Jackson Hole’s wealth is displacing Star Valley’s neediest
By Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile.com
Rosalie Mansir says she began hyperventilating when a packet of paperwork marked with an “E” came in the mail.
After 11 years of residence she had to leave the Star Valley Trailer Court near Grover in less than a month. That “E,” she understood, meant eviction.
“I was a nervous wreck,” Mansir said. “I’ve just got to stay focused and not get overwhelmed, which I tend to do.”
Mansir’s daughter, Tiffany Lawrence, insisted that her mother not deal with the new owner or property manager directly. In June of 2021 Mansir suffered a major heart attack and Lawrence was “scared to death” it would happen again.
“I bought a blood pressure monitor,” Lawrence said. “I’m so scared she’s going to have a heart attack again.”
Mansir’s trailer is one of 11 in the cluttered, ramshackle 30-unit park that received pamphlets marked with the E. She and the other recipients were told to remove their mobile homes by the end of the month. Anyone who wanted to stay would need to replace their home with one from 1995 or newer, the paperwork said.
A memo from the new owner, Teton Real Estate Investments Principal Jim Miller, also told them to clear out their yards: old vehicles, fencing, derelict sheds, feral cats — all of it had to go.
At his home overlooking the decidedly more upscale Wilson, Miller told WyoFile that purchasing the Star Valley Trailer Court was his first major real estate play in Wyoming, and that his intent was to make the neighborhood more attractive to working families. His aim, he said, is to provide affordable housing for the teachers, nurses, plow operators and others who have been priced out as Alpine and surrounding Star Valley towns morph into bedroom communities for Jackson Hole.
“It’s no different than Jackson,” Miller said. “What’s happened in Alpine is the Alpine workers used to live in Alpine, but the Alpine workers can no longer afford to live in Alpine so they have to live somewhere else.”
“People talk about the Jackson people getting kicked out,” he added, “but now it’s the Alpine people getting kicked out.”
This dynamic made the dilapidated trailer court in Grover, 28 miles south of Alpine and 65 miles south of Jackson, an attractive business proposition for Miller. According to residents, the former owner, Bruce Hendrick, had the 7-plus-acre property on the market for years. It sold on March 28th for $1.3 million, a party familiar with the transaction said.
Housing-cost spikes aren’t unique to Star Valley. The national trend has afflicted other parts of Wyoming as well. But it’s made more acute in the state’s northwest corner where Teton County boasts the highest median income in the western hemisphere and the median single family house price has eclipsed $4 million, creating a ripple effect that’s driving the market in surrounding communities.
As of Wednesday, the least expensive house listed on Zillow.com in Alpine was a single-family 2-bed, 2-bath listed at $749,000. In Etna prices of finished homes bottomed out at $625,000. Star Valley Ranch’s cheapest home listed on the website was $599,000 and the lone house near Thayne was listed at $469,000.
Even Star Valley residents who earn substantial salaries are watching their prospects for homeownership rapidly evaporate.
Brett McPeak, a real estate agent at Sotheby’s International, compared the Lincoln County home sale numbers from the first quarters of 2021 and 2022. The median sale a year ago was a 4-bed, 3,500-square-foot house in Thayne that went for $440,000. In a year’s time, that median sale price climbed nearly 50% to $642,500. But it bought less house: a 3-bed, 2,050-square-foot place on a similar-sized lot, also in Thayne. Among homes currently listed, McPeak said the median asking price is now $749,000.
“There’s a huge demand for affordable housing,” Lincoln County Planner Emmett Mavy said. “It’s hard to say how much affordable housing actually exists because the housing stock that we do have is generally full. There’s just not a lot of vacancies available at any price range, whether it’s affordable or not affordable.”
Addressing the issue is on the table for lawmakers. “Workforce housing” is the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee’s second-highest priority in the interim.
In the process of trying to create a more attractive neighborhood in Grover, Miller is also dislodging Star Valley’s neediest residents from the most affordable housing in the community. That’s not his intent, he said, even if it’s happening.
“As far as I’m concerned, everybody is welcome to stay in the park,” Miller said.
But squalid conditions and trailers in disrepair, he said, won’t be tolerated. “In my opinion,” Miller said, “these people belong in government housing.”
