JACKSON, Wyo. — In this corner of the Cowboy State, where homes start at $1 million, it may appear Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr made out like a bandit.
He bought his three-bedroom, two-bathroom house last year. Steps from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, his Teton Village home has an open-floor plan, vaulted ceilings and hardwood floors, all kissed with afternoon sun.
“I started out here 25 years ago when I first moved to Jackson,” Carr said. “And so now it's kind of coming full circle.”
It’s a big change from his living situation just a few years ago. In 2015, Carr, a divorced father of two, was living in a one-bedroom apartment in the last affordable rental complex in the valley.
Like many in the area, he worked several jobs to make ends meet. He split time between the Four Seasons and Grand Teton National Park, while also working as a property manager and ski patroller.
Around that time Jackson’s housing crisis had reached a tipping point. To make matters worse, Carr learned his rent was going up by 40%.
There was virtually nowhere to live. And then he struck gold: he qualified for government-subsidized housing. He paid $313,000 for the deed-restricted unit earmarked for sheriff’s office employees. A similar sized condo in Teton Village lists for $1.2 million.
For the roughly 3 million visitors who flood the adventure capital of Jackson Hole each year, the stunning vistas around Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks make this area “God’s country.” But for some residents of Jackson, which according to one study is the most economically unequal place in the country, there’s another name: “Poverty with a view.”
Or, for most of Carr’s deputies, a treacherous hour commute to work that can leave them cut off from town in the event of a big storm or disconnected from the community.
To counter that, local government has made strides to house its workforce by limiting commercial development, offering developers incentives to build affordable units and prioritizing housing for critical service providers like Carr. But that has frustrated some business leaders while residents push for even bolder moves and others simply move away.
“We’ve been under tremendous pressure as a Town Council to do something about it,” said Jackson Town Councilman Jim Stanford, who is one of two council members who lives in a home through Jackson’s affordable housing program.
The other is the mayor.
For decades, Jackson has struggled to keep up with housing demands for its workforce. But since the recession, the lack of housing has only worsened, Stanford said.
“What we've seen since the recession was this enormous amount of economic activity and even more economic pressure on our community, housing being priced so far out of reach,” he said. “That’s when the crisis became acute.”
Some factors have deepened that crisis. Wyoming has no state income tax, so it draws in wealthy people from all over. There’s also little land to develop in Teton County as 97% is federally protected.
The demand to live in Jackson has driven up the median list price for a home to $2.3 million. That’s unthinkable for civil servants like Carr, who was making $90,000 as an undersheriff when he qualified for his home in Teton Village.
To combat this, elected officials set a goal for 65% of the workforce to live locally. But even as the housing department counts more than 100 affordable units in development on top of the hundreds already in stock, the percentage of workers living locally is trending slightly down. It stands at 57% today, according to the Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department.
“There's no silver bullet to this problem,” said April Norton, director of the Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department.
Norton points to two reasons for the decline. First, more people are retiring. Workers who bought cheap homes decades ago are selling them to second homeowners for millions. And then there’s the local job growth rate — 3.5%, nearly double the national average.
“That is really hard to keep up with,” Norton said.
Elected officials have heeded the call of some residents to take bolder moves to address the housing situation. Despite grumbles from the business community, officials passed new regulations last July requiring developers to provide or pay housing costs for a larger proportion of their full-time workers.
For commercial developers in town, that’s more than half their employees. Residential developers are responsible for roughly three-quarters of theirs.
But some are still left out in the cold.
WANTED: One-Bedroom Stability
Inside John Slaughter’s sunny art studio, the fridge is stocked. Tangled leafy plants frame the upstairs entrance. Moody black and white photographs line the walls.
He’s done a few things to make his shared art studio feel like a home. Perhaps because the 36-year-old photographer doesn’t have one. Slaughter is part of Jackson’s shrinking creative class, many of whom have already left.
“It's definitely hard especially when I just had two nice living situations recently,” Slaughter said.
For the last six years, Slaughter has lived in his van in the summers. During Jackson’s unforgiving winters, he has found temporary housing. Increasingly, Slaughter craves the stability of a real home.
This past winter, he thought he found that. But, it was a month-to-month lease, he said, “on a handshake deal. I was there for about 10 months. So that was kind of the longest stint.”
After 22 years and 40 homes, Brandy Borts is no stranger to handshake deals and unconventional housing arrangements. Now she is scrambling to find a new place to live after the developer who bought her apartment building announced plans to construct high-end condos there.
The restaurant server comprises the backbone of the community, the service industry.
She has been on the list for an affordable home for 15 years.
“I think the most frustrating part is being on those affordable housing lists and just never feeling like I've had much of a chance,” Borts said.
For residents like Slaughter and Borts, the jackpot is Jackson’s housing lottery. It prioritizes people based on their length and type of employment, family size or their income. But Slaughter and Borts, who are both single and earn a fluctuating income, don’t fit neatly into those categories.
For the sheriff, it’s also difficult to give his deputies the stability he now has. Housing county employees was central to Carr’s campaign when he ran for sheriff last year. Of his 25 patrollers, five live in Teton County. All are in units through the housing department.
Carr has pushed for all of his deputies to receive housing allowances. Instead, the county voted last month to raise nearly all its employees salaries. Carr said it’s “too little too late” to get them to stay in — and connect with — the community they serve. And that’s cause for concern.
“Those are the sorts of things that keep me up at night, Carr said. “Whether it's that big emergency or some catastrophe or disaster.”
One such example came in 2017. Jackson Hole Airport, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and thousands lost power for days during a winter storm, prompting the county to declare a state of emergency.
Many law enforcement officers lived at least one mountain pass away, so they couldn’t get to work. It was a watershed moment that has Stanford, the council member, worried, even with their ongoing efforts to recruit and retain workers.
“At a certain point you're not going to have any anybody to help you,” he said. “You're not going to have anybody to respond when you're in an emergency.”
Robyn Vincent is a journalist based in Jackson, Wyo.