Teton County was recently named the #1 county in the U.S. for economic inequality. What does that ranking mean to you, and what specific actions (if any) would you take to address this inequality?
The key to addressing any problem is understanding why it exists. I was the first person to identify and document that Teton County has the nation’s greatest income inequality, so I have a clear understanding its two basic causes.
At the top end, Wyoming's favorable tax and trust laws make the state an "on-shore off-shore tax haven." As a result, the large number of wealthy people living here make Teton County’s per capita income the nation's highest.
At the bottom end, Teton County ranks eighth among America’s 3,200 counties in our proportion of tourism jobs, which are among the lowest-paying of all jobs.
No other US county has our combination of extreme wealth and large numbers of low-paying jobs. Hence we have America’s greatest income gap.
Unfortunately, local government can’t do much to address the causes of the problem: the high end issue is a function of state, national, and global economic forces; the low end issue is a function of the tourism industry’s business model (hire lots of workers for low pay).
What local government can do is address the consequences of the gap by supporting workforce housing, social services, and the like.
In 2016, over 100 residents and workers marched to Town Hall asking for help with immediate, short-term housing emergencies - people are getting evicted with little or no notice and there’s nowhere for them to move. Two years have gone by without much action and our hardworking residents, many of them families, are forced to live in their cars, tents, overcrowded conditions and often unsafe places. What specific short-term solutions do you propose in response to those workers’ requests to protect their health, safety and welfare? How can Town / County government actualize these short-term solutions?
First let’s acknowledge the realities of the situation.
The housing problem – both short- and long-term – is both real and huge.
The housing problem has been a long time in the making, and cannot be effectively addressed overnight.
There is essentially unlimited demand for Jackson Hole housing, versus extremely limited current and future supply.
We can ease the workforce housing problem, but never “solve” it.
Any “solution” – short- or long-term – has to be exceptionally thoughtful, because if we err, we risk compounding our traffic problems and/or fundamentally compromising the health of the region’s environment (the latter has happened to literally every other environmentally-healthy place in America).
In this context, I have two thoughts.
First, we have an extraordinary talent base in Teton County, people who know far more about housing, finance, etc. than anyone in government ever will. Ditto the other issues raised during the march. Especially given the critical short-term problems we face, local government should use its bully pulpit to convene these experts to develop responses government can implement.
Second, we need to involve our neighboring communities in the solution. Jackson Hole is driving the region’s growth, so we need to take the lead in addressing it.
Our community has set a goal of having at least 65% of the area workforce living within Teton County. According to the JH Travel and Tourism Board, tourists generated 8,720 jobs in Teton County in 2017. This equates to a need for 2,834 local housing units assuming 2 employees per unit, however, lodging tax funds are not used to mitigate the housing impact from the tourist generated jobs. Public policy, through this lodging tax, is encouraging more tourists. Jobs are generated to serve these new tourists that are primarily low wage yet there are few new housing units being created to keep up with this job growth, exacerbating the housing crisis. How do you propose fixing this public policy conflict?
The lodging tax is dividing us as a community, which is wrong, wrong, wrong.
Teton County and the Town of Jackson should be 100% local control over how the lodging tax proceeds are spent, and the tax should be much higher: at least eight percent. That money should then be used for whatever we as a community deem to be our priorities, whether conservation, housing, transportation, or promotion that complements our well-being.
How do we get 100% local control? In the mid-1980s Jackson Hole went to Cheyenne with one voice and spoke as a community “We need the lodging tax.” It took a few years, but we got it done. Ditto with the SPET tax in the 1990s.
Whether or not the lodging tax passes in November, I will push for appointing a lodging tax task force whose mission will be to develop and then execute a strategy for convincing the legislature to change the lodging tax enabling law to allow 100% local control, and then support that group’s efforts as long as it takes to get the law changed.
Until that happens, promotion should focus on educating our visitors about how special and fragile this region is.
One of our community members recently faced a situation where his landlord had refused to sign a written lease and then evicted him on less than 30 days' notice, despite collecting rent every 30 days for many months prior to the eviction notice. While researching his options, he found that Wyoming laws disproportionately favor landlords and provide virtually no protections to tenants, and that our local ordinances contain nothing at all on the subject of landlord-tenant law. The Town Council passed a 30-day notice requirement, but has not taken action on other tenant protections. What tenant protections regarding evictions, leases, rent increases, repairs, or other issues, would you support?
I am not an expert on tenant-landlord law, so I won’t waste your time offering a list of ideas or possible solutions – all would be half-baked and/or not grounded in Wyoming law or other realities. I can offer that, like so many of us, during my time in Jackson Hole I’ve been ejected from a couple of great rental situations with little notice, so I’m empathetic to the situation.
As I indicate in a previous answer, I think the quickest, most effective way for any housing-related problem to be solved is for local government to ask the community to develop solutions, and then present them to government for consideration and action. This utilizes the bully pulpit and convening power of local government, a potential which has been vastly underutilized to date.
Bringing together people, getting them to create solutions, and then acting is something I have done for decades, and it’s something I would like to see local government do much more actively. When it does, I hope that groups like Shelter JH can utilize their expertise in areas of housing, tenant law, and the like to help develop solutions that work for all of us.
The Town & County recently re-did the housing mitigation requirements. What is your take on the new requirements? What could be done to improve them? At a high level, how should developers be involved in solving our workforce housing crisis?
I don’t have a solid answer to this question.
As a candidate, I’ve focused on issues that will face future councils, not ones already addressed. If the mitigation rate comes up again, I’ll dive into it like I do every issue. Until then, though, I won’t waste your time with platitudes.
That noted, it’s clear that extant models for developing housing aren’t working in any popular places to live. This is especially true in Jackson Hole, with our unique combination of three challenges: a basically-intact ecosystem, limited private land, and severe infrastructure constrictions. History strongly suggests the private sector does not have the tools to adequately address this trifecta of constraints and still produce a vibrant, heterogeneous community.
As a result, the public sector must be vigorously proactive in creating a vision for what the community can and should be, then have the political will to bring it about. As part of this effort, it must actively engage all elements of the community, including private developers, for ultimately they will build the structures the community needs. To ask developers to define that mix, though, will almost certainly result in a very different community than the one we want.
We believe we need sustainable funding for workforce housing - specifically, at least $10 million per year, which would be deployed through a Housing Fund for a mix of strategies (buying land, partnering with developers, preserving existing affordable homes, etc) - targeted mostly for our lower-income workers. Do you support using public funds to build affordable housing, and what actual local revenue streams specifically would you support using? (Sales tax, property tax, etc.)
If we are to have adequate workforce housing, the public sector must be actively involved. Otherwise the community will become Downton Abbey: a monoculture of rich folks in the Jackson Hole valley, and the workers over the hill or down the canyon.
Preventing the Abbey-fication of Jackson Hole will take money. As I suggest in my response to question 3, I would like the lodging tax to be 100% local option, with a rate of at least eight percent. As of figures I received this week, every one percent of lodging tax generates $3.7 million annually. If we devote three percent to housing, we’ll raise more each year than the $10 million you need, and provide it in a dependable, on-going basis (thus creating potential leverage).
Using public money in this way also has the added benefit of providing an extra level of local control over the projects, ensuring that they are as well-suited as possible to address our community’s current and future needs.