Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Jackson entities seek workforce housing

Affordable-housing advocate to speak in Ketchum this summer

Express Staff Writer

A Tale of Two Cities

Second in a series of two


Anne Hayden sat down and drew her first deep breath of the day.

The activity around her had slowed to a quiet buzz, with a few last-minute fixes being handled by others.

It was a Friday in February, the night of the inaugural "Home is Where the Heart Is" ball, a fund-raiser for affordable housing in Jackson, Wyo.

Hayden, executive director of Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust, conceived of the idea and, with the help of a small army of volunteers, the event was hours from launching.

Attendees would include a cross-section of the community, from donors to deed-restricted homeowners.

"Everybody knows somebody in their life who's here because of affordable housing," Hayden said. "Environment, health care, no matter what kind of business you're in, your support of affordable housing supports that. That grows and you can see how affordable housing impacts the community."

The organization, funded by private donations, was the second to sprout up in Teton County in response to skyrocketing land values that put a squeeze on all but the most wealthy residents.

As the gateway community to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and three major ski resorts, Jackson attracts millions of visitors a year. It also is in an epicenter of development for luxury summer recreation resorts and burgeoning residential communities that is spilling south and east down the Snake River corridor and west over Teton Pass into Idaho's Teton County.

With the median home price in the Jackson area at $750,000, home ownership is out of reach for most Teton County workers.

"The founders of our organization have been really forward thinking and could see the future of Jackson ... they could see it far more stratified than they really wanted their community to be," Hayden said.

"Profound economic changes were happening in Jackson," she added. "They saw land values increase, pricing out locals who have lived here for years. They were choosing not to have families, or moving. It became blatantly obvious there was a need for a housing authority."

Now, three organizations are committed to keeping deed-restricted housing available to county residents: Habitat for Humanity, Teton County Housing Authority and Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust.

"Workforce housing is an important asset to a community," said Jackson Mayor Mark Barron. "Community character begins and ends with people living and working in the community. That's where volunteers come from, tutors, coaches for our kids, firefighters. The government's role in that is to enable them to live in their communities."

The real estate market in Jackson took off in the early 1990s "and never looked back," Barron said.

Second-home owners became the driving force in the market.

"It changed from a tourist economy to a lifestyle choice," he said. "People who had been living here for years were being squeezed out. We're talking about a whole generation that might not be able to live here (anymore)."

The problem is compounded by the fact that, like much of the Wood River Valley, land in Jackson is limited. The town of Jackson is surrounded by public lands, limiting expansion options.

Despite the formulation of a master plan in 1994, two key issues failed to be a part of it: transportation and community housing.

"Both are related to a little word we call growth," Barron said. "You've got so much traffic, we need transportation to relieve that."

Public transit facilitates the commute for the many people forced out of Jackson proper because of housing costs—a scenario being played out now in Blaine County.

"At some point, Hailey got its own economy," Barron said. "So, Ketchum and Sun Valley say, 'How do we keep working people in our community?' We have the same problem here. Workforce housing is moving out of the valley."

Locals rallied around their cause, which was eventually picked up by city officials, Barron said.

In 1998 workforce housing became what Barron calls a "town and county action item."

The city responded by purchasing a parcel of private land for $1.3 million—with a plan to recoup $1 million of that.

Twenty-two deed-restricted homes and 14 market-rate homes were built, and eventually the city was repaid nearly $1 million, Barron said.

"At the end of the day, it was a great way to manage a public asset," he said. "It's a pretty good success story."

Bolstering the notion that success breeds success, 50 percent of people who secure affordable housing eventually buy market-rate housing, Hayden said.

Last year, the Town Council approved a density bonus as a way to increase affordable housing development.

The 25 percent density bonus applies in any business zone as long as the additional space goes to deed-restricted housing units.

"It was in response to increased need," Barron said. "Its' a carrot to individuals and developers to provide more deed-restricted units in business zones which were designed for increased density."

Efforts to increase affordable housing in Blaine County are on the upswing. Sun Valley and Hailey have adopted inclusionary housing ordinances, which require a certain percentage of affordable housing units be included in all future developments. Blaine County commissioners are looking at similar ordinances for unincorporated areas of the county. Additionally, local and county leaders are publicly recognizing the need for an economically diverse community.

Blaine County's Community Housing Week—sponsored by Advocates for Real Community Housing, a nonprofit group based in Ketrchum, and the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority—is helping to spread the word.

This July, Hayden will be a guest at the event that includes speakers, tours, films and award presentations.

ARCH, with partners Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority and the Wood River Land Trust, is in the process of establishing the Wood River Housing Trust.

Once it becomes fully operational, ARCH founder Rebekah Helzel said, it will merge with ARCH.

Like Jackson, Blaine County has more than one entity—Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority and ARCH—devoted to affordable housing.

Both elements are essential because housing trusts can seek private money and housing authorities are eligible for government grants, Hayden said.

"The public sector meets the private sector in the middle," she said. "Together, we can best utilize skills inherent in the structures. It allows us to be more effective."

With the last of the volunteers going home to change for the Friday night ball, Hayden described her hopes for the event's outcome.

"My goal is to have everyone walk out and think how many people wouldn't be here if it wasn't for affordable housing," she said. "How boring would it be?"

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