Committee advances bill to block affordable housing tool

CHEYENNE — After canceling local government meetings, more than a dozen Teton County elected officials and staff traveled to Cheyenne to plead Monday with state legislators to not eliminate local control of a key housing program.

But Jackson Hole’s elected leaders failed to convince legislators, who ultimately voted 8-6 to advance a bill prohibiting towns and counties from using a tool Teton County has relied on for decades. Facing a crisis-level shortage of affordable housing, the community has long used fees levied on new development to pay for building workforce housing or requirements that developers build a certain amount of worker housing as part of a project.

Since 1998 Teton County has collected $12.2 million in fees through the exaction program. The town of Jackson has collected $1.7 million since 2002. The mitigation fees have been used to build 224 housing units, with another 40 units in the works, according to data shared with the committee. The county still holds $3 million in fees, while the town has a zero balance.

But some state lawmakers said Monday they want local government to find another way to deal with the housing problem.

Rep. Shelly Duncan, a Goshen County Republican, introduced House Bill 277 to prohibit such exactions during last year’s legislative session. That bill never made it to a hearing on the floor. Although the bill wasn’t on the agenda, Duncan revived it when the Legislature’s Joint Interim Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee met in Jackson in September. The committee brought the bill back up for discussion Monday at the capital in Cheyenne.

“Wyoming has a vibrant private sector that’s capable of solving its housing issues, if allowed to do so through less regulation and a robust incentive-based program,” Duncan told the committee.

More than 25 people from Teton County trekked the 400-plus miles to discuss Duncan’s proposal. Fourteen individuals, including a number of Jackson Hole elected officials, defended the program as critical to Teton County. Meanwhile, seven people spoke in favor of Duncan’s bill, calling the exactions too much of a burden on businesses.

Those who wanted to preserve the housing tool made the case that local government needs every option possible to supply workforce housing and that even if the current cost of housing mitigation is too high, the issue is best handled locally rather than at the state level.

“No single program or tool can solve Teton County’s complex housing challenges alone,” Jackson Councilor Arne Jorgensen said. “Today we are asking you not to remove a tool our community has been using and refining.”

Likewise, Teton County Commissioner Natalia D. Macker told the committee: “We in Teton County believe it is most responsible for us to handle our housing issues ourselves.”

Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr sent a letter explaining his staff’s need for housing, and Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Brady Hansen explained that his department relies on 70-plus volunteer firefighters, many of whom live in affordable housing.

“Without those programs we would find that to be a very crippling approach for our volunteer fire department,” Hansen said.

Residents who aren’t affiliated with the county showed up to testify and wrote letters opposing the bill, too. Kate Roberts, a pre-K teacher in Jackson, said she regularly hears from parents about how difficult it is to secure housing.

“If we truly value early childhood education, we first need to ensure these kids have a safe, affordable place to live,” Roberts said. “Without affordable housing, high-quality pre-K can only go so far. By taking away one of the only tools we have for affordable housing this bill is a critical threat to Teton County students.”

Representatives from the Wyoming Association of Municipalities and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association also opposed the bill.

In the summer of 2018 the town and county substantially increased how much housing developers of new commercial spaces are required to build or pay for, drawing ire from the business community. Local elected officials promised to continue to reevaluate and tweak those rates.

People testifying in favor of the bill to do away with housing exactions included several board members of the advocacy group Jackson Hole Working. All were from Teton County, except representatives of the Wyoming Board of Realtors. They described punishing housing exactions that are acting as essentially a no-growth policy. Teton County’s exaction rates are so high, it’s prohibitively expensive for businesses to start up or expand, according to supporters of Duncan’s bill.

John Stennis, an architect and former town planning commissioner, said local elected officials have failed to come up with housing tools other than the exactions.

“All our eggs are in one basket,” Stennis said. “I feel strongly our local government has overstepped their reach. The combination of new, punitive land development regulations and complicated affordable housing regulations will continue to hinder our efforts to house 65% of our workforce locally.”

Adam Lackner, owner of Brushbuck Wildlife Tours, said businesses can solve their housing problems on their own without “extremely oppressive government overreach.”

Calling the exactions an “unauthorized tax,” rancher Kelly Lockhart said incentives for the private sector are the way to build housing. He also said local government in Teton County is running afoul of the state of Wyoming’s goals.

“This is a tax on housing and on businesses and on jobs,” Lockhart said. “I want to believe that the state of Wyoming wants to create good jobs, wants to help businesses diversify the economy and wants to create housing. I was told that if you want to create those things you make it easier, not harder. Taxes make it harder.”

In addition to exactions, Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Director April Norton, who attended the meeting, said the town and county already offer incentives for developers to build housing, including a 2-for-1 bonus in square footage, height bonuses and reduced parking requirements.

Ultimately, the corporations committee advanced the bill, which will come up again during the 2020 legislative session beginning Feb. 10 in Cheyenne.