JACKSON — Scott Coombes, his wife and their three kids have started looking for a new place to live after receiving notice of a rent increase at their county-owned employee housing unit.
Coombes, a detention officer at the county jail, is one of only a handful of Teton County cops who live in the county. The rent hikes, if finalized by the Board of Teton County Commissioners, will likely force his family to move to Star Valley.
“We can possibly make it through this winter,” Coombes said. “But we won’t be able to afford it next year.”
Coombes, 27, and his family share a 650-square-foot two-bedroom cabin in Hoback. The building used to be a motel. There’s no central air, no garage and no washer and dryer.
“There is one room that’s bigger, so we have the crib with my wife and I in there,” Coombes said. “My two daughters share the other room.”
Housing officials told Coombes the gradual rent increase is a result of a policy OK’d by commissioners in August 2018. Those rules dictated that rental rates would be “based on comparable market rents.”
County administration said the policy will avoid tax liabilities in the future. A rent subsidy could be considered a “taxable benefit,” county Administrator Alyssa Watkins said, meaning employee tenants would owe taxes on the difference between market rent and rent charged by the county.
“The reason for this policy is to avoid tax-related and other liabilities for both the employees of the county residing in the units and the county itself,” Housing Department Sales Coordinator Billi Jennings wrote to tenants. “A recent analysis of the current rental rates highlighted significant differences between current rental rates and market.”
Seven county units would see an immediate increase if commissioners approve updated leases. The remaining four employee housing units in the county’s stock would see the rent hike when their current lease terms expire, Housing Manager Stacy Stoker said. On top of a gradual rent increase, those tenants would also have to begin paying utilities, which they estimate is an extra $146 a month.
Cody Daigle maintains pathways for Teton County/Jackson Parks and Rec. He’s lived in county housing for three years, but after he was notified of increasing rent, he made plans to move on.
“The initial reaction I had was they were kind of absurd to raise the rents on employee rentals when the county knows all too well how difficult it is to find affordable housing opportunities here,” Daigle said. “But then as it was explained a little more to me, it made sense: The county needed to cover their liabilities and tax thresholds. But it was still definitely a shock.”
He was especially surprised to learn of the rent increase in mid-July when the policy was approved in August 2018.
“Why did it take 11 months for us to find out about it?” he asked.
Natalie Wight, a deputy court clerk and court interpreter, dropped her DirecTV package to afford the expected increase at her county-owned unit.
“It’s going to make them not very affordable anymore,” Wight said. “All one- bedroom apartments are not created equal. And when you pay a little more you expect a little more.”
Rents are increasing from $685 a month to $1,056 a month for one-bedrooms, from $830 a month to $1,209 for two-bedrooms and from $750 or $1,200 to $1,699 a month for three-bedrooms, Stoker said.
The county is using the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2019 figures to calculate “fair market rents” in Teton County. HUD’s figures draw on American Community Survey results and other surveys, and usually lag about five years behind the market, Stoker said. The increases would be phased in over a four-year period.
After reviewing the new leases at a meeting Tuesday, Teton County commissioners delayed action until their meeting next Monday. However, the clock is ticking because rent is deducted from tenants’ paychecks the second week of the month.
Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr urged commissioners to maintain the current rents or look at other options. He said the proposed increases will force Coombes and one of his newer detention officers, Tia Stanton, to move out of Teton County. The existing low rents have historically allowed sheriff’s office staff to save money to buy homes in the region, Carr said.
“I have stood before you on a number of occasions trying to reverse that trend and trying to get more of our emergency services staff living in the county they serve,” Carr said. “This change in rents is going to force it in the other direction.”
Commissioners were wary of hiking the rents.
“If the community puts a premium on housing the people who work for the county, maybe we should look at subsidized housing as a form of compensation that would be taxable,” Commissioner Luther Propst said.
While Commissioner Mark Barron was OK with increasing rents, he said he was concerned about an across-the-board rent increase that doesn’t take into account the particulars of each unit, such as its location or square footage.
For example, a unit in Adams Canyon is sandwiched between a juvenile detention center and animal shelter. Commissioner Greg Epstein agreed the county should consider other options.
“As the landlord, and looking at who we are trying to house and keep in this community, I think it’s partially up to our discretion as to what we think the value of the home is,” Epstein said. “I think it comes down to what is the value of keeping these folks in our community based on what they have to pay.”
Watkins said staff is merely implementing the approved 2018 policy.
“Your policy which you set dictates these rents are set based on comparable market units,” Watkins said. “That’s what your staff is implementing. If you would like to change the policy that is your discretion.”
Ultimately the board asked staff to bring back more information on appraising the units, to supply another potential measure of “fair market rents.” But staff warned an appraisal could land the units with higher rent costs than the HUD standard.
Due to his wife’s medical condition, Coombes and his family live on his Teton County Sheriff’s Office income. He appreciated that the county-owned affordable housing was allowing his family to save for something more permanent, and be close to work.
“It’s a 25-minute commute,” Coombes said.
Before moving to Hoback in December 2017, Coombes was living in Osmond and driving two hours to work, working 12 hours and driving two hours home. He’d prefer not to return to Star Valley and long, dangerous commutes.
“But I have to be able to provide for my family,” Coombes said.
Teton County’s budget for the fiscal year includes $2 million for amassing additional housing for county employees.
During budget deliberations last spring, despite Carr’s urging, commissioners opted for pay raises for county employees rather than housing stipends. County commissioners allocated $1.4 million in pay raises for all county staff, raising salaries to 7.5 percent above market rates — intended to help with recruiting and retaining employees amid Jackson Hole’s rising cost of living.
Carr failed to get commissioners to budget $1,489 a month in housing assistance for all his office’s employees, totaling $536,040 for the year. He said only four sworn deputies live in Teton County, jeopardizing law enforcement’s response to emergencies when Teton Pass or the Snake River canyon close. In the past five years 35 employees have left the sheriff’s office within their first year because of the cost of living.
Teton County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Lloyd Funk said in May that he appreciates the effort to raise salaries to keep workers in Teton County. But, he said, it’s not like getting $500 to $1,500 a month in a housing allowance when it comes to retaining new staff.
“The housing allowance would be a way to try to get some of those people to come back or get new employees to stay,” Funk said.