• Taylor Owens

Crises in the Country's Wealthiest County Jeopardizes Latinx Community

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

"A housing crisis and a lack of representation in the media has led the immigrant population in this town to be disproportionately affected–deemed the 'quiet force'"

Photo by Simon Lynes

Every driver on their way into town passes a perfect wooden sign calling out, "Howdy stranger! Yonder is Jackson Hole. The last of the old West.” The sign gives the impression of cowboys running through mountains–the old West’s last stronghold. While this is a sentiment everyone remembers when they come into town, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Photo by Wiki Commons

Teton County, where Jackson Hole is located, is the wealthiest county in the country: a land of millionaires and billionaires touting two, three or four homes. Nestled between mansions, however, this county also houses the nation's greatest income gap. The average annual income of the wealthy residents in Teton County, Wyoming is more than $28 million, while the average annual income of the service workers is around $30,000. For essential workers, this means they can’t afford to live in the county they work in. With the typical price of one bedroom in Jackson at $1,000 at a minimum, more than 59% of Jackson's employees are forced to live outside the county.

Why have so many one percenters flocked to this small town in Wyoming? To get the first look at Kanye West and the Kardashians? Do all rich people just love to ski? The answer is far simpler and avaricious: tax incentives. The state of Wyoming collects no personal or corporate income tax, purporting one of the nation’s lowest sales tax rates (5.36 percent compared to New York’s 8.49). Teton County is a haven for billionaires evading high fees on their many properties.

Those that have suffered the most from this crisis are those who work and power the town itself: service industry workers, hospitality workers, and those that work in the trades. A population of 10,429 people make up the town of Jackson with almost 25% of that population being Latinx. This is a large percentage for Wyoming, second only to the town of Rawlins.

A housing crisis and a lack of representation in the media has led the immigrant population in this town to be disproportionately affected–deemed the "quiet force.” The term, coined by Powder Magazine’s “The Quiet Force: How Immigrants are Changing America’s Ski Towns,” describes the dependent yet unacknowledged work from the Latinx communities in resort communities. These communities make up a large percentage of the service industry and are typically unseen by the white majority. Latinx people who are employed in restaurants, construction crews, grocery stores, cleaning and garden crews are the backbone of this tourist town trying to keep the capitalist fantasy alive.

The dependence on the immigrant labor in Jackson is made more ironic by the sheer inability to afford housing here if you are not a part of the 1%. The cost to build a 2,000 sq. ft. modest home in Jackson Hole today is $1.595M, a simply impossible price for the majority of the population of this town.

Adilene Andraca and her family of six were one of the first Hispanic families in Jackson. She has lived in the area for more than twenty four years, care-taking and cleaning for private homes. Eventually, Andraca was able to save up enough to purchase a small mobile home in Jackson–this was only five years ago.

"As a Hispanic family, you obviously want to do more and progress," she shared. "Two of my sisters were able to purchase a home: one in Alpine and the other in Victor. We've been here for so long and we've learned how to manage but people who don't have family here and don't speak the language, they have more struggles."

With the housing crisis pushing out its essential workers and only 11% of homes in Teton County being permanently affordable to the workforce, Latinx people and those who cannot afford these soaring prices have been pushed out and into the neighboring towns of Victor, Driggs, and Tetonia, Idaho or Alpine, Wyoming. Each of these towns are thirty minutes or more from the center of Jackson. Affordable housing can be found in these surrounding areas, but at a dangerous cost. The commute is treacherous. To get to work, they have to cross the monstrous mountain pass, Teton Pass, which claims some of the steepest grades in the continental United States. At the risk of viciously destroying brakes and crashing, workers travel this long and dangerous commute daily, maneuvering around blind corners and avalanche risks during the winter months.

Work itself isn’t without it’s own risks. Many employees in other sky towns, such as Mammoth, come to work knowing that ICE comes around every so often to do a sweep. Most people who are a part of the population in Teton County are documented, but some aren’t.

With 43% of the local workforce commuting to Jackson and 1,074,762 gallons of gas consumed by commuters over Teton Pass to work in Jackson in 2013 alone, this housing crisis has also become an environmental one. The repercussions of not having affordable housing, a liveable wage (minimum wage in Wyoming is $7.25), and an exploited workforce putting in long hours with an extra risky and lengthy commute have created a system to keep immigrants in low income communities.

“Everything out here is pushed forward by what makes money. Making money off the land, the park, and the resort. The gentrification is happening without the title,” says Juan Morales, the founder of the small business in Teton county called Naughty Fruit. Morales first arrived in Jackson in 1997.

"We could only afford rent for a couple of years and then we moved over to Victor and Driggs because it's significantly more affordable," he shared. "It's just like any other resort town. The businesses here bring people in who can afford a certain lifestyle."

According to Morales, in Jackson it's business first, the environment second, and the people third.

With more than twenty five different nonprofits in Jackson Hole, dedicated to environmental justice, preservation or conservation, the county has made its hold on the environment clear. 97% of the land in Teton County is federally owned, developed or conserved either for ‘protection’ or development, but this hoarding of land puts workers in danger of housing insecurity and their very own livelihood. While the preservation of these wild spaces is purported to protect the environment, by neglecting its workforce, it only serves to safeguards the financial gains of the one percent.

The landscape is beautiful here and the mountains take your breath away, but we need to remember who built those mansions looking out at the Tetons, who made the elaborate meals in the restaurants, who cleaned the gigantic homes, and why the millionaires and billionaires should not be able to have their cake and eat it too. The problem with Jackson Hole is that the problem is beyond Jackson Hole–Teton merely depicts this issue at its most exacerbated. Throughout the country, in places like New York, L.A, Montauk or La Salle, there is a great income gap and a system of housing policies and prices that protect only a marginal population of the community, jeopardizing low and middle class workers. Jackson is the perfect example of the rich exploiting the poor, but it is not the only one.

For more information and resources to help provide affordable housing to our essential workers in Jackson Hole please visit JH Community Housing Trust and African American Latinx Multicultural Association in Jackson Hole.

Meet the Family

Taylor Owens is a Tennessee native who is currently calling the Idaho side of the Tetons home. Previous work as a travel writer, editor, local news contributor, and haver of multiple other jobs, she strives to tell important stories in a variety of forms. Taylor spends her days running in the sun,  playing in the snow, or on the hunt for the best breakfast all across the West.

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