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Pedestrians cross Cache Street in downtown Jackson in August 2017. High-priced housing in Teton County drove lawmakers there to implement a comprehensive plan to require the construction of affordable workforce housing. A new bill in the Legislature would make that program illegal. 

CHEYENNE -- Facing down an affordable housing crisis in posh Teton County, lawmakers there several years ago drafted a comprehensive action plan to not just encourage but require the construction of affordable, workforce housing.

A new bill introduced in the Legislature this week would make such a program illegal.

House Bill 277 -- sponsored by freshman legislator and realtor Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Torrington -- would eliminate any “public regulation, ordinance, resolution, condition of development, comprehensive plan or subdivision plan” that requires the dedication of any percentage of residential or commercial units for affordable or workforce housing.

The bill would also halt the public acquisition of land for affordable or workforce housing or the public “construction, dedication or rehabilitation of affordable or workforce housing.”

“Burdensome housing regulations harm small businesses and hinder economic development,” Duncan said in a text message. “House Bill 277 ensures the private sector can continue to meet housing demands without unreasonable barriers and increased costs. We should be providing incentives to private industry, encouraging the development of the necessary infrastructure to house our workforce and their families, not forcing it through government intrusion.”

While the legislation would apply statewide, the bill seems to target one county -- Teton -- and a long-running residential mitigation program there, which requires employers to build or provide housing for their workers. The bill would also prevent the county from making purchases like the $1.7 million acquisition of two lots in the Town of Jackson which, according to a report in the Jackson Hole News & Guide, was to be set aside for 10 workforce housing units.

But the housing mitigation requirements have a purpose. In Teton County’s high-priced housing market, commuting to the isolated mountain community from out of town is difficult and, with few choices for affordable housing at their income levels, workers there often face limited living options, particularly in a county where the mean home sale was $785,000 and rents are among the highest in the state.

Duncan, however, argues that providing that type of housing should not be done through enforcing regulations around land use on private companies but through incentives.

“With the shortage of workforce housing in areas of higher property prices and limited inventory, trends seem to be adopted across the state,” she wrote. “Our statutes are silent on the issues of affordable housing exactions and regulations. Some states have allowed this type of regulation, others have precluded it. It is best to pass a bill to provide a statewide philosophy as to housing exactions and regulations.”

“Incentives, not regulations, should be Wyoming’s philosophy,” she added.

However, those in Teton County say that incentives have their limits. Mark Newcomb, a Teton County commissioner, said that given the highest-earner’s demand for housing in Teton County, an incentive-based system would only benefit the wealthy, particularly in a town whose development goals include limiting growth.

“This bill would limit Teton County’s ability to ensure that a portion of the supply of new housing development is available for a broad spectrum of individuals and families earning different levels of income,” he wrote in an email. “If left with incentive based tools alone to deliver housing, new supply would quickly end up in the hands of higher earners.”

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“No matter how incentives are structured there will never be enough supply to meet global demand for owning a residence and/or land in Teton County,” he added.

Affordable housing is notoriously hard to build in the places that need it most, leaving many communities to resort to government-based solutions. In states like New York, which bans the use of public money to build or purchase land for affordable housing, mandatory inclusionary zoning -- somewhat similar to what is being used in Teton County -- has been the alternative solution for places like New York City, where housing costs soared out of the reach of most working class families in the past two decades.

Considered to be the easiest means to encourage affordable housing construction without expending public money, such programs are often considered to be risky and, in communities like San Francisco, such programs have been a flop. However some communities, like San Diego, have seen some success with such programs.

Teton County, which has very little developable space in a breathtaking natural setting, is in extremely high demand, making even incentivized construction prohibitively expensive. Newcomb recalled an instance several years ago where a developer was looking to build on land leading to Jackson Hole Mountain Ski Resort, offering a sum of $16 million for 21 acres. This, Newcomb said, would have furnished just 69 houses to the county’s housing supply, which had to be priced at points where a developer could make a profit.

“At the going Teton County rate of $450/sq ft for construction, you can see how the math doesn’t add up for anything close to ‘affordability,’” he wrote.

Newcomb opined that a bill like HB-277 -- as well as other bills to target Teton County this session -- serve only to undermine local control, and don’t reflect what communities need to address conditions on the ground.

“I’ve been impressed by county commissioners from across the state and their commitment to fundamental Wyoming values and ethics around local control,” he wrote. “They are smart folks and dedicated public servants deeply committed to the citizens on their communities. These state legislators behind these bills that strip local control display a shallow and unsophisticated level of thinking not well grounded in economic principles and realities. I honestly think they are better than that, but they are being swayed by the rhetoric of special interests. Definitely not politics at its best.”

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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