Density and Incentives Create Solutions – Lessons from Jackson Hole

Teton County, Wyoming may be an extreme example of housing supply shortages — for now. This county also demonstrates the extent to which housing supply shortages, coupled with strong demand, will drive up housing prices in resort communities across the country. A recent book by Justin Farrell describes how land preservation policies and Jackson Hole’s popularity among the ultra-wealthy have combined to send housing prices soaring. However, housing density is a solution that allows for both land preservation and affordable housing.

Supply and Demand
Although there are 4,216 square miles of land in the County, only 126 square miles are available for development. This short supply of developable land is one of the factors pushing up the price of housing in Teton County.

Over a century ago, wealthy individuals such as John D. Rockefeller, used their resources to preserve most of the land in County in the form of National Parks and wildlife reservations. The natural and wild character of the region is one of the draws for wealthy individuals seeking mountain retreats. Nathan Deuel, reviewing Farrell’s book, cites the magnitude of the wealth in Wyoming where the average annual income of the top 0.01% is 369 million, four times that of Connecticut and five times that of New York.

In a very informative article, Nick Reynolds describes the history of Jackson’s housing shortage from the workforce perspective. By 1959, tourism had grown to 72 percent of the county’s economy and the completion of the international airport in 1983 exacerbated the trend. By 1989, Joe Rice, a restaurant owner, realized housing employees on the second floor was a business model necessity.

Today, the high demand for workers in Jackson Hole has roughly 8,000 people commuting from Idaho over Teton Pass every day. The local paper lists six pages of help wanted ads from at last $18 an hour or those not wanting to spend 45 minutes commuting each way twice a day, many cars with city-certified camping permits on their windshield house the local workforce. Summer bathing in the area’s creeks is cold, but viable.

High wages and mountain living attract these workers to Jackson Hole. Yet even with high wages, rents have grown at a slightly greater rate than income for decades, median home purchase prices have grown at four times the rate of median income growth for the past 30 years.

In the mid-2000s, local leaders adopted strategies to address their affordable housing crisis and accommodate their workforce. The strategies included encouraging density and creating incentives to encourage more private sector workforce housing development. This commitment has increased the rate of housing development from previous low levels. In fact, the Jackson/Teton County is currently overseeing seven capital projects. The residents of Gunnison County will benefit from the lessons learned in Teton County.

In spite of these concerted efforts, the upward pressure on prices is not letting up. As of last year, Wyoming Game and Fish was considering closing its Jackson office as result of high housing prices. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many urban professionals able to work remotely are relocating to mountain communities. Thus, the question is not whether density is a solution, rather how many higher density housing units are actually needed in each mountain resort community to effectively address its affordable housing crisis.

As community populations grow and the demand for housing grows rapidly, increasing supply is the most effective way to house people. Increasing supply will also reduce upward pressure on housing prices. Density reduces the amount of ranch and open-space land required to increase housing supply and produces housing at lower cost per unit. Thus, increasing the supply of higher density housing is most effective way to produce affordable housing with the least impact on open-space.

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