Group asks for Jackson building moratorium

JACKSON — Eyes throughout the town of Jackson and beyond were focused on the Jackson Town Council on Monday as councilors heard from the public and discussed the idea of an emergency moratorium on building permits, as well as other options to solve the town’s housing crisis.

Workforce and affordable housing have long been at or near the top of town and county leaders’ agendas, and the community-wide discussion was kicked into high gear last week when nonprofit ShelterJH sent a letter to the Town Council seeking the emergency one-year moratorium, among other requests of town leaders.

More than two dozen people had their say at the council’s Monday afternoon workshop and evening regular meeting. While not all of them were solely focused on the moratorium and housing issues, the vast majority were, with many supporting ShelterJH’s admittedly “bold” proposals.

In addition to requesting the emergency moratorium, the nonprofit asked the town to levy a penny of sales tax or increase property tax in town to “fund homes serving the spectrum of need,” eliminate all single-family zoning in town, require all commercial development and redevelopment to include on-site affordable housing, and institute paid on-street parking with exceptions, among several other ideas.

The letter from ShelterJH’s board on behalf of the nonprofit’s membership concluded by stating: “All of these changes are possible and they require political will and courage. The members of ShelterJH and hundreds of other members of our community will stand with you as you begin to take this kind of bold action to address our housing emergency. It is time to put the people of Jackson first.”

In an interview last week, ShelterJH Coordinator Clare Stumpf said things have been “reaching a fever pitch” with the organization’s membership about Jackson’s dearth of workforce housing, and with zoning and parking issues on Monday’s council agendas, the organization’s leadership felt it was “a good time to really take some bold advocacy stances.”

ShelterJH held a meeting for members on Nov. 19 at which people were encouraged to comment at Monday’s meetings, and a galvanized group was on hand, virtually, to do so.

Monica Stout said she has “worked any and every job I’ve been able to” to remain in Jackson, and added that she has been fortunate to get housing through the local affordable housing program for the last few years. She was among those to support ShelterJH and its proposed moratorium.

“We can’t move forward without those efforts, assisting and housing the very people who make this community function,” Stout said during the public comment portion of the evening meeting.

She added, before imploring the council to support the moratorium on all but 80 percent deed-restricted developments, “It is time to step up as a community and say, ‘Our people are more valuable to us than profits, and this is how we’re going to show it.’ We still have the opportunity to put people in housing, allow them to recuperate their mental health and encourage them to work and play in our town. We can create a thriving economy that benefits locally owned businesses instead of pushing them out.”

Stout’s comments reflected some of those made at the afternoon workshop, though the evening meeting also saw several people speak out against the idea of a moratorium and other suggestions put forward by ShelterJH. At least two of those speaking against the moratorium suggested that more efficient means of commuting from surrounding communities with cheaper and more readily available housing might be a more reasonable way to solve the housing and workforce crises.

Following the Nov. 10 ShelterJH letter the issue was placed on the council’s agenda for the end of the meeting under “Matters From Mayor and Council.”

Councilors were receptive to not only the comments they heard Monday, but the more than 100 emails they received over the past several days from people weighing in on the matter.

Vice Mayor Arne Jorgensen opened the council discussion by acknowledging all of those comments and “the amazing stories and narratives that join the volumes of information that we know relative to housing and the challenges that people have.” The vice mayor presided over Monday’s workshop and meeting, as Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson was out of town and unable to participate in the online meetings.

Councilor Jessica Sell Chambers — who, like Jorgensen, is a member of ShelterJH — urged the rest of the council to not only take action but to do it quickly. She said what this and past councils have done has “not been enough, and it’s not been fast enough.”

“I think there’s a big difference between heeding the calls of what people are asking us to do and acknowledging the things that they’ve told us, and I see a very clear distinction between the two,” Chambers said. “I think that we’ve been acknowledging for a really long time and not enacting, at least to the level we should be. And while we are, and have been, making efforts, they very clearly have not been enough.”

Councilor Jim Rooks said that “all things need to be discussed,” including the idea of a moratorium. While Rooks ultimately said that right now he cannot support a moratorium, he is “open to all of the above” in discussions aimed at solving the housing crisis, including some of what was suggested in ShelterJH’s letter.

Lastly, Rooks took issue with the idea advanced by some of the public comments received by councilors that the council isn’t actively doing anything to solve the problem.

“That’s just simply not true,” Rooks said. “We certainly haven’t done enough, as quickly or as intelligently as we should have. But then again, I don’t know anybody — including real estate people in town — who can say, ‘I made the exact right move on issues in Jackson 20 or 30 years ago.’”

Councilor Jonathan Schechter, meanwhile, noted that it was only five days before that the council had received the letter from ShelterJH, “asking us to do something immediately.”

“My concern is, if we’re going to do something, we need to do it properly, we need to do it right, we need to do it in a sophisticated fashion,” Schechter said. “And the problem is this is not one single, isolated effort; or one single, isolated event; or one single, isolated problem. It is a very complicated series of issues that are all coming together, manifesting themselves in a variety of symptoms, not the least of which is the extraordinary displacement that was occurring before COVID hit, but really took root over the last 16 months or so.”

Schechter agreed with what his fellow councilors said about hearing the public outcry, including comments from those fearful of overreaction. That said, Schechter cautioned against a “knee-jerk reaction” without the council having all the needed information at its disposal.

“I want to make sure that when we do something, when we do take next steps, we set it up in a way that we are best positioned to succeed,” he said.

In Tuesday interviews, Jorgensen and Chambers said they were pleased with the input they received and the council’s subsequent discussion.

Chambers backed off of her initial embrace of the moratorium idea, but was glad that word was thrown out if it was powerful enough to spur fellow councilors to take rapid action in one or more ways to bring about a speedy solution.

“I feel hopeful that the council is ready to take a hard look and make some hard decisions to get housing built,” Chambers said, praising what she heard from Rooks about being willing to listen to and discuss any and all ideas, as well as his appreciation of the “urgency” of the situation.

She also noted that affordable housing shouldn’t be viewed only through the lens of housing for the workforce, but also for seniors and retirees, which was also mentioned in public comment at the afternoon workshop by resident Kevin Cochary.

Chambers said she intends to push the council to take immediate action, starting with the Dec. 6 meeting.

“That’s the time to say enough is enough; here’s the action. And I plan to come with some text amendments that we can put forward immediately,” Chambers said.

She added that those could address such things as parking, height restrictions and maximum square footage, with incentives for those who agree to certain deed restrictions.

Jorgensen, meanwhile, said, “I will not take a backseat to anybody about my commitment to housing and working anywhere that we need to, to get that done, drastic or otherwise.”

He added that many great ideas were discussed at Monday’s meetings, but what he — as Rooks also mentioned Monday — sees as the primary crux of the issue is funding.

“The biggest impediment that we have in addressing affordable housing on a scale that is required is funding,” the vice mayor said Tuesday. “There’s resources, and the town of Jackson has been very focused on that. And we are working through those discussions, and I’m afraid that is getting lost.

“We will not be successful addressing our community housing needs through zoning issues alone.”