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Billionaires in Wyoming send housing prices sky-high: "This is super gentrification"

Locals being priced out in Wyoming town
High real estate prices in Jackson, Wyoming, highlight stark divide 03:42

In Jackson Hole, Wyoming's Shangri-La in the Tetons, you need silly money to be taken seriously.

"A family like mine can't live here, not even an inkling of a chance," said John Smaellie, a construction supervisor in Jackson.

Like so many workers in the area, he can only afford to live on the other side of the mountains straddling the Idaho-Wyoming border. Pricing them out of Jackson Hole's new Gilded Age are vacationing one-percenters competing for a second home — or a fourth.

"The billionaires are buying out the millionaires," Smaellie said. "You're making a great wage anywhere else in the country. But here? You're poverty-stricken."

For most people in the area, real estate prices are wildly unaffordable. Teton County's median income is $108,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census. The average listing price for a single-family home is more than $7 million, according to a recent report from real estate agency Engel & Völkers Jackson Hole.

Driving home the inequality is Smaellie's commute over a mountain pass from his house in Driggs, Idaho. It's at least an hour drive southeast to downtown Jackson, with its old west charm and sticker shock.

Jessica Sell Chambers, a town council member and mayoral candidate, says short-term luxury rentals are typical, but she would like to see affordable options for multi-family housing. 

"This is beyond gentrification. This is super gentrification," Sell Chambers said.

"It's unsustainable, too," she added. "Who's gonna run the place? Who's gonna work and be the backbone of all these services?"

The growing divide briefly took on a physical form last month, when a portion of the mountain pass to the town collapsed from a landslide. An 80-foot stretch of the road was destroyed and impassable for three weeks, further separating the two worlds.

Feeling it in Driggs, Idaho, are Pete and Sarah Wilson and their daughter, Harper. Sarah is a media creative director and Pete is a firefighter-paramedic in Jackson — the couple's hometown. They feel excluded from the place they grew up in.

"I'm the help, even though I'm a firefighter-paramedic. Once we're done doing the job, we're expected to kick rocks, get lost," Pete said.

"If you're looking at the American Dream or whatever — like, if you work hard enough you can have what you want — but you can't," Sarah said.

Sell Chamber's Jackson home has exploded in value, but the property taxes may drive her family out.

"We don't want to go anywhere. The money's not important to us. It's the community," she said.

For now, while the mountain pass has reopened, the divide stays in place.

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