New Voluntary Housing Fund Aims to Create a Culture of Giving Back
The Jackson Hole real estate market reported more than $1.8 billion dollars in sales in the first half of 2021. It’s a record-breaking rise in activity similar to the experience of many other mountain towns across the West. For KHOL and Rocky Mountain Community Radio, Will Walkey reports on a new program that’s trying to capitalize on that money flowing through the valley with the goal of investing it back into affordable housing projects.
Editor’s Note: Meg Daly is a former KHOL reporter who has reported on housing issues for the station.
Meg Daly grew up in Jackson Hole, living what she describes as a middle-class lifestyle. She also remembers a different era of the valley, when Wilson, for example, was full of “hippies and cowboys.”
“My family moved to Jackson from Salt Lake City in 1977, I think,” Daly said. “We lived in this log cabin at the end of Wenzel Lane, which is a very fancy property now, and at the time was not at all. I mean, we had like earwigs crawling out of the chinking in our log cabin.”
After a stint in Portland, Oregon, for a few years, Daly moved back home and was able to buy her own place in Rafter J.
“So, I’m 52. What’s happened in my lifespan and what, you know, younger people are facing now is that… owning a home has become more prohibitive.”
Daly said the log cabin she grew up in was worth $150,000 in 1984. Every lot on Wenzel Lane is now worth at least $1 million, according to Zillow. In fact, the median sale price in Jackson Hole was more than $1.6 million in the second quarter of 2021, a 28% increase from last year. These are figures Daly knows well as a former reporter and longtime local.
“I’ve had friends and family, you know, benefit from the affordable housing program here and also suffer because of our crazy real estate market,” she said.
Daly’s moving on to Bend, Oregon, this year, looking for a bigger community and milder winters. She’s also cashing in from the timing of selling her home, as she’s heard many other locals have done during the pandemic.
But Daly is also donating $5,000 from the sale to the new Community Housing Fund, which launched this month.
“That felt like an amount that would be meaningful and substantial enough that, if pooled with other people’s money, could help the [Community] Housing Trust and help housing efforts here, but then also be manageable within our financial world,” Daly said.
The Community Housing Fund is a new nonprofit designed to solicit donations from every real estate transaction made in Jackson Hole, where more than $1.8 billion in sales was reported in the first half of 2021. According to Devon Viehman, who spearheaded the project, the fund’s goal is to capitalize on a record-breaking rise in real estate activity—similar to the experience of many other mountain towns across the West—and invest it back into affordable housing projects.
“The goal of the program is to have realtors contributing at every transaction,” Viehman said. “Whether it’s a big amount or a small amount, depending on the size of the deal, we just really want to create the culture that we’re giving back something at every transaction and also invite our buyers and sellers to participate with us.”
Starting in late September, when a deal is closed on a home, the buyer, seller and real estate agent will all get prompts asking them if they’d like to donate to affordable housing projects around the valley. Viehman said it’s an easy way for people to give back in a simple, discreet and tax-deductible way.
“I get the question quite frequently from wealthy second, third, fourth [and] fifth homeowners coming here: ‘How can I participate in the community right now?’ And I think that a lot of other realtors are having the same conversation,” she said. “They are actually feeling the constraints of it now. Their favorite restaurants aren’t open seven days a week. The services that they want, that they moved here for, they’re not always open. So, it kind of is a doorway for us to say, ‘Hey, it’s a housing issue, and you’re going to start to feel some of these things. And so here’s how you can participate right now.’”
Twenty two local realtors kicked the fund off by donating a combined $150,000 to help build 24 condos in Jackson through the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust. That’s another local nonprofit led by Executive Director Anne Cresswell.
“What our hope is is that we will increase participants over time. We will increase the total number of gifts that go to support the creation of new affordable housing,” Cresswell said, “and that people will make a gift that’s meaningful to them.”
Sellers can choose to contribute to the Housing Trust, but Habitat for Humanity is also involved, and Viehman plans to grow the program to include areas like Lincoln County and Eastern Idaho—communities where Jackson’s housing shortages have spread. But one limitation of the program is that there’s no minimum amount required to contribute. So, Cresswell is left hoping that folks making mammoth transactions—i.e. the ultra-wealthy—will pony up.
“I think what’s unique about how this fund is structured is that it’s an umbrella organization,” Cresswell said. “The structure and the infrastructure exists with support from the title and escrow agencies and companies. That’s what makes the giving so simple and so streamlined.”
It’s not a perfect system, and several Jackson elected officials have pointed out that the volunteer fund won’t single-handedly solve the issue of housing affordability in the valley. A mandatory real estate transfer tax, for example, would likely raise more revenue, to the tune of more than $100 million annually, according to recent proposed legislation, compared to hundreds of thousands.
But Cresswell said that kind of tax isn’t likely to get passed any time soon.
“I have been working on affordable housing in Jackson for 18 years, and for at least 18 years, this committee has been talking about a real estate transfer tax. And it is not within the control of this community. It has to happen at the statewide level,” she said. “This [the new fund] is something that we can do irrespective of the state and get this moving and get this rolling forward. Instead of sitting back and waiting for and hoping for a real estate transfer tax to get approved by Cheyenne.”
For Daly, doing what she can to help right now also meant selling to another local whom she grew up with.
“We didn’t want to just be leaving, you know, this kind of empty shell of a house. We love our community here. So, this felt like a way to maybe help that continue here,” Daly said.
The question remains: How many other volunteer donors will join Daly moving forward?