Jackson Hole's working class has scrambled for housing. But now the market is forcing an exodus
Several years ago, Brandy Borts started keeping a list of the places she had lived in Jackson Hole, Wyo. She stretched her mind back to 1998-when she moved to the valley-and wrote down all the spots she could remember. From then on, each time she moved, Borts would jot down another entry.
Since she started the list, it's grown to 40 addresses.
"I've moved so many times that it's just crushing," she says.
Borts, 47, has had leases broken when a property was sold. She has been forced out when rent was hiked up suddenly. To make the upheaval a little less formidable, she's learned to limit her personal belongings to what can fit into a few plastic bins. The last place she unpacked those bins in Jackson was an older home with a mold problem that led to health issues.
"That was kind of the last straw," Borts says. "It's just time. It's time to move on, and that hurts my heart a little bit to say that, but it's a big world out there."
Forty different addresses over a couple decades may sound like an exaggeration. Even Borts knows some won't buy it. But to the ears of locals-especially those who don't own the roof over their head-it's not so inconceivable in Jackson Hole. Renters here move around a lot. And as more concentrated wealth and more visitors pour into the area, many long-time renters like Borts are thinking about heading in the opposite direction. For some, the pandemic pushed them over the edge.
Borts has spent her time in Jackson working in the service industry. For the last 11 years, she has been at the Snake River Grill. The restaurant is a local favorite and was one of the first in the area to offer true fine dining when it opened on the Town Square almost three decades ago. Borts says it's a great gig with good pay, benefits, and two months of vacation a year during the off-season.
"I never really had a problem finding work there," she says. "It's always been the housing."
Borts found most places by word of mouth from coworkers, friends and acquaintances. A spot opens up, and the valley's version of musical chairs plays out, with each person vying for housing that's more affordable, has just slightly more space, or doesn't involve driving over a dangerous mountain pass.
Borts is currently away from the area, holed up with family in Washington state. She's not sure where she'll settle in next, but it won't be anywhere in the valley.
Residents moving from Jackson Hole due to the lack of affordable or stable housing isn't a new phenomenon. But the current exodus is happening at a critical moment in the valley's history.
Tourists are flocking to the area in numbers never seen before-nearby Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks broke visitation records this season. This summer, some workers were forced to move elsewhere for housing. The shortage of labor caused many businesses to either close their doors or limit their hours.
There's a lot of wealth involved in the equation, too.
A study by the Economic Innovation Group found that Teton County has the nation's highest per-capita income from assets, including interest, dividends and rent.
"Mountain West states contain some of the greatest inequality in asset income, with enclaves of extreme wealth peppered across the landscape," the study says.
"Mountain West states contain some of the greatest inequality in asset income, with enclaves of extreme wealth peppered across the landscape."
That's reflected in the local real estate market. In November, a 55-acre property known as "Camp Teton" was listed at $65 million and sold for an undisclosed price. That's one of-if not the-most expensive single-family home sales in the area, according to the Jackson Hole News and Guide.
Area homes are regularly priced in the millions. The Jackson Hole Real Estate Report says buyers spent more than $2 billion in the first nine months of 2021-an all-time high. Meanwhile, the number of homes on the market is at an all-time low, the report says. In other words, more money is being spent but on fewer homes.
"While the number of local working-class buyers continues to dwindle as inventory in their price range becomes nonexistent, the amount of Zoom Town telecommuters, second home buyers, and early retirees continues to increase," says the report.
It also notes that investors are buying up homes and condos in the $400,000 to $1.8 million dollar price range, and turning those properties into rentals. One investor alone purchased 25 properties in the last two years.
That sort of extreme real estate dynamic helped drive Ryan Dorgan and Emily Mieure from the valley.
"The wealth wasn't really veiled anymore," says Dorgan, 34. He and his partner, Mieure, 33, now live about an hour south of Indianapolis, in Nashville, Indiana. They arrived in Jackson separately, but both came for jobs at the Jackson Hole News and Guide. Mieure worked on the criminal justice and breaking news beat and Dorgan was the paper's photographer.
Like so many, their time in the valley was characterized by unparalleled outdoor access-they were able to skin up Snow King and take a lap before heading into the office on a fresh powder day.
