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Western resort towns see record-breaking real estate prices – and housing woes

 Ariel Kazunas has lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for about a decade and says she’s dealt with unstable housing for most of her time there. For one season, she lived out of a vehicle.
(Courtesy of Joey Sackett)
Ariel Kazunas has lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for about a decade and says she’s dealt with unstable housing for most of her time living there. For one season, she lived out of a vehicle.

Demand to live in mountain communities is through the roof, and that’s putting a strain on local workers.

Brandon Whitesell made his living in real estate in the Atlanta area, often developing affordable or luxury apartments. But when he was 31, he visited Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the first time. Seeing the Tetons and the wilderness that surrounds them hooked him almost immediately.

“It's been preserved,” he said. “The people that have been living here for a long time are really passionate about the wildlife, and that's what kind of overtook me.”

Several years down the road, Whitesell was financially stable enough to retire young. In 2018, he moved to Jackson Hole full-time. Now he snowboards, mountain bikes and explores Wyoming with his wife and son.

“It really is this beautiful utopia. It's a bubble,” he said. “I think this is a great place to raise a child. It's safe.”

But that bubble doesn’t feel like a utopia to everyone. Last year, the average single family home price in Jackson Hole topped five million dollars for the first time ever – almost double what it was in 2019.

Other locals like Ariel Kazunas, who works for a nonprofit, are being priced out by that rapid change. She said there’s new construction all over her neighborhood.

“A lot of homes are just getting straight-up demolished to make room for bigger homes that are selling for a lot more than anyone I know can afford,” Kazunas said.

Last year, out of nearly 200 single-family homes that sold in Jackson Hole, only two closed at less than $1 million. Right now, Kazunas is paying $1,200 dollars a month to rent a room in a condo.

“I’m almost 38 years old and would at some point love to not have to have roommates, and I don't see that happening in Jackson if things stay the way that they are,” she said.

Kazunas said many of her friends, even doctors and lawyers, are moving away. And she’s thought about it, too. Jackson Hole has shortages of staff in almost every field, from snowplow drivers, to teachers to restaurant workers.

“It sits wrong that just because I don't have millions of dollars, I shouldn't get to live where I want to live,” she said.

Jackson’s housing trends aren’t unique to the West. Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada and parts of Park City, Utah also saw prices reach records last year. In Colorado mountain towns, a recent survey showed that 31 percent of long-term renters say they have “severe” difficulties finding a place to live.

Dan Dockray is a realtor in Telluride, Colo., and observed that the pandemic prompted more ultra-wealthy people to go hunting for homes in the mountains.

“People were locked down, and they kind of said, ‘what am I doing with my life?’” he said. “And they said, ‘part of that is I want to prioritize lifestyle.’”

Adding to the housing crunch is a lack of supply. Dockray said the rising cost of building materials, transportation and labor is holding back new construction. So, there are a limited number of people competing for a small number of available properties.

Still, Dockray was expecting fewer buyers last year because of macroeconomic pressures like rising interest rates. He said last year’s demand caught him by surprise, and now he expects prices to keep going up.

“I think we're gonna see demand become stronger by summer as people realize we're either in a recession or we're not,” he said.

In the meantime, towns are looking for new ways to keep their local workforce. That includes down payment assistance programs and allowing for denser neighborhoods.

For his part, Whitesell doesn’t want to see people priced out of the area. He also knows that he, like every other person with money coming into Jackson Hole, is part of the problem. But he said he is fully invested in his community.

“I'm not going to be ashamed of what I've done for myself anymore and hide it,” Whitesell said. “I worked hard and I'm proud.”

As a former developer, he says local governments need to incentivize people to build cheaper lodging, especially in areas where land is so hard to come by. Other local residents are advocating for higher taxes for those who leave their homes empty for part of the year.

The problem for local workers like Kazunas, though, is that solutions are expensive and can take too much time.

“When you get a really one dimensional community, it just feels like it's going to be really easy to tip that community over,” she said. “It's not going to be able to handle what's coming.”

For mountain towns across the West, it’s hard to keep things upright when there are so many wealthy people looking for their personal paradise – no matter the cost.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey