The commissioners of the Teton County Joint Housing Authority met for the first time on Dec. 4. From left, Kristie Eggebroten, Zach Smith, Erin Gaffney, vice chair Shawn Hill, and chair Carol Barker.

The Teton County Joint Housing Authority met for the first time on Dec. 4, bringing renewed enthusiasm and momentum to the conversation about affordable housing in Teton Valley.

The housing authority has been a long time in the making. The county first established one in 2007, but when the economy tanked, the committee stopped meeting. In 2016 the council of governments again established a joint housing authority, but the county never made commissioner appointments. Because of that change in outlook, Driggs community development director Doug Self shelved the idea of a housing authority and instead put together the Affordable Housing Technical Advisory Group in 2017. After almost two years of work the technical advisory group released the 2019 Teton County Affordable Housing Strategic Plan as a guiding policy document for local jurisdictions. One recommended action was to reform the Teton County Joint Housing Authority.

Together the county and cities appointed five members: realtor Zach Smith, policy wonk Shawn Hill of Valley Advocates for Responsible Development, Victor and Driggs Urban Renewal Agency administrator Erin Gaffney, Grand Targhee property manager Kristie Eggebroten, and retired civil engineer Carol Barker. At its first meeting the group quickly decided to appoint Barker as the chair because she also served with the technical advisory group. It was also an easy call to appoint Self as the secretary.

The commissioners seemed eager to tackle the strategies laid out in the plan; each volunteered to take on a task or two and report back to the group with their findings.

By far the lowest hanging fruit, the group agreed, is the Gemstone Subdivision located in southeast Driggs. The city first approved the 170-lot, 55-acre subdivision in 1995. The Karl M. Johnson Foundation of Jackson, which owns the land, has been a philanthropic force on both sides of the Tetons, often awarding scholarships and funding local Boy Scout troops as well as providing affordable housing. Most recently the foundation donated land in Victor to the city so that the school district could build the new Victor Elementary School there. The foundation also still operates the trailer park on East Center Street, as well as a second large lot adjacent to the school that is zoned for multi-family units.

The Gemstone neighborhood was envisioned as an affordable housing resource where tenants could rent lots for $125/month and build houses. Some of the residents there have since purchased their lots from the foundation, but right now sales and leases on the vacant lots are on hold.

“They’re paying taxes on all those properties,” Self told the commissioners. He noted that the foundation is eligible for property tax exemption because of its nonprofit status but that the organization’s directors don’t have the time to pursue it. “They don’t know what to do with them and they don’t have the time to decide what to do. We have to bring a proposal to them.”

The housing authority could apply for exemption for the foundation and use that as a carrot in leading the conversation toward development there, the commissioners agreed. Teton Habitat for Humanity considers Teton Valley as part of its service region and Gemstone would be the ideal place for a Habitat project.

Some other strategies included encouraging and incentivizing current homeowners to build accessory dwelling units like garage apartments; helping educate tenants and landlords about the Community Resource Center’s first/last/deposit loan program; establishing a real estate pre-listing for local buyers who don’t have the time and resources to compete with investment buyers in the fast-moving market; and pursuing information about the residential and commercial housing mitigation fees collected in Alta.

Even tangling with Wyoming might be on the slate. Hill suggested that stakeholders in Teton Valley might need to testify before the Wyoming legislature to support Jackson’s ability to collect housing mitigation fees from developers.

“We need to tell Wyoming, ‘You’ve gotta let Jackson take care of its own [housing problems] because if you don’t, that puts the burden on us,’” Hill said. “I struggle with the subsidizing of commuters. Ideally you want employees to live in the community where they work.”

Barker pointed out that it’s important that the community understand who is the top priority for affordable housing; the commissioners decided they wanted to focus on employees in education, healthcare, emergency services, and other essential fields.

“Who’s our customer? It’s the people who do service jobs we can’t live without. You don’t want your second grade teacher commuting from Rexburg,” she said.

The housing authority will meet on the first Wednesday of each month at 10 a.m. at Driggs City Hall. Next month’s meeting was rescheduled to Jan. 8 so as to not conflict with the holidays. The public is welcome to attend or submit comments and ideas by emailing Self at dself@driggsidaho.org. Visit www.driggsidaho.org/housing for more information.