"Being able to pick a direction and walk and enjoy yourself on public lands at no cost was one of my favorite things about living there," Dorgan says.
But they also had to move around a lot. Things became slightly more affordable after they started dating and made the decision to move in together.
"There are a lot of matches made out of necessity in Jackson," Dorgan says.
"We got lucky that it worked out," Mieure adds. At one point, they lived in the bedroom community of Cottonwood. There were six people in a three-bedroom unit, which put them above the legal limit.
"We were just trying to get by and splitting a small house with a lot of people made rent reasonable to what we were getting paid. So there, for a little bit, it was actually affordable," says Mieure.
Their last valley home was in Kelly, a rural community with fewer than 150 people. That meant a morning commute of about 25 minutes, but they jumped at the opportunity when their rent in town was about to go up again. Kelly sits along the Gros Ventre River and has some of the least obscured views of the Tetons. Mieure describes it as "this magical place."
But when the pandemic hit, some of that magic was lost. Mieure says being confined to a 400-square-foot apartment felt like the walls were closing in and the snow was piling up.
"I think I probably would have had another year or two in me in that apartment, had it not been for being quarantined there," Mieure says. When they did get out of the house, like heading into town for groceries, they noticed how quickly things around them were changing.
"There was a lot of outside investment and speculative development that came in and just started bulldozing old buildings and putting up boxes," Dorgan says.
Much of that came in residential neighborhoods, with the demolition of cabins and houses built in the early 20th Century. To Dorgan, they stood for something more authentic than what he describes as the current "Disneyworld Old West charm" of the Town Square with its famed elk antler arches.
Gone were homes where families were raised over the last few decades-places Dorgan and Mieure once might have been able to afford. Seeing it happen brought them to a new realization.
"Even if we try to keep chugging along, we're eventually going to hit a point where we just don't make enough money to live here anymore," Dorgan says. "And that was kind of when I threw in the towel. I said, 'Okay, let's go.'"
The decision to leave was coupled with Mieure getting an exciting job offer as an investigative reporter at a podcast production company in the Midwest. It also came after an unsuccessful offer on a house in Victor, Idaho- a once-affordable section of the Teton Valley across the border in Idaho that is experiencing its own real estate boom. Mieure and Dorgan also spent a few years trying to find a home through a program run by the Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department, but nothing ever panned out.
"It wasn't for not trying," Mieure says.
"If you have a place here, please, never stop fighting for local workers. And I mean really fight. The current course of things is unsustainable."
Borts didn't have much more luck with the affordable housing agency, either. Part of the program works as a lottery with a weighted drawing, but Borts says she was never chosen and it was a very discouraging process.
"I just had this hope that someday I was going to get chosen and yeah, it's just that was hard, really hard after 20 some years," she says.
There are other creative approaches to helping would-be home buyers like Borts, Dorgan and Mieure. A local non-profit called Shacks on Racks aims to relocate homes that would otherwise be torn down by gathering information and publishing demolition permits.
"I absolutely love moving houses," says Esther Judge-Lennox, who began the group a few years ago. She guesses about 90 percent of the homes that get torn down in the area are worthy of moving, while the other 10 percent aren't suitable. Another benefit of moving homes-it can free up a lot to build employee housing or workforce restricted property.
When that doesn't happen, and old homes give way to new single-family builds, Judge-Lennox says, "then we're perpetuating the problem." She's also quick to point out that the non-profit's work is a drop in the bucket.
"I am the only one doing [something] of this kind in any community that I know of. [It's of] such value, but totally not enough," she says.
Meanwhile, a real estate transfer tax appears to have support from more than half of the community, according to a survey by the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. It would act like a sales tax on properties sold over a certain amount of money, and those funds could be used by the county to address the affordable housing crisis. This week, the Wyoming Legislature's Joint Revenue Committee advanced a bill for the tax — the first time the legislature has sponsored such a bill after many years of being proposed, mostly by Teton County lawmakers.
Whether or not the community finds a long-term solution, it won't be in time for people like Borts, Dorgan or Mieure. But they're still rooting for change. In his farewell post on Instagram, Dorgan implored his old community to keep at it.
"If you have a place here, please, never stop fighting for local workers," he wrote. "And I mean really fight. The current course of things is unsustainable."
Editor's note: A version of this story appears in Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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