A newly released report from the Wyoming Business Council offers a comprehensive look at factors affecting affordable and available housing in all 23 counties.
The work sets a baseline and provides counties with hard data to begin finding new ways to address the different housing problems facing each county. Housing experts will parlay this report into a statewide housing plan to develop strategies to improve access to adequate shelter across Wyoming.
Housing costs above 30 percent of a family’s income are considered unaffordable by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency.
“Housing problems are a long-term issue across the state of Wyoming,” said Kim Porter, community initiatives director for the Wyoming Business Council. “The problem is too big for any one community to tackle by itself.”
As a largely rural state, Porters says Wyoming doesn’t fit into the uniform funding solutions created by the federal government, so it’s up to the state and its public-private partners to create its own solutions.
As the state’s economic development agency, the Business Council has partnered with the Wyoming Community Development Authority, the Wyoming Housing Network, the Wyoming Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, the Wyoming Real Estate Commission, the Wyoming Realtors Association, the University of Wyoming, US Housing and Urban Development, Wyoming Family Home Ownership Program, USDA Rural Development and the Wyoming Volunteers of America to dismantle the hurdles keeping some Wyomingites from finding adequate housing at a reasonable cost.
“This is the first time all these partners are working together,” Porter said.
The hurdles are different in every county, but some common trends have emerged from the data.
Campbell, Natrona, Fremont, Laramie and Teton counties all struggle with tight, expensive real estate markets. That may be related to the transient nature of some of the major employers in the region – the military in Laramie County, the hospitality industry in Teton County and extraction in the other counties.
The supercharged rental market in those counties may not fully represent the depths of the problem. Around one in five Campbell County workers commutes from somewhere else. About 2,000 of those workers live out of state. This, even though 16 percent of the housing stock in Campbell is multifamily units – far above the typical mark in Wyoming. In Laramie County, nearly 19 percent of the workforce drives in from somewhere else, and almost 6,700 people live out of state.
The question, as the report asks, is whether so many people live outside the county in which they work because of lack of affordable or available housing, or a lack of amenities?
The Wyoming Community Development Authority administers several federal programs to assist developers in building affordable multifamily rental projects, and the Wyoming Housing Network currently has money to help the poorest members of communities find housing, although the need is greater than the resources, according to Porter. Wyoming’s eight public housing authorities provide rental assistance and both Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have programs for multifamily housing.
However, those resources don’t address what experts call workforce housing. Workforce housing should be affordable to those making 80 percent to 120 percent of an area’s median income.
“Workforce housing is the missing middle and our greatest challenge,” Porter said. “These are families that don’t qualify for federal resources, but they still do not have the disposable income for a variety of choices or, in some cases, even adequate housing that costs less than 30 percent of their income.”
The Wyoming Community Development Authority (WCDA) administers a first-time homebuyer program which helps families earning up to 100 percent of an area’s median income purchase a home.
“There are few resources available for working families, and those resources may be in jeopardy due to proposed federal legislation,” WCDA Executive Director Scott Hoversland said. “The housing toolkit is a way for Wyoming to work together to solve its unique issues.”
The housing toolkit will highlight best practices and housing success stories from around the state. A planned best practices manual will help communities learn and duplicate these successes.
Meanwhile, the Wyoming Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials is working on a proposal to create a housing trust fund. This proposal would be designed to meet Wyoming’s statewide housing needs.
More work must be done to encourage private developers to create new housing at a variety of price points. While some housing issues are unique by community, options may include different zoning practices, eliminating regulations, relaxing building code requirements or finding other creative routes to help the housing industry meet demand.
“Costs to build houses are skyrocketing and the margins for contractors are greater for higher-priced homes than lower-priced homes. There is no incentive to build lower-cost homes,” Porter said.
Strategies for addressing high housing costs can be found throughout the state. Sweetwater County, the fourth largest in the state, is a place where many people commute in to work. Nonetheless, the county boasts the third best rate of housing affordable to a variety of income levels. Smaller counties like Platte, Lincoln, Crook and Big Horn may also reveal ways to address housing needs.
In Guernsey, for example, a small group of private developers found ways to turn old, blighted properties into renovated, clean and low-cost housing. They took the money from that project and built two low-cost homes on empty lots in town. The new units chipped away at the demand for workforce housing by Camp Guernsey.
Meanwhile, in Alpine, plans are in the works for a 24-unit complex featuring one-, two- and three-bedroom units on the site of the former Alpen Haus Hotel.
“We need a lot more, but it’s a start,” said Mayor Kennis Lutz. “There’s another 24 units proposed after this set is done, and there are other projects in the hopper. We may be looking at as many as 180 townhomes, too.”
These units are expected to help some of the thousands of out-of-state Teton County commuters find lower-cost housing in Wyoming.
The public can get involved in helping develop the housing plan by contacting Porter at 307-777-5812 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Wyoming housing experts hope to present a statewide plan next summer.