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Hot Jackson Hole housing market putting renters in a bind

August 15, 2021 GMT
Sara Dery, who was born in Jackson, Wyo., and raised in Victor, Idaho, stands in the front yard of her rental home Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in Jackson, Wyo. Dery recently found out that her rental home and the home and commercial building on the adjacent lots near East Kelly Kelly Avenue and Vine Street are being sold for $14 million. (Ryan Dorgan/Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP)
Sara Dery, who was born in Jackson, Wyo., and raised in Victor, Idaho, stands in the front yard of her rental home Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in Jackson, Wyo. Dery recently found out that her rental home and the home and commercial building on the adjacent lots near East Kelly Kelly Avenue and Vine Street are being sold for $14 million. (Ryan Dorgan/Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP)
Sara Dery, who was born in Jackson, Wyo., and raised in Victor, Idaho, stands in the front yard of her rental home Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in Jackson, Wyo. Dery recently found out that her rental home and the home and commercial building on the adjacent lots near East Kelly Kelly Avenue and Vine Street are being sold for $14 million. (Ryan Dorgan/Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP)

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — It’s a seller’s market, and property owners are cashing out of Jackson Hole at unprecedented rates. For renters, that rapid turnover often means a terminated lease and uncertain future in a state where tenants have limited rights and few options for legal recourse.

One legal aid group said tenant-landlord disputes that they handle have quadrupled.

“In this market, if a landlord is in control, they’re going to hand you a lease and say, ‘Take it or leave it, or I’ll find somebody else,’ ” said Audrey Cohen-Davis, an attorney, who also serves on the board of Teton County Access to Justice.

The turbulence has risen so quickly that people turned to social media to vent their frustration. The meme Instagram account, @ikonoftheday, previously devoted to poking fun at Ikon ski pass holders, turned its attention to the housing crisis and opened up its direct messages to submissions.

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Within 24 hours, stories of insecurity poured in:

Local teachers, mountain resort employees, and lifelong valley residents all report struggling to find alternative housing after being evicted this summer.

A three-parcel lot on East Kelly Avenue is currently listed for $14 million. Its renters — seven local workers who staff St. John’s Health, Peak Physical Therapy and local restaurants — have until April 2022 to find somewhere else to live.

Nowhere to Live

Such instability isn’t limited to Jackson. Two roommates who bartend at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar and lived in Driggs, Idaho, were forced to move to Alta when their rental sold. Their other two roommates were also displaced. One of those roommates, an oral surgery assistant, moved in with his girlfriend. The other, a post office worker in Driggs, left the area.

Meanwhile, for some properties that don’t sell, landlords are increasing the rent by thousands of dollars.

Chris, who asked the Jackson Hole News&Guide to use only his first name, has lived in four Jackson rentals in nine months. Currently, he’s got a six-month lease for an east Jackson townhome.

When he signed, the landlord seemed intent on housing the local workforce. But when that lease renews in October, the monthly rent is nearly doubling from $3,200 to $6,000. Chris has an established, well-paying job in town, but there’s no way he can cover his share of a three bedroom at that price tag; half of his income would be consumed by rent.

“I simply can’t afford to be a martyr for Jackson, Wyoming,” he said. “I’d love to stick around and watch that. It’s almost like, this anger, right? Like, ... damn. How did we get to this point? And I so wish I could be here when the tide turns and that bubble bursts and it’s no longer sustainable. But I know that I can’t afford that, and I won’t be here.”

Like other valley renters, the 28-year-old recognizes a need to house seasonal workers in a more sustainable way.

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“We’re so tourism based, that it’s a requirement to find housing for those folks,” he said. Otherwise, we’ll become a ghost town of Zoom-sequestered millionaires.

With that new rent due in two months, Chris doesn’t have time to wait for a town- or county-approved solution. He’s searching satellite communities and gritting his teeth for the necessary commute.

“It’s part of my everyday conversation,” he said. “It’s not going to fall in your lap.”

That’s an approach consistent with recommendations from April Norton, housing director for the Jackson/Teton County Housing Department, who suggests struggling individuals and families sign up for every waiting list and use their networks.

For some, that’s a plea on Facebook group 22 Rents or a tear-sheet flier posted in Hungry Jack’s General Store.

Sara Dery is one of the renters living on the lot listed for $14 million in East Jackson. Luckily, her landlords plan to honor their lease through next April, which gives the 25-year-old time to look for another home. But between her two jobs at Peak Physical Therapy and Snake River Grill, Dery is struggling to find housing options within her price range. Her roommates are all in a similar boat; as renters, they haven’t had the chance to build up equity.

“I’m basically throwing away all this money for this roof over my head,” Dery said. That’s on top of student loans, car payments and a ski pass.

Dery grew up in Victor and frequently commuted over Teton Pass to compete with the Jackson gymnastics team. She knows it’s always been difficult to find reliable housing in Jackson Hole, but now that property owners are able to sell sight unseen to out-of-state millionaires and billionaires, homeownership for locals feels increasingly out of reach.

