Why Jackson's Housing Crisis Isn't Going Away Anytime Soon

Jul 10, 2015

When the housing shortage in Jackson comes up, Joshua Landon might be the face that comes to mind. When we met outside of my hotel in Jackson he arrived in a beat-up 1997 Chevy Suburban. It was smoking. Heavily.

“This is really bad,” Landon says.

It’s kind of important Landon keeps this thing running. Because it's not only ride...the SUV is his home, too. “I got a mattress back there,” he says, pointing to where the back seats were folded down. “Memory foam--pretty comfy.”

Landon’s in town from Idaho on his summer break from college, working at a whitewater rafting outfit. Jackson’s short term rental market has been hit hard by the rise of home-sharing services like AirBnb, and Landon says sleeping in his car is really his only option.

“Now I want to upgrade to a minivan. Never thought I would want a minivan before this.”

Last summer, about 12 percent of seasonal workers like Joshua Landon were homeless. Still, for many in Jackson sleeping in your car for a while is a right of passage.

But the housing crunch still hits long term residents, people like Shannon Helton.   

Helton has worked as a massage therapist in the Teton Valley for over a decade. She says she only makes about $25,000 a year--not nearly enough to buy a home. So for the last six years she’s rented a small attic unit from a woman in the town of Wilson. But now she’s being forced out, after her landlord got an offer from a retiree she couldn’t refuse.

“His sons live nearby and he wanted to be near his landlord,” she says, holding back tears. “And he saw my unit was detached, so he called my landlord and offered to pay double what I am paying.”

Helton, like the many people around here that work low income jobs based in the tourist economy, is caught between the pincers of low housing stock and a high global demand. A lot of people here are retirees or second home owners: only about 70% of Teton County’s housing stock is permanently occupied.

Jackson Town Council Member Jim Stanford says the town depends on people like Helton. He says right now they’re  considering a number of ways to ease the housing shortage, like rezoning parts of town to allow more garage apartments for long-term residents, and trying to work with a Forest Service on a campsite for seasonal workers-- that issue may come up again next summer. Stanford says the big idea from a recent housing summit was a new sales tax dedicated to affordable housing.

“Now whether that is a penny sales tax or a half penny, that is yet to be determined. But there seems to be consensus among elected officials that we need a dedicated funding stream.”

But Stanford says the real deep problem, the reason why Jackson’s housing crunch comes up in the news every year, is that there is not much available land in the area. There’s a lot of money to be made in developing what’s there... just not in the kind of housing that this community needs.

“Any more lodging we zone for any more commercial development we approve, it only makes things worse.”