Workforce Housing Project Mired in Uncertainty

The debate over 440 West Kelly represents how workforce and affordable housing is becoming an increasingly polarizing issue among elected officials, even amid a perennial housing crisis. Discussions during a Jackson Town Council meeting on Monday…

The debate over 440 West Kelly represents how workforce and affordable housing is becoming an increasingly polarizing issue among elected officials, even amid a perennial housing crisis. Discussions during a Jackson Town Council meeting on Monday underscored this tension.

“We’re all tying ourselves up in knots trying to get to the same place and it’s creating an awful lot of angst and unhappiness and we can do better,” Councilman Jonathan Schechter said. He was one of two council members who voted down the project.

The 16-unit workforce housing development slated for 440 West Kelly seemed to check all the boxes. The Comprehensive Plan directs development in the area. And a town rezone last year designated the neighborhood for greater density. That was meant to enable the construction of workforce housing.

But a 16-unit proposal already makes the construction costs of each unit high. Mayor Pete Muldoon, for his part, wanted to see more than 16 units to decrease costs.

Still, he said, “The Comp Plan directs us to create this housing and to put it in this location.”

But neighbors on West Kelly worried about the character of their neighborhood changing with this three-story development. In recent weeks leading up to the vote, some delivered strong comments to local officials.

“This is destroying a single-family dwelling neighborhood,” neighbor David Bott said on July 23.

Ultimately Bott and his neighbors swayed elected officials. Jackson Town Council did pass the measure, 3-2. But the county rejected it 3-2, which nullified the vote. Then county commissioners voted to revisit the proposal. That, however, didn’t yield a new outcome.

So town officials wanted to consider what they could do to keep the project alive. On Monday, the Town Council took another look at the proposal.

This time Housing Authority director April Norton presented a list of alternatives for 440 West Kelly. The council considered, among other things, buying the county’s portion of the land, selling the land, or reworking the project to a smaller 10- or 12-unit option with the same number of bedrooms.

The number of bedrooms per unit is notable.

The original 16-unit design would have addressed the biggest need in the community: the dearth of one- and two-bedroom affordable homes. It included eight one-bedroom and eight two-bedroom units. How does the Housing Authority know who needs housing the most? It now requires people to fill out an intake form. It’s a questionnaire that is informing future developments.

More than 1,000 households representing 2,300 people, nearly 10% of Teton County’s population, have filled out that intake form. The Housing Authority’s April Norton said of the households who have filled out that form about 60% of them are one- or two-person households.

But, “with the new 10- or 12-unit option, some of those one-bedroom units will go away,” Norton said.

Ultimately, town councilors couldn’t agree on the options set forth by Norton. And Monday’s meeting left unanswered questions and an uncertain path forward. Since it couldn’t come to a consensus, Town Council will meet again with the Board of County Commissioners about 440 West Kelly in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Norton said other projects soon to be underway could yield more than 80 units of affordable or workforce housing.

Those will help make a dent in the housing crisis. But The 440 West Kelly situation begs the question: did the views of a small group of neighbors represent the majority of Jacksonites? If the answer is no, Norton said people who support workforce housing projects, like 440 West Kelly, should speak up.

“If you care about housing in the community, let [elected officials] know about that,” she said.

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn launched KHOL's news department. She has worked as a reporter and editor in Wyoming for the last decade and her work has aired on NPR stations throughout the West. When she's not sweating deadlines, Robyn sustains her nomadic heart by traveling the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow @TheNomadicHeart

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