Housing fuels county race
Candidates cite affordable housing, or getting rid of it, as their top priority.
By Cara Froedge, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
June 4, 2008
It’ll be a valley of second- and third-homeowners.
There’s not going to be any workers or community character in Jackson Hole if the government doesn’t step in.
The government should stop giving people homes.
Build cheaper rentals.
The cries for and against affordable housing are beginning to ring, as the issue is proving to be one of the most pressing – if not the top – for eight candidates running for two seats on the Teton County Board of Commissioners.
There’s 24-year-old Wilsonite Claire Fuller, a third-generation valley resident who says she’ll never be able to stay if local government doesn’t make home ownership more affordable.
There’s Republican Dennis Triano, who moved here when Fuller was just 4 years old. His platform is simple: Enact controls to keep rents affordable and stop subsidizing home owners through housing programs.
Rick Roth, who believes the commission failed the community when they maneuvered their way out of voting on Teton Meadows Ranch, also thinks affordable housing has gotten out of hand.
Joining them and others in the race is Brian Grubb, a planning professional who lives in affordable housing. All of the challengers must unseat incumbents Andy Schwartz and Leland Christensen, who have overseen the construction or obligation of more than 200 affordable homes during the last four years. They believe the program is necessary but should be balanced with wildlife protection and managing growth.
The field of five Republicans and three Democrats will face off during the Aug. 19 primary, when voters will choose two candidates from each party to head to the November general election. The top two vote-getters at that time will assume seats on the commission for the next four years.
Perhaps the reason that affordable housing has emerged as a dominant issue is because of the attention it has received in recent months.
As real estate prices skyrocket in Jackson Hole and commercial development continues, a record number of people are turning to public and private affordable housing programs to find shelter in the valley. The odds of getting a house are becoming longer and longer. There are now more than 1,400 families who have signed up for affordable housing, a figure that is growing at a rate of about 200 families per year.
The median price of a single-family home in Jackson reached almost $2 million in the first quarter of 2008, a new record for the valley. The Jackson median price is up 86 percent compared to the first quarter of 2007. Since 2003, the mean home price in the valley has risen from $967,000 to $1.79 million.
In the face of such price surges, commissioners denied the Osprey Creek subdivision and shut down the Teton Meadows Ranch proposal with a moratorium. Together the neighborhoods would have housed almost 550 new deed-restricted homes in Teton County.
Claire Fuller, Democrat
It wasn’t necessarily a specific commission decision that goaded Fuller to run. Rather, it was the fact that Osprey Creek and Teton Meadows were slated for relatively undeveloped property rather than places such as town or Wilson, where development already has hit.
“There are ways that we can work on developing affordable housing where it wouldn’t affect undeveloped areas and wouldn’t impact traffic patterns,” she said.
Moreover, Fuller said she thinks there’s been too much focus on making affordable homes “fancy.”
“An affordable home doesn’t have to have granite counter tops,” she said. “It should be a simple home.”
Still, the daughter of Robbie and Zadie Fuller said escalating home prices and property taxes are getting out of hand. For her and many other second-, third- or even fourth-generation residents, staying in the valley may not be possible.
A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Fuller has a geology degree and works as a baker for Mangy Moose and Calico. Her only political experience was as student council treasurer during fifth grade at Wilson Elementary School.
She’s not worried about going against candidates more than twice her age. In fact, she hopes she’ll drive people to vote.
Andy Schwartz, Democrat
Schwartz, incumbent and current county commission chairman, said his top three issues are of equal importance: wildlife protection, growth management and affordable housing.
All three can be addressed through revisions to the comprehensive plan, he said.
“I certainly believe in the affordable housing program,” he said. “We’re deceiving ourselves if we think we don’t need to do it at all. I don’t know how to measure what would happen if we did not do any form of affordable housing.”
Most people don’t make enough to buy a home at priced in the middle of the real estate market, which would require salaries of at least $400,000 a year, he said. Local businesses can’t pay those wages or raises prices that significantly to support such salaries.
“If I did that in my own business, we’d be out of business in a month,” he said.
If re-elected, this will be Schwartz’s third term. The 57-year-old, who has lived in the valley since 1976, has previously served on the Town of Jackson Planning Commission for two years and the county planning commission for four years.