“With no homes currently listed for under $1 million, and no condos listed for under $500,000, inventory for locals has all but disappeared,” a 2021 annual report by Engel and Volkers found. In the first six months of 2021, 176 single-family homes sold in Jackson for a median price of $2.75 million, according to the report.

On a recent Tuesday, a man casually sporting flip flops and sipping an iced latte from Cowboy Coffee chatted with a friend about his plans to buy a $10 million ski slope chalet in Teton Village.

“It doesn’t have any land on it, but you can ski right up,” he said. “We’d probably only come a dozen weekends out of the year, but it would be fun.”

That kind of wealth has long flown into Jackson Hole Airport, and it’s been documented in books like “Billionaire Wilderness” by Yale University professor Justin Farrell, who spoke Tuesday in Jackson.

Still, recent increases in property values and the evaporation of supply have pushed sales prices into the stratosphere. The net value of the county is up 13.5% from 2020, according to Teton County Assessor Melissa Shinkle.

Sasha Motivala, a local filmmaker and landlord, has rented his second home in Wilson to local workers for nearly two decades. In the past 12 months, that house’s property value doubled, and Motivala realized he could sell it for $1.5 million. He gave his three renters until the end of August to move out.

Motivala said he intentionally kept rent under market value so seasonal workers could afford to live there. Now, they’ll be hard-pressed to find a similar deal.

“Unfortunately, the opportunity for tenants to obtain favorable leases in this market is very small,” said Jackson attorney Kevin Gregory, who represents both landlords and renters.

He said property owners are trying to take advantage of the hot real estate market and sell off “classic Jackson rentals” to buyers who are interested solely in the land underneath.

In the Cowboy State, where property rights and written contracts reign supreme, most of those sales are perfectly legal.

“The landlords are being very careful about how they go about this, which just leaves the tenants in a bind,” said Tricia Kalish, director of Teton County Access to Justice, which attempts to mediate tenant-landlord disputes.

“I’m always waiting for the time where we’re getting people coming in and being like, ‘I was unfairly evicted or improperly evicted,’ ” Kalish said. “But in most cases, people are following the rules.”

By people, Kalish means landlords, many of whom call her to make sure they’re following all the appropriate steps to legally evict. She often sends them back to their own attorneys.

Access to Justice was started as a nonprofit to give low-income individuals access to legal aid.

Kalish said the number of tenant-landlord disputes they’re responding to has quadrupled since this time last year, something she attributed to the market and easing of the pandemic.

Legal evictions allow landlords like Motivala to oust negligent tenants (his prior renters left a refrigerator full of mold and a bucket full of human feces). But in a supply drought, where alternatives come primarily through luck, connections, or wealth, some landlords may also be abusing the system.

Kalish said you have to be a perfect renter in order to not violate the terms of your lease. And that can be difficult when those terms list items like “snow clearance” without specific guidelines.

As attorney Jeremy Macik put it, you could legally be served an eviction notice for a single day of un-shoveled snow. Other lease agreements he has read give the landlord power to evict “for any reason whatsoever.”

“People will still sign,” he said, “because otherwise there’s 10 more people in line behind them.”

Living on such thin ice, with the pressure of being kicked out whenever your landlord sells, is already having a documented mental health impact on valley residents.

For those struggling with rent payments, the One22 resource center is continuing to offer relief. Most applicants earn just $200 more than their rent expense in monthly wages, Executive Director Sharel Lund said.

Thirty-seven Teton County households have applied for funding through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, and six have received payment so far, said ERAP spokeswoman Rachel Girt.

There are an estimated 789 Teton County renters eligible for ERAP funding, Girt said, which can help cover unpaid past due rent and utilities incurred after March 13, 2020. Eligible renters can also receive assistance with future expenses in three-month increments.

An estimated 350 renting households in Teton County are behind on rent by an average of $3,000, according to data compiled by Surgo Ventures, a nonprofit health organization which recently published its findings in the New York Times.

Apart from forcible entry and detainer (eviction) cases which come up in Teton County civil court, local eviction data is practically nonexistent. Norton said the housing department doesn’t track evictions because elected officials haven’t made that request. Because lease agreements are private contracts, they are often handled behind the scenes.

Former town attorney Audrey Cohen-Davis said eviction data could potentially be tracked by a local non-profit interested in increasing public awareness.

Meanwhile, long-term rental solutions have been slow to materialize. The highly-anticipated Sagebrush Apartment complex — a third of which is deed restricted for local workers — was pitched as high-density housing ideal for employees. But as it nears completion, the project is drawing public ire for its rates. Studio units start at about $1,700 a month, which critics see as unfeasible for local workers.

“This town will fully crumble if the workforce can’t afford to be here,” Dery said.

Many renters were reluctant to go on record for fear of jeopardizing their future housing prospects, but Dery said she knows the cause is worth it.

“Honestly, let them fear me,” she said. “Because it’s not fair. The system’s not set up to let any of us that have been here and work so hard to be here be successful. And I’m not afraid to call people out for that.”