Almost as authentically Jackson Hole as the whistle of an elk bugle or the carve of a powder turn is the hammering and sawing of gutted remodels and the framing of new homes. For many contractors, it’s a good time to be in business. Brandon Mansfield builds custom metalwork for doors, fireplaces, or anything else a client wants. He said everyone involved in construction, from printers that make architectural drawings to landscapers, had a great business year in 2020.
“All the trades right now, from talking to friends that are electricians and framers and plumbers. Yeah, it seems like everybody has more work than they know what to do with,” he said. “And you can be picking and choosing.”
That’s picking and choosing who you work for, what kind of work you do, and your price. Mansfield said he’s seen more new clients this year, but hasn’t added new staff or scaled up services yet. He lost his business in the 2008 recession, and has worked hard to build his shop back up. He knows that the local economy can turn in a flash.
“We’ve worked in [expletive] old horse barns, to dilapidated buildings that we were paying a thousand bucks a month for,” Mansfield said. “To finally being able to have our own shop.”
Like many other industries in Wyoming, Jackson’s real estate market has historically played out in boom or bust cycles. The past ten years have been a nonstop bull run, and last year was the biggest boom of them all. The record year even took veteran local Associate Broker Ryan Block, of Jackson Hole Real Estate Associates, by surprise.
“In June, the lights turned on, and people were quick to make moves and to get out of the city,” Block said. “And it was a summer to remember for sure.”
Block has been working in real estate in Jackson since 2004, and he said he’s never seen anything like 2020. Sales topped more than $2.3 billion, about 90 percent more than in 2019, according to a recent market report. Block said people are moving here in droves for a better lifestyle away from cities. They might have been saving up to buy property for a long time, but the pandemic made them pull the trigger.
“For Jackson, it’s one of those places where you don’t really have to sell,” Block said. “It’s just a place where people have been coming here for years. They came here when they were a child, went to Yellowstone [National Park], and it’s just been a dream of theirs.”
The report from Jackson Hole Real Estate Associates found that sales went up across nearly all income levels in 2020. Vacant land transactions more than doubled, and prices in Bondurant and Star Valley flew up. But the biggest driver of last year’s boom, by far, was the local luxury market. The sale of homes over $3 million alone in Jackson Hole eclipsed $1.4 billion. That’s more than total sales across all income levels in 2019. Block said many of the new owners are out-of-state residents looking for second homes.
“It is unfortunate, you know, for the local market,” he said. “It’s hard to compete when you’re local with some of these people coming in from out of town with cash.”
The average sale price across all transactions increased by 50 percent over 2019. There’s simply not enough supply to keep up with the demand. Christine Walker is a board member at the local housing advocacy organization Shelter JH, and she said she would like to see the local real estate market slow down.
“We just seem to be continually heading down this path where we’re just a community that’s full of folks that are advantaged,” she said. “And we’re leaving other folks behind, which really tends to hollow out a community.”
The 2020 book “Billionaire Wilderness” described that hollowing effect as making Teton County’s division of wealth look like a barbell, with the ultrawealthy on one end and low-income residents on the other. Walker said many working-class residents are moving to Alpine or Victor, and eventually finding jobs and staying there, rather than Jackson. If they find a good-paying job and strong community there, they may never come back.
“Friends and neighbors really struggle with the fact that their children won’t be able to live in the place where they were born and raised,” Walker said.
But even Walker admits that Jackson’s natural beauty and tight-knit community make it almost universally attractive. So, can any changes be made to shift the real estate market’s trajectory? Walker said some alterations to state and federal income tax structures would help, as well as upping housing density in town.
“Zoning codes are really catering to building large single-family homes on parcels of land that would, in most places, be deemed quite low density,” she said.
97 percent of land in Teton County is federally owned, meaning a huge part of the lack of affordable housing is a simple dearth of space. That’s good for existing homeowners, who see the value of their real estate continue to rise, but Walker said the current set-up helps few people overall.
“It protects the people that have real estate in this community who then have the voice and the power to maintain those policies that continue to just escalate our real estate market,” she said. “We could kind of slow the flow this down a little bit and more people would be able to benefit from this beautiful place.”
Mansfield, the metalworker, has struggled to find housing himself in Jackson, and said he has friends who have dealt with the same issue. He recognizes the housing crunch, but also said he might not be here at all without the opportunity to work on multimillion dollar homes.
“I mean, we can be bitter about the billionaires all we want, but when push comes to shove, they do pay our bills to a large extent,” Mansfield said.
Local real estate experts expect recent trends to continue into 2021.