Social Services Supervisor Matt Banks, who works for the Wyoming Department of Family Services’ North Lincoln and Teton County office, said that options are limited for where the displaced residents can go. There are some federally subsidized apartments in Afton and Alpine, he said, but there’s always a waitlist, limited accessibility for felons and the units aren’t always ideal.
“Folks come in with money and are trying to shape the valley the way they’d like to see it,” Banks said. “But there are a lot of folks who have been here forever who are really just being pushed out. I don’t know where they go.”
Larry Kujala along with his wife, Lisa, are the longest-tenured residents, with 30 years under their belts. They’re among those being required to find a newer place, or leave.
“I raised four kids here,” Kujala said. “She’s a little run down, but she’s still my home.”
The Kujala children didn’t go far: They also rent trailers in the park.
Kujala, like half of the 10 Star Valley Trailer Court residents interviewed by WyoFile, survives on a fixed income. He had a stroke three years ago, and gets by on about $1,250 a month in Social Security Disability Insurance, he said. Lisa Kujala doesn’t have a job but works caring for her husband.
Kujala said a friend offered him “the deal of a lifetime” and is putting him up on their property. He harbors no resentment for what’s happening.
“I’m actually tickled to death that somebody’s taking the initiative to clean up this trailer park — I have fought for 30 years to get this trailer park cleaned up,” Kujala said. “There needs to be new homes put out here. The way they’re doing it, though, is the wrong way.”
Star Valley Trailer Court resident Bob Nisson wasn’t as understanding as Kujala as he talked through his impending eviction last weekend.
“They’re making a buck,” Nisson said. “This is nothing but money. Money and people that are just selfish and don’t care about nobody. They don’t care about us little people.”
The 78-year-old, like others who received the folder with the “E,” was supposed to be out by April 30. A 15-year trailer court resident and U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, he had to scramble to find a place to lay his head. His new digs — a 21-foot-long camper trailer — were parked outside his current 56-foot-long trailer, which he shares with his 21-year-old grandson, four dogs and many cats.
“Everything in there supposedly works,” Nisson said. “God has provided a covering for us. It might not be the best, but I’ll tell you what, you’ve got to make due.”
Still, he said, moving into a camper is not ideal. The pets can’t come to the new, smaller trailer and there’s no space for his tools, kitchen supplies and most of his other stuff.
Miller, days after Nisson and WyoFile spoke, said he’s been working with Nisson’s Church of Latter Day Saints congregation to identify a better solution.
“I told his pastor he can stay, but he needs to apply for senior housing,” Miller said. “The government has senior housing for these people and he needs to go apply for some of the places. He can stay there until he’s accepted.”
Other residents who were getting kicked out didn’t wait around to work something out. Three left almost immediately, Miller said, abandoning their homes, including one residence that was littered with dog feces.
Those with trailers that are in decent enough shape to make the cut are facing a rent hike. The monthly rate for a lot used to run $280. Miller bumped rates to $425 per month, more than a 50% hike. That’s a special rate for existing tenants, Miller said. New tenants will pay more.
“I think $425 is going to push it for them,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t put it up to $525 for them, because that was my way of being nice — although I’m sure some people won’t see it that way.”
Resident Tina Myles and others said the rate hike will leave them stretched. She said her predicament is a “Catch 22”: There’s nowhere else she can afford to move to, but she also doesn’t have the means to renovate her trailer to the standards the new owner requires.
“I don’t have the money, at $13 an hour, to fix everything up,” Myles said. “I’m certainly not going to go take out a huge loan for a month-to-month lease and no guarantee that I won’t get kicked out a couple months later.”
Mansir, meanwhile, is packing her bags and heading to Tennessee to live in a camper trailer in her daughter’s driveway year-round. On Saturday, she was making the best of the situation, boxing up a decade worth of antiques that she’d accumulated in her Grover trailer. Jake Stewart, another park resident, was helping, and he even planned to take the day off on Monday to aid his soon-to-be-former neighbor to get out the door.
“I can’t afford any of the rent around here,” Mansir said. “I’m lucky I have my daughter, because I don’t know what would have happened.”
Her daughter, Lawrence, didn’t have as rosy a view of the situation.
“Really, she’s being displaced,” she said. “She’s frickin’ homeless.”
Hendrick, the Star Valley Trailer Court’s former owner, is “heartbroken” by the plights of residents like Mansir.
“Those were my people for 30 years,” Hendrick said. “All I can say is I wish I could take it back, but I can’t.”