In Jackson, Seasonal Workers Struggle To Find Affordable Housing

Aug 15, 2014

The town of Jackson has long struggled to find enough affordable housing for its seasonal workers. Right now, the average rental property there is going for 2800 dollars a month. But lately, the popularity of house sharing websites have transformed the housing problem into a housing crisis. And that’s got local business owners looking in new places for their for seasonal hires.

It's midmorning at a campsite just outside of Jackson and Christen Johnson is setting up her camp stove for a cup of coffee before work--”it came with the van,” she tells me.

Johnson works in town, as a cocktail waitress, but her home is this old Econoline van. She says she’s always looking for a place with four walls. But her housing budget is only $650 bucks a month.

“There are options that come up, but most of the time they are too expensive.”

And even if Johnson found place she could afford, there’s no guarantee she could keep it.

"There are probably 10 or 20 rentals in town, and many more out in the county that possibly could be rented to workers. To people who live and work in this community. And right now they can't find any place to live."

“I’ve had a lot friends moved out of there places because their landlord wants to up rent now because there is such a high need.”

Johnson’s story is pretty common around here right now. Many of the rental properties that used to be available to employees are now going to tourists. That’s because, if you own a place in Jackson, renting it for a week to a vacationer will net you more money than renting it for a month to a worker. The properties are offered on websites like airbnb and VRBO that let you turn your place, or even your couch, into your own private hotel. For Jim Stanford, it just became too much,

“Even in my neighborhood, on my block where I live, we have had chronic illegal rentals.”

Stanford is a member of the Jackson Town Council. Last week, after a heated four hour meeting, Jackson and Teton County voted to ban house sharing sites. It was a move to free up housing for seasonal workers.

“There are probably 10 or 20 rentals in town, and many more out in the county that possibly could be rented to workers. To people who live and work in this community. And right now they can’t find any place to live.”

And that’s  also creating problems for local business owners. Ali Cohane runs Persephone Bakery. She says her jobs pay about 15 dollars an hour on average. But in Jackson, that doesn’t mean much.

“I think we have had an ad in the newspaper since May, and haven’t been able to take it out. If we do fill a position we are usually just putting in another one. It has been nearly impossible.”

“Every day is the weekend right now,” says Chris Hansen, owner of Caldera’s, a little pizza joint that sits right on Jackson’s town square. Hansen says that when he has to double his staff each summer he used to rely on college kids.  But they haven’t been showing up lately.

“Anytime somebody gets in touch with me who isn’t here already I always tell them--or ask them rather--do you have housing right now? If their answer is no, I always say ‘come see me when you have housing.”

This summer Hansen’s search for staff has taken him all the way across the Atlantic: to the countries of the former Soviet Union.

“It’s a little tiny small country between Romania and Ukraine,” is how Nina Maico described Moldova, her home country, over the din of Caldera’s.

Maico is one of Chris Hansen’s top servers this summer. To be fair, she’s a college student too--that’s why she was able to qualify for the J1 Visa program which brings international college students to the US to work for a season.

Around here J1 students are usually sponsored by big resorts, and housing is part of the deal. Great news for Maico, who says she loves getting to work in the States, even if serving here is a little different than in her home country.

“There its like, you don’t even introduce yourself. ‘Hi, what do you like? OK, bye, done. Here, you kind of have a dialogue, because its in your interest, you know? Otherwise you are not going to make money.”

This season Chris Hansen hired 5 J1 students. that’s up from zero last year. He says that, if things don’t change, that number will probably just keep growing.  

Back at her campsite, Christen Johnson is packed up and ready for work. She says that car camping is OK for now. But it isn’t really a choice.

“If I just decide I don’t want to do it anymore--tough luck, you know? I don’t really have another option other than leaving.”

And Johnson says she might not come back next year. That would leave one great Jackson job open. That is, for whoever is lucky enough to find a place to stay.