Businesses struggle to hire, keep workers as housing stock disappears

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Scott McDowell’s family has been pretty cramped for the past year.

McDowell and his family moved in with his parents when he started as principal at Wilson Elementary School at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. He graduated from high school here, and his folks have had their home in Jackson since then.

Though not every working professional wants to move back home, living with his parents was part of the initial appeal of the job.

“I was very aware of the housing issue, at least what it was a year ago,” he said. “If I couldn’t have had some time with them to get settled and look for housing … I wouldn’t have applied because I knew how stressful that would be.”

McDowell’s situation reveals that the depth of the housing shortage in Jackson affects not just service industry and lower-wage workers. Businesses and governmental agencies are having trouble recruiting and retaining employees, even for higher-paying jobs.

For McDowell and his family the opportunity for his son and daughter to spend time with their grandparents has been a “blessing,” but after a year of it, they’re ready for some space. He and his wife share a room with their son; their daughter is the only one of the six who has her own room.

Finding a rental has been so difficult that his wife was going to move back to Bozeman for the next school year so the kids could enroll in the school they attended before moving to Jackson.

The plan was that “I would just commute on the weekends and go up there and we’d figure out some crazy schedule,” he said.

Thankfully, the family recently signed a one-year lease on a three-bedroom house that will give each of the kids their own room.

For many businesses trying to hire people the reality is not as rosy. Many are finding that interested candidates can’t move here.

“I actually just pulled my postings off of the website because any offers we were making to people who didn’t already live here at the time of the offer ultimately said, ‘I can’t take the job because I can’t find housing or I can’t afford housing,’” said Sara Fagan, human resources and marketing director at Y2 Consultants, an engineering, natural resources and surveying firm.

With rapid development in Teton County the work Y2 does is in high demand. Fagan could hire six to eight more people if housing wasn’t a problem, so the company is having to make decisions about workload and how many projects it can take.

That situation isn’t an outlier. Newspaper classifieds are rife with job postings but no rentals; available homes are generally too expensive for everyone except the wealthiest renters.

The crunch doesn’t discriminate by industry. Teton County School District No. 1, Children’s Learning Center and Teton Science Schools have jobs they can’t fill; and tourism-focused companies like Grand Targhee Resort and the Four Seasons also told the News&Guide they are having trouble finding workers.

Because out-of-town candidates aren’t an option, businesses are limited to those already in the region. Low unemployment rates and a small population mean local workers might not fit the available roles.

“The pool of applicants that we have that are real viable would just be those who are already here or have a house here, so that really cuts it down,” Children’s Learning Center Executive Director Patti Boyd said.

Even higher-paid workers can’t find places because inventory is so low. At Grand Targhee, housekeepers were so scarce at the start of summer that administrative workers and the general manager were changing sheets in the hotels. As that need has abated, managerial candidates have been unable to make the move from other places.

“Two years ago, let’s say, if you bring in a manager candidate that’s making a good wage and has savings and is established in their career, they could come here and find something,” Grand Targhee Human Resources Director Max Weber said. “Now we’re just finding that’s not really an option for people anymore.”

McDowell spent the past year looking everywhere for something he could afford, from Jackson to Alpine and Teton Valley, Idaho. Purchasing a home or land had been on his mind, but with rising prices, he’s abandoned that idea.

“In 12 months I’ve completely shifted to where I’ve accepted that there’s absolutely nothing I will be able to buy,” he said.

In addition to recruiting troubles, businesses are also seeing a tight rental market that’s making it harder to retain employees. The school district recently surveyed staff about their housing, and many reported paying a large portion of income towards living expenses.

A common rule of thumb is that a person should pay 30% or less of income toward housing, but 59% of respondents in the district’s survey said they pay more, with a few spending 70% of their income on housing. Nearly half of respondents said they would be interested in renting or purchasing district-built housing, strong evidence that they see their current situations as less than ideal.

Other employers are seeing similar pressure. St. John’s Health has seen accelerated turnover this year, with the rate hitting 20% in March.

“The last 12 people that left, left because they said, ‘I can’t find housing, or I’ve lost my housing,’” Human Resources Director Thom Kinney told the News&Guide.

If the trend continues the harm to recruitment and retention will be felt across the community.

At the school district, staffing shortages can affect the classroom. Superintendent Gillian Chapman said principals and teachers cover for each other, but that only stretches so far.

Many district employees live outside Teton County, whether in Idaho or in Alpine. Current housing pressures might push more employees into neighboring communities, which could exacerbate struggles the district faces in the winter.

If Teton Pass or the Snake River Canyon close due to bad weather, Chapman has to send employees home early or tell them not to come in. For a school like Wilson Elementary, which has a large percentage of staff living in Idaho, a pass closure means nearly half the building is absent.

“You can’t run a school like that,” Chapman said.

Without a clear path to housing workers, organizations with spending or philanthropic clout are looking for their own solutions.

“Our challenge is that we have to figure out how we become a developer, too,” St. John’s CEO Will Wagnon said.

St. John’s and the school district have both explored their options. The district could build on school properties, Chapman said. The hospital has several sites, including the Hitching Post in East Jackson, that could support development, though Kinney’s presentation to the hospital board in June indicated that philanthropic help would likely be required.

Grand Targhee is in the process of building a 16-unit building in Driggs, Idaho, that will house more than 100 employees once complete.

“A year ago I would have said that’s going to fix a large majority of the issue,” Weber said. “Now if you’re asking me today, I would say that it’s not going to solve the problem completely.”

Smaller businesses face an even more severe crunch because they can’t develop housing the way larger organizations can. At Y2, which rents several apartments to cover some of its employees’ needs, building housing has been discussed; but with fewer than 50 employees the company isn’t large enough to afford that.

Even buying into existing developments seems out of reach because an apartment would really only cover one person.

“Our owners have definitely looked at it,” Fagan said. “But I’d say most of them are just cost prohibitive.”

Though it’s not systemic, sometimes individual generosity can be the solution for at least one family. McDowell’s lease is through someone who wanted to house a school district employee, and he considers the rent fair and affordable.

For at least the next 12 months, McDowell feels secure in his housing, which means his kids and wife can stay in Teton County. Still, it may not be a long-term fix, so he and the school district continue to be in a tenuous situation.

“My hope is that both my kids graduate as Broncs, and we’re here for the next six, seven years,” he said. “But it’s hard to commit that far knowing that housing can change so much.”

“I’ve accepted that there’s absolutely nothing I will be able to buy.” — Scott McDowell wilson elementary school principal