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Mountain News: Wealth disparity in Jackson Hole



Mountain Town News

JACKSON, Wyo. — Jackson Hole is noted for the sky-piercing Teton Range. But it also has a Grand Canyon-like gap between the ultra-wealthy and everybody else.

The Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank based in Washington D.C., recently ranked Teton County as having the most unequal incomes in the U.S. The report found that the average income of the top one per cent was 213 times the average income of the bottom 99 per cent of households.

Local economist Jonathan Schechter earlier this year painted more detail in this picture. He cited Internal Revenue Service data that shows Teton County is the wealthiest in the U.S. based on per-capita income. In 2014, the most recent year available, per capita income was US$194,585.

Schechter finds this chasm: nine per cent of people accounted for 89 per cent of all income in Jackson Hole. Flipped on its head, this means 91 per cent of people account for just 11 per cent of wealth. That disparity is the most pronounced in the U.S.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide observes that the wealth disparity is manifested particularly in housing. The last time a family earning the median income of Teton County could afford a median-priced home was in the mid-1980s. County planners estimate that a family now must make nearly three times the median income to be able to afford a median-priced home.

Earlier this summer, the median price of homes listed for sale was $2.5 million. Only seven single-family houses were listed for under $750,000, according to the Jackson Hole Report issued by David Viehman, a real-estate agent.

Aspen and Pitkin County have the fourth greatest inequality in the nation. There, nine per cent of the population has 73 per cent of the wealth.

Schechter makes the argument that Wyoming's tax laws also encourage Jackson Hole's imbalance. Yes, the Tetons are dramatic, he seems to say, but there are some bottom-line reasons why big money is lofting into Jackson Hole.

Wyoming has no income tax. Wyoming residents can also create dynasty trusts to shield property from federal estate taxes for up to 1,000 years. The state also has no real-estate transfer tax, no estate tax, no tax on out-of-state retirement income.

Real-estate agents have taken to trumpeting the tax advantages of real-estate investment in Jackson Hole. In July, Sotheby's International Realty ran an advertisement headlined "Wild, wonderful Wyoming — the tax friendly state."

News&Guide reporter Benjamin Graham's story also delved into what he called artificial incentives that further encourage wealthy people to buy homes in Teton County. One is the local airport, which has a strong link for easy travel to the nation's metropolitan areas. But then there's this: spraying of mosquitoes, which makes summers far more pleasant.

Can Jackson Hole tweak regulations to create a better balance? One possibility is to require more affordable housing be built along with new residential development. The current rate is 25 per cent.

What explains the homeless campers?

NEDERLAND, Colo. — Earlier this summer, a fire erupted in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains northwest of Denver, near the small town of Nederland. Nearby is a ski area, Eldora, and up a road toward the Continental Divide is a one-time recording studio called Caribou where Elton John, Michael Jackson, and dozens of other musicians cut records. Rocky Mountain National Park is about 70 kilometres away along the Peak to Peak Highway.

The fire had spread from a campfire created by two men from Alabama. It went on to burn 242 hectares (600 acres), destroying eight homes. But the story the New York Times investigated was not one of forest fires. Rather, it's about homeless people camping in forests. There seems to be a lot of them around Nederland but other places, too.

There have been scattered reports — from around Crested Butte, near Breckenridge, and elsewhere — of an upsurge in the number of people camping illegally. The Times found no hard evidence to document the surge. The best was a 2015 survey of U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers. About half seemed to think the number of long-term campers was on the rise.

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