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How Housing Happens, Part 2: Northern South Park

The best potential for new housing on a scale that could meaningfully move the needle on workforce housing in the community is on land known as Northern South Park (NSP) adjacent to the west end of High School Road. Current plans envision up to 1,800 units, at least 1,356 of which would be deed restricted. NSP will push limits.  Policy makers must be clear-eyed about the challenges.

It will push the limits of creative zoning. Zoning must incentivize landowners to opt in, recognizing that their bundle of property rights starts on the free market. But it must also place sideboards on the resulting entitlements to ensure the bulk of the units will ultimately be deed restricted. That’s a balancing act fraught with pitfalls. The allure of living in the hippest zip code in the West attracts cash buyers from across the nation who can bring income from high-paying remote jobs and trust funds and consistently outspend local workers, even for one-bedroom condos. Landowners know the potential blue-sky value of an up-zone. Why should they pull the trigger on development that, because of up-front affordability restrictions, cuts that value by orders of magnitude? At the same time, why should local officials approve a massive up-zone without rock-solid guarantees that the promised 70% deed-restricted housing will materialize?

It will push the limits of public funding and philanthropy. A recent study estimated that the affordability gap between the cost of a new town-home style dwelling and what a family earning median income (MFI) in Teton County can afford is around $500,000. If the hope is to build 1,356 units for households earning median family income, then as a community we need to find over $600 million in subsidies just to cover the cost of construction. That’s likely a minimum.

It will push the limits of innovative transportation planning. There’s limited appetite to build new roads to serve the community, meaning that future residents in NSP will have to lead their lives with far fewer single-occupancy automobile trips than the rest of us, a concept that, in Wyoming, is almost un-American. They’ll need reliable transportation alternatives.

NSP will push the limits of innovative financing. Transportation, water and sewer infrastructure must be paid for and installed prior to the construction of housing. Generally, expectations of future profits motivate developers to risk those up-front investments. If most of the housing is priced at below-market rates, developers will need other forms of assurance to backstop potential losses.

And NSP will likely push the limits of public trust. The community’s high expectations for affordable housing will bump up against the reality of private interests where every acre of land could be worth millions. The public expects NSP to deliver hundreds of apartments, townhomes and single-family residences we can afford. Landowners expect sufficient profits to extend a legacy of ranching and preservation of open space that has defined the community’s character for over a century and to retain sufficient property rights to allow flexibility in legacy planning and philanthropic decisions. In this regard, not only housing in NSP hangs in the balance, but so does preservation of iconic open spaces beyond NSP where development would gravely threaten agricultural, scenic and wildlife values.

There are possible solutions. Already donations of land, as much as 45 acres, indicate landowners are willing to make substantial philanthropic contributions. Gifts elsewhere in the community suggest the community is willing to match those efforts. And community leaders recently put tens of millions of dollars on the ballot to fund sundry employee housing efforts. If approved the measures would provide orders of magnitude more public capital than has ever before been available for community housing, and much of it could be deployed in NSP for projects like the Jackson Street Apartments (see How Housing Happens part 1). As for infrastructure, other states like Texas utilize public/private partnerships to bond for infrastructure through Public Improvement Districts where bonds are repaid through an assessment on the newly created parcels. And as for public trust, keeping the process transparent and open to the public while respecting private property rights and remaining mindful that ranchers have stewarded open spaces in Teton County for over 100 years and aren’t looking to sacrifice that legacy any time soon can help align expectations between the community and landowners. Meanwhile, very smart planners have started in on the delicate task of crafting zoning that recognizes challenges laid out above.

Maximizing our opportunities to build housing that’s 100% for local workers requires thoughtful, experienced leadership. Early voting began September 23. Ballots can be cast through election day on November 8.  This fall, please vote to re-elect Mark Newcomb for County Commission.

How Housing Happens Part 1: Partnerships

How Housing Happens, Part 1: Public/Private Partnerships versus the Private Sector

I believe the community needs housing that’s 100% for local workers and 100% not for wealthy out-of-towners. Sound impossible? It’s not. But it does require a delicate balancing act of policy, zoning, private philanthropy, public financing, community outreach and thoughtful leadership. I’ve been on the front lines of zoning for 14 years and housing policy for six. I’ve helped put in place policies that built 411 units in the past few years with 358 more planned. Every one of these units is conveniently located near transit and services and available only to local workers.