Brian Grubb, Democrat
Grubb, a political newcomer who moved to the valley in 2004 for a job in the town’s planning department, lives in an attainable home in Melody Ranch. He currently works as a planning consultant.
His home is a part of the county’s affordable housing program. He said affordable housing is only one piece of his platform, which also focuses on appropriate land use and development patterns.
Grubb, 45, said he believes the county should convert its excess of commercial and resort zoning to residential zoning to encourage more affordable housing.
At the same time, the county can’t go about building affordable housing by allowing developments that include a mix of market and affordable housing.
“We need to come up with some solutions that are outside the density-based approach,” he said.
Those include continued support of the Teton County Housing Authority and requiring developers to build housing in accordance with the employment needs their projects generate.
Still, not everyone will be able to buy a home here, he said.
“There’s not enough money in the entire county to take care of the problem,” he said.
Rick Roth, Republican
Roth’s primary reason for running is because he thinks commissioners showed a lack of leadership when they refused to vote on Teton Meadows and enacted a development moratorium instead.
“I thought it was clear-cut that subdivision was not going to fly,” the 57-year-old said. “How it got past the planning commission, I’ll never know. It was a good sales job, and it whipped people up in a frenzy. Teton County commissioners could not say ‘no’ to those people.”
The self-employed Game Creek resident moved to the valley from Atlanta, Ga., in 2001. Since that time, he’s come to believe that county government is doing too much to help some people buy affordable homes.
“People have to do things on their own,” Roth said. “It’s not up to the government to try to find you an affordable home.”
Instead, Roth said he believes the county find homes for key employees.
“Not everybody is going to be able to live in this valley,” he said.
Dennis Triano, Republican
Triano said he thinks the county should implement rent control so that employees can afford to live here and not have to commute from Alpine or Teton Valley, Idaho. Meanwhile, the people paying $400 to $500 per month could save enough money to afford a down payment on a valley home.
“Everybody has the opportunity to buy something,” he said. “If you work hard enough, you can buy it.”
Triano, 62, said that recent projects have shown how the community feels about affordable housing.
“Everybody wants affordable housing, but nobody wants affordable housing,” Triano said. “People don’t want it near them.”
The resident of the Solitude neighborhood has lived in Jackson since 1988. In 1991, he and his wife founded Jackson Hole Appraisals. He also owns Eagle Mountain Real Estate.
Triano said he’s never held public office because he’s always been busy with work, but he wants to put his energy toward addressing valley issues.
“I would like to spend four years trying to solve some problems here in Teton County,” he said.
Leland Christensen, Republican
Fourth-generation valley resident and incumbent Christensen, 49, said he thinks revisions to the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan will help solve valley problems. He wants a second term because he wants to ensure that valley’s national and natural treasures as well as quality of life are protected
“I want the valley to remain livable,” he said. The county needs to balance affordable housing with our environmental resources “so that we don’t stomp on our values that set us apart.”
Unlike his Republican opponents, Christensen views affordable ownership and rental units as essential.
“If affordable housing was the only answer, then we’d pave the whole valley,” he said. “I think we need it, but we can’t look at it as the only issue or the No. 1 issue. It’s just part of the puzzle.”
For Christensen, preserving the work force is just as important as preserving mountain views, clean air and clean water.
The Alta resident worked for Teton County Sheriff’s Office before he resigned during the last election.
Kim Sturlin, Republican
Sturlin, a fifth-generation valley resident, said affordable housing is one of his top issues. The 55-year-old advocates for even cheaper housing than what is currently offered.
“We all know what affordable housing should be and what affordable housing here is,” Sturlin said. “Right now it’s not very affordable to people who need it.”
Sturlin said the county is losing workers to surrounding communities, and one day will no longer have people to change tires and paint walls.
“I think there needs to be more affordable housing,” he said. “Now, it’s $200,000, hypothetically speaking, and that doesn’t sound too affordable.”
Bob Morris, Republican
Bob Morris, who is known around the valley as Captain Bob, could not be reached for comment. The septuagenarian has based his last six campaigns on building affordable housing. He has said in the past that free-market housing is ruining Jackson Hole.
Morris’ last run for commission was in 2006. In 2000, Morris was the front-runner in the Republican primary but lost in the general election by 17 votes.