Already this year, three City of Driggs employees have lost their housing or have been notified that they will soon lose their housing, because their rentals are being sold or converted into vacation properties. With the housing crisis hitting close to home, the city is planning to build four residential units for its employees on a vacant portion of the Lions Park on the south side of downtown.
“One employee left the valley entirely, one we’re scrambling to find a solution, any solution, for, and one we have a short-term solution for,” said Mayor Hyrum Johnson. “These are all hard-working professionals, pillars of the community who would like to be here for the long haul.”
During a city council meeting on June 1, public works director Jay Mazalewski and community development director Doug Self brought their concept to the council: four modular houses (two three-bedroom and two two-bedroom) on the southern part of Lions Park fronting Teton Avenue. Once used as a community garden, the land has stood vacant for several years; a 2018 proposal by the city to install a public RV park there was denied after a vociferous reaction from neighboring residents. A zone change will be necessary in order to build homes there.
The city would fund the site improvements from its resort tax fund, but is still determining the best way to finance the units, which it will purchase from a pre-fabrication company such as ZipKit or indieDwell. City finance officer Carol Lenz said one option is a loan; the city would repay the mortgage with rental income, which would follow HUD guidelines and cost around $950 per month for two bedrooms and $1,300 for three. The city could also seek approval of a general obligation bond from voters in November, but that would delay construction by a season, and Lenz expressed doubt about the likelihood of getting a 66 percent vote in favor of a bond.
The council expressed support for the idea of employee or public sector housing and directed the staff to begin the initial steps and continue to explore funding.
“We knew we needed to look at city-owned or city-controlled housing, but we didn’t think it would happen this abruptly,” Johnson said after the meeting. “Covid turned out to be the catalyst that accelerated the issue.”
He acknowledged that the city isn’t alone in this struggle; businesses around the valley have been challenged to find enough staff to keep their doors open, and owners cite housing as a large part of the problem.
“Housing is the number one question for applicants—it impacts the hiring process,” he added. The city recently hired a new employee to join the planning department, and Johnson said everyone involved heaved a sigh of relief when they learned that she already owned a home in the valley.
“If we don’t have the employees, we simply can’t perform the work that needs to be done in this city—operating the wastewater treatment plant, maintaining the parks, processing planning and zoning applications, patching the roads—it all requires that we have the manpower and the womanpower to do the job,” Johnson said.
There are housing developments in the works that could somewhat mitigate the demand over the next few years, including the 34-unit Depot Square apartment complex on Front Street. The City of Driggs was instrumental in helping the Teton County Joint Housing Authority make Depot Square, its first housing project, a reality by providing administrative support, funding, and land, and strengthening the viability of the project through separate infrastructure grants and collaboration with the Driggs Urban Renewal Agency. Construction on Depot Square is expected to begin in August of this year.