From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 104, Number 11 - March 15, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Developer, commissioners discuss affordable housing

by Annie O’Brien

Several large subdivisions have been proposed for development near Pinedale, and the cost of renting or buying a home in Sublette County continues to remain high. Cecilia Richardson, who is currently seeking to build a 348-acre subdivision less than a mile south of Pinedale, near the existing Old Brazzill Ranch development, spoke to the county commission on March 9 about her efforts to implement an affordable housing program in Sublette County.

Richardson, who has faced public criticism of her proposed development, told the commission that the county was in the midst of a housing crunch. “To rent is horrible, to buy is even worse,” she said, and added, “Even the smallest shacks here in town are in the neighborhood of $400,000.”

Mark Eatinger, of Rio Verde Engineering, which represents Richardson Development Inc., said his client had identified an area west of Pine Creek that might be suitable for an affordable housing development. Because the site is close to the town’s sewer lagoon, it would cost less to connect each housing unit to the town’s sewer system, allowing Richardson to lower the cost of the homes, Eatinger and Richardson explained.

Richardson said she investigated affordable housing programs in Teton County in an effort to establish sustainable reasonably priced housing in Sublette County. Teton County currently has several housing oversight committees, including the Teton County Housing Authority and the Jackson Hole Housing Trust. Affordable housing efforts are subsidized through a one percent county-wide sales tax, approved periodically by a popular vote.

Christine Walker, Executive Director of the Housing Authority, explained in a later interview that the one percent tax is a “special purpose excise tax” that funds a variety of county initiatives. In 2006, the Housing Authority received about $5 million.

Walker said the Housing Authority was conceived in the early 1990s, as Teton County faced growing concerns about preserving its diversity and economic stability. The county faced unique pressures. Only three percent of its total land mass is privately owned and can be easily developed for residential use, Walker claimed. Furthermore, the county is host to many wealthy “outside” buyers, who purchase second homes. The growth of vacation home ownership “prices out our work force from buying homes,” Walker said.

The Teton County government requires that at least 15 percent of the units in any new residential development be designated affordable. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has determined that individuals who pay more than 30 percent of their gross income on rent or mortgage payments face a housing burden. Affordability in Teton County, Walker said, is determined by the median household income for a family of three, currently estimated at $67,000 Teton officials also insist developers creating new commercial structures must provide housing for 15 percent of their employees.

Walker said the measures had been largely successful, with the county seeing over 800 affordable housing units created in 10 years. However, she said she would like to see attention paid to other financial burdens Teton County residents face. In the Authority’s 2007 Housing Needs Assessment, performed every five years, researchers found that respondents underestimated their commuting costs. The Brookings Institute, an independent research organization, determined that individuals who spend more than 40 percent of their gross income on housing and commuting costs, are financially strained.

The Sublette County Commissioners did not seem entirely enthusiastic about adopting Teton-style housing requirements. Commissioner John Linn speculated that Teton County chose to implement formal affordable housing requirements because the authorities there believed the housing shortage would likely be a permanent situation, and because of the scarcity of private land in that county. Sublette County “has no land issue,” Linn said, and the increased demand for housing might pass after the oil and gas boom has ended.

Linn said he supports private affordable housing initiatives within subdivisions, but is uncomfortable creating a formal entity to administer them. “I’m a little spooked by that,” Linn said. Commission chairman Bill Cramer echoed Linn’s concerns, stating he had a “personal philosophical objection” to mandating housing rules for developers or residents.

“I don’t want to be in the business of telling people where they have to live,” Cramer said. Joel Bousman encouraged Richardson to consider requesting a zone change for the land she owns near the sewer lagoon so she can develop a mobile home park. Cramer agreed, suggesting that establishing a special zoning designation for affordable housing developments might help bring about some lower-cost homes.

During the public comment portion of the presentation, Suzy Michnevich urged the county to define affordability. Socioeconomic analyst Jeffrey Jacquet delivered a report to the commission in January, in which he found the average family in Sublette County had a yearly income of $59,000 and could afford to buy a home priced at $225,000.

Pinedale Planning and Zoning Board member Paul Rock asked if concerns over housing costs might be somewhat overhyped. Rock said he had repeatedly heard that the sheriff’s department had difficulty retaining deputies because of housing prices. “Is that true?” Rock asked. When Cramer replied that the high wages found in the oil and gas industry might be responsible for attrition among law enforcement personnel, Rock suggested the wealthy county consider paying its employees more.

Raising county employees’ salaries and wages, Cramer countered, could throw the county into a competition with private employers for the already scant labor pool. Linn added that housing costs were not only rising due to increased demand. Increased property taxes in Sublette County also drive up the cost of living, Linn said. A bill, supported by Cramer, to provide property tax breaks to homeowners, died in the most recent state legislative session. Des Brunette questioned whether or not formal affordable housing initiaves were appropriate in Sublette County.

“I just feel if people can’t afford to live here, they shouldn’t come here,” she said.

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