Wyoming lawmakers, housing advocates talk affordable housing |
When Cokeville’s new police chief moved to town, there weren’t any houses available. He spent his first few months there living in a travel trailer.
A pet supplies business wanted to relocate to Shoshoni, but the town didn’t have enough places to live to support the company’s staff.
Some of LaBarge’s elderly residents have to move as far away as Salt Lake City to find senior living communities.
Testimony heard by state lawmakers on Thursday suggests even Wyoming’s smallest towns are struggling with rising home prices and lacking inventory.
That morning, the Wyoming Association of Municipalities presented housing survey data gathered from its 98 member communities.
For a while, Teton County was the only place in Wyoming with a housing crunch. The resort town has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the nation.
The association was surprised to learn the problem’s gone statewide, executive director David Fraser told lawmakers. Ninety percent of its members reported housing shortages.
“As one of our staffers says, when Shoshoni tells you they’re having housing issues, you know it’s a state-wide issue,” he said.
The Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee met in Hulett on Thursday morning for the State Legislature’s first-ever meeting on workforce housing. In April, the committee announced the topic as its second-highest priority for the interim legislative session.
Local officials, housing advocates and industry representatives said inflation, population growth, lagging wages and poor city planning were driving the problem, among other things.
Every community’s situation was unique, Fraser said. Laramie, for example, told the association it was struggling to get new homes built because its local construction companies are all busy helping Boulder, Colorado, rebuild. The city lost more than 1,000 homes in a wildfire in early January.
Thursday’s speakers showed broad support for some kind of legislative solution to Wyoming’s housing shortages.
They laid out a flurry of potential ways forward — most of which involved investing in affordable housing projects and programs or changing zoning laws.
Still, many speakers and lawmakers were wary of inserting the state into what they characterized as local-level problems. They also didn’t want solutions to be one-size-fits-all.
“What we’re asking for, really, is for you to consider helping us breaking down a funding barrier by enabling local control on the choice of funding,” said Anna Olson, president and CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce.
At the end of the meeting, lawmakers made plans to discuss drafting legislation that would establish a state housing authority and a state housing trust fund program. The committee meets again Aug. 25 and 26.
Understanding the problem
There’s no strict definition for “workforce housing.” Housing organizations often use the term to mean housing for low- or middle-income workers, especially those employed in essential services. Think teachers, healthcare workers or police.
There’s no strict definition for “affordable housing” either, Brenda Birkle, executive director of Cheyenne housing nonprofit My Front Door, said at the meeting.
She encouraged lawmakers to nail down those terms before chasing after housing solutions.
Many have preconceived notions about what workforce or affordable housing should look like, she said. But communities are most affordable when they offer residents a variety of housing options.
There’s also the question of data. Statistics posted on real estate websites like Zumper and Zillow indicate home prices and rents in Wyoming have, on the whole, gone up since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But what about other trends?
A handful of cities — including Jackson, Laramie and Sheridan — have commissioned housing studies in recent years, but there hasn’t been much research done on the rest of the state.
That may make some of Wyoming’s housing struggles difficult to diagnose. The Wyoming Association of Municipalities’s survey, for example, suggested the state might have a vacation rental problem.
Just under a third of survey respondents said homes for sale in their communities were more likely to be converted into “long or short-term rentals” than go to other permanent residents.
Concerns about the rentals are growing across the country — critics say they eat up sorely needed housing stock and can be a nuisance to neighbors.
Lori Urbigkit, government affairs director for Wyoming Realtors, told lawmakers she wasn’t aware of any data that could shed light on whether the vacation rental market was really hurting Wyoming communities, though.
The vast majority of Wyoming cities don’t track rental properties. Jackson and Laramie are two exceptions.
“I don’t even know if the realtors involved in the transaction always know what the purpose of that purchase was for,” Urbigkit said.
Calling on state for help
Ed Ernste, CEO of Monument Homebuilders, wants to build a manufactured home factory in Cheyenne.
Manufactured homes are cheaper and easier to build than their counterparts without sacrificing durability, he said. He pointed to a Nebraska-based company, Heritage Homes, which has been building prefabricated houses for over 40 years.
From what he’s seen Heritage Homes do, Ernste estimates a plant in Cheyenne could create 300-400 affordable homes a year. It’d cost about $25 million to build it, he said, and he’d need a lot of 10-15 acres.
But Ernste can’t do it alone, he said. He suggested the Wyoming’s