy State Daily.
The California firm completed its vision study with a neighborhood plan in April, recommending a mix of 70% deed-restricted and 30% market.
The next steps are to craft the draft zoning language for public hearings, including a review by the planning commission and commissioners, according to Chris Neubecker, Teton County director of planning and building services.
Neubecker said the creation and adoption of zoning will take about nine months, and the review process for sketch plan and development plan could take another year for a total of about two years before breaking ground on the first stage of the project.
“Once the zoning tools and language are created and adopted in the Land Development Regulations, the landowners can apply to rezone their property,” Neubecker said in an email. “With new zoning in place, landowners can apply for sketch plan and development plan approvals, as well as subdivision of the land.”
The process itself could potentially be a problem for one of the landowners.
In commenting on the neighborhood plan overall, Kelly Lockhart expressed his dismay to commissioners in a March letter. He wrote that he and his family do not feel like partners in the planning process.
“In our opinion, housing in South Park is relatively simple. If you want housing in South Park, you should zone for it,” he wrote. “If you do not want housing in South Park, then just say that. Many of the maps floating around regarding our property in South Park are prescriptive and don’t work for us.”
Nikki Gill has indicated that her family is sticking the course.
Under this timeline, Gill said during a commission meeting that a shovel won’t go in the ground until 2026, and she asked that the zoning rules “be expedient, fair and rational for housing, now.”
Both the Gills and Lockharts have expressed what a hard decision it was to develop on their family’s land, but both said they are committed to helping the community tackle its affordable housing shortage.
Gill told Cowboy State Daily she’s seen many of her friends forced to move or make long commutes and is concerned about the impact on the community and would like to see the project move forward as quickly as possible.