There are two categories of housing in Teton County—housing that can be purchased by anyone in the world, and housing that can be purchased only by someone living and working full time in Teton County. The first category, free-market housing, is comprised of a dwindling pool of housing for local workers and an expanding pool of second homes, short-term rentals, and houses owned by hedge funds and creative ownership structures that essentially turn them into resort lodging (Pacaso, for example). At a median value of $3.1 million, the vast portion of free market single-family housing is out of reach of local workers. The second category, deed restricted housing, can only be bought or rented by local workers. It includes a supply of housing stratified by price to meet demand from various income levels. Deed restricted housing provides housing for local workers, period. The median price of a single-family deed-restricted home is around half a million dollars.

Preserving community character boils down to increasing the ratio of deed-restricted housing to free-market housing. The town and county currently deploy four strategies.

  1. Preserve our existing stock of housing by compensating homeowners for placing a deed restriction on their home. That leaves them the right to sell to a qualified local worker regardless of income level but not to the absolute highest bidder.
  2. Buy free market property where market housing or commercial development would otherwise get built and lease the land to a housing developer for almost nothing in return for guarantees that housing built on the site is deed restricted.
  3. Use zoning incentives to expand the earning potential of a property in exchange for the provision of “bonus” housing units, at least some of which must be restricted to local workers.
  4. Require developers to build some amount of deed-restricted housing to partially mitigate the need for new housing resulting from new development—a so-called mitigation requirement.

Each strategy has its plusses and minuses. The first two strategies are the most effective at improving the ratio of deed-restricted to free-market housing because they eliminate potential market housing while adding 100% deed restricted housing. But thus far preservation is rare, likely because the current maximum level of compensation, $200,000, is insufficient compensation for a deed restriction. And the second strategy costs a lot up front because the land must be bought at free market prices, funded by philanthropy and public funds (tax revenues and mitigation fees).

The second two strategies cost less because developers pay for the new housing units. However, they only add new housing when new development takes place, and the new development might generate the need for yet that much more new housing and thus do little to positively influence the final ratio of deed-restricted to market housing. Two new developments utilizing incentives to add bonus units in town, for example, are adding 62 units of housing, but only 16 of them will be deed restricted while the remaining 46 are available to anyone in the world who desires to live here, including highly paid remote workers.

A new project, the 57-unit Jackson Street Apartments, is the largest 100% deed-restricted housing project in our history. Because it’s on land that could be used for lodging and high-end housing, it’s a good example of the second strategy. It’s also the gold standard for building housing that will preserve our community by adding deed-restricted workforce housing and eliminating potential free market housing.

First, the Mayor and Town Council, through a rigorous public process, adopted zoning standards that allow for multi-family development where it makes sense within town. The Cumming Foundation purchased lots within areas newly zoned for multi-family housing that were adjacent to lots purchased years before by Teton County for county employee housing. Land and capital combined, the Cumming Foundation brought $21.5 million to the table and Teton County brought $10.5 million to the table. First Republic Bank contributed $14 million in financing at 2.5%, and a private developer will build the units. To get shovels in the ground, April Norton and Housing Department staff artfully steered the project along a narrow legal alley where public funding could leverage private philanthropy.

The county is going through its own process to rezone land, known as Northern South Park, to create opportunities for similar types of projects. The county commission, including me, denied past, well-intentioned but market-oriented efforts to build housing in this area largely because all the units would have been detached single family homes. We do need deed-restricted single-family homes, but we also need an array of housing types, including multi-family, to meet a range of incomes. Moreover, allowing the proposed subdivisions to proceed would have eliminated the opportunity now before us to create a neighborhood with a variety of deed-restricted housing on a scale that meaningfully alters the ratio of workforce housing to free-market housing in the community.

Northern South Park will push limits. [SS1] Stay tuned for my next article about how to get it right in Northern South Park.

Maximizing our opportunities to build housing that’s 100% for local workers requires thoughtful, experienced leadership. Early voting began September 23. Ballots can be cast through election day on November 8.  This fall, please vote to re-elect Mark Newcomb for County Commission.

The Equality State and Health Freedom

I am thinking about equality, especially for women in the “Equality State,” and how many must feel after the Supreme Court’s recent ruling stripping women of constitutional protections to control their reproductive health. The ruling does not jive with my take on equality and freedom for all. Nor does it jive with my life experience, having grown up among and worked with men and women who, usually for professional reasons, chose to have children later in life. To me, these words, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union” and these words “promote the general welfare,” and these words, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” protect women’s reproductive rights, including whether to terminate a pregnancy. 

I don’t deny that those very same clauses also protect rights of a viable fetus. Yet for over five decades a tenuous balance protected both the rights of a mother and the rights of a fetus, granting an adult woman the right to protect her health and welfare up to a point when the rights of the fetus prevail. Granted, there is no bright line when that happens. But the Supreme Court could have carved out ground leaving the decision about whether to have an abortion during some period of a pregnancy, up to a woman and her closest family, friends, religious leaders and trained medical advisors. Instead we are left with a draconian interpretation of the constitution that essentially applies rights more strongly to men, who will never face the excruciating decision about whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, because the right to an abortion is not “deeply rooted in [our] history and tradition.”

We are now left with a political and legal morass that strips women in many states of their right to make choices about their health and well-being and puts health care professionals who provide care for pregnant women at legal risk. And if anyone wonders how that’s going to go, one glance at the map showing precinct level results in 2018 makes it clear—the bulk of the nation’s geographic area leans Republican, and the Republican Party has evolved to become almost monolithically opposed to abortion and by extension to male and female health equality. The structure of our electoral system, the structure of the senate, and gerrymandering shift laws and policies right of center, sometimes far right of center, across most of the nation, meaning a minority demographic would impose the will of the state on a women’s freedom to health throughout much of the nation, including Wyoming.

I have read comments such as this one in a retort to a blog post by Andrew Sullivan defending abortion as “a subject for democratic deliberation:” “No mention of the 63 million babies who were murdered in the last 49 years, but oh how well you stand up for women and their right to have as many one-night stands as they want without consequences, guilt, or their morality even being questioned.” This type of comment ignores the spectrum of pregnancies that range from intentional with all the hopes and dreams of carrying a fetus to term and raising a child to completely unwanted pregnancies due to rape or other circumstance out of a woman’s control. Granting the State the power to mandate that every pregnancy along that spectrum must be carried to term feels Orwellian. After all, we’ve moved away from the notion that the state should have the power to even require a vaccination during a global pandemic. Granting the State the power to dictate that a woman will bear a child, especially any and anyone’s child, while restraining it from mandating basic health precautions in my mind just doesn’t jive.

The Constitution at its core is empathic towards the individual. Striving for a more perfect union in 2022 can only mean that equality applies to all, men and women of all races and ethnic backgrounds. We shouldn’t stop striving to ensure that all men and women may equally participate in society and, importantly, the democratic process. The constitution, its authors, and those who amended it, sought to firmly establish equality among all citizens capable at the time of participating in the democratic process (“all men are created equal.”) We fundamentally understand that concept now to include men and women equally, of any race or creed. In its most minimal interpretation, it refers to all able to vote, or all qualified electors. It’s unfathomable to think that, if we wrote the same constitution today, we in any way would not apply the rights it enumerates equally to all men and women, including equal protections of health and reproductive rights. In this country, a woman, with her partner, her loved ones, her priest or minister, and her doctor, should have the final say over her own health for at least the early period of a pregnancy.

Teton County: Compassion for Seniors?

Having been born and raised in Teton County and staying to work here as a mountaineering professional, I’ve always known that our Teton County community is compassionate. Whether it’s donating to non-profits through Old Bill’s, pulling together in times of crisis like the Budge Slide, contributing time, land and funds to house local workers, or honoring a fallen soldier like Rylee McCollum, it’s clear this community has a big heart. So, at the close of the county commission meeting to determine whether the Stage Stop LLC’s application for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to use Legacy Lodge for employee housing should be approved or not, I was shocked to hear a scoffing laugh on the part of the applicant’s representative when I mentioned that senior assisted living remained a need for our community.

After an arduous discussion about whether the Legacy Lodge should be converted to employer-leased rental apartments, the commission votes were final. First, we voted yes that apartments were an OK use for the 50,000 sq ft facility, a question presented as an amendment to the Rafter J Planned Unit Development (PUD). Then we voted no, with a two-two tie, to the CUP that laid out the specifics of how the applicant planned to use the facility if it were converted to employee apartments. I voted yes on the former and no on the latter because I didn’t think the application sufficiently achieved the legal findings as an appropriate use in the specific location, a rural, single-family subdivision. I explained how I couldn’t make the findings based on Teton County regulations for a CUP. Then I added that our senior citizens deserve a place where they too can thrive, even when they need assistance to do so. At that the applicant’s representative scoffed.

Teton County, we’re more compassionate than that.

Yet, when it comes to our community vision for seniors, we’ve fallen short. Yes, we have a vibrant and exceptionally well run senior center. But that center meets the needs of a small slice of our seniors who are getting by for the most part without much assistance. Even at that it’s bursting at the seams. The closing of the Legacy Lodge only added to its burden, forcing it to expand home-care services to seniors who need assistance but choose to live on their own.

The lack of vision on how our community should meet the needs of seniors is glaring when one reviews the primary document reflecting our community vision, the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan, which doesn’t even mention including seniors in our efforts to protect our community’s quality of life. When that document was first drafted between 2010 and 2012 the Legacy Lodge and Senior Center were flourishing, and no one seemed to think that we should put language in the document to reflect the future needs of seniors. And when it comes to housing, other than allowing retirees to remain in the deed restricted housing they paid for and maintained over the years, we have never talked about public-private partnerships for senior assisted living facilities.

Fortunately, our land development regulations, which dictate where specific types of development can occur, include multiple zones in town where such facilities are allowed. But buying land for and building a brand-new facility would cost tens of millions of dollars. Options in the county are fewer because such uses are encouraged to site themselves closer to higher density development. But the one place in the county we know an assisted living facility worked and worked well was Rafter J where the Legacy Lodge and 400 neighboring homeowners lived in harmony for years.

Converting Legacy Lodge to apartments would require, at a minimum, retrofitting all 57 units with a full kitchen, including 220-volt outlets for stoves where there are currently none, and a substantial expansion of the parking lot. The improvements wouldn’t be cheap. Reviving it as an assisted living facility would hardly cost anything at all. Meanwhile the county is about to complete the neighborhood planning process for up to 2,000 new units on 225 acres just south of High School Road, ample opportunity for seasonal employee housing appropriately sited near services and transit.

Exploring whether it’s viable to resurrect Legacy Lodge as a place where seniors can find respite and assistance with basic needs should absolutely be part of the conversation before permanently converting it to residential apartments. And I know, as a community, we’re compassionate enough to have that conversation.

Property Taxes: Demand the Change We Deserve

Huge increases in property taxes without locally available tools to lower them amounts to taxation without representation. Wyoming state law limits the ability of locally elected officials to reduce property taxes and backfill revenue through other taxes or fees. The fix is in the hands of the state legislature. But good ideas on how to do so go nowhere in Cheyenne. They might if we stand together as a community.

The Wyoming Constitution mandates that counties uphold the laws of the state while protecting the health and welfare of their citizens. Over the past few years property taxes in Teton county have risen 100% or more. There’s little doubt these increases are impacting the health and welfare of Teton County citizens. Long-time locals—workers who form the core of the community, educators, critical care service providers, and retirees—are facing a dire choice: pay these higher taxes and spend less on health care, day care, food, and education or sell out and leave.

Property owners in Teton County currently pay a minimum of 57 mills (1/1000th of a dollar) of tax on the assessed value their property. Fifty-seven mills equals $57 in tax on every $1,000 of assessed value. By law, 45 of the 57 mills collected, or about 79%, is for school funding. By law, county commissioners control no more than 12 mills of the total millage. In Teton County we levy 7 of the 12 mills, amounting to 12% (7 out of 57) of the total amount you pay in property taxes. That’s the maximum amount the Teton County Board of Commissioners could reduce property taxes. Twelve percent.

If we did zero out property tax, we would lose almost $23 million in revenue out of a $91 million general fund budget. That might not be an issue except that the county is facing several critical needs. Top of the list is employee housing. Ten percent of county positions are vacant, largely due to lack of housing. Wages are also rising, and the public sector must keep up. And we need millions to replace and renovate county buildings that are aging and over-crowded. Most critically, the courthouse, built in 1968, wouldn’t withstand a modest earthquake. If it were to collapse, it would take the Sheriff’s department and 911 services housed in its basement with it. Replacing it will cost $60 to $70 million.

Over the last 6 years the county commission has cut our portion of the mill levy from just over 9 to just under 7 mills. If we continue to reduce the county mill levy, the immediate reductions in revenue might stall or delay long-awaited and essential capital improvements only to achieve a 2 or 3% reduction in tax bills that have gone up 100% or more.

Other states grant counties the power to directly reduce property taxes by implementing homestead exemptions that apply to full-time residents. Wikipedia has plenty of examples. Other states grant counties the power to make up for the resulting decrease in property tax revenue by imposing fees in other sectors of the economy such as assessing fees on sales of real estate. A 1 to 2 percent real estate transfer fee, even restricted to only those sales over $2.5 million in value, would be enough to backfill revenue losses from reduced property taxes and fund the development of workforce housing.

But the Wyoming Legislature remains steadfast in their refusal to grant us the authority to fairly apportion taxes that lessen the burden of excessive property taxes. They remain steadfast in their refusal to find alternative means of financing our excellent public school system to reduce its reliance on property tax revenues. They remain steadfast in ramming higher property taxes down the throats of locals, workers, critical service providers and retirees.

Stripping local government of an important revenue stream that would force cuts in services and scale backs to critical capital projects, only to reduce sky rocketing tax bills by a few percentage points isn’t protecting the health and welfare of county citizens. We need the kind of tools granted to counties throughout the nation that allow locally elected officials to guard against severe escalations in property taxes and still deliver vital local services.

We need to pull together and aggressively lobby state legislators for local control and an end to taxation without representation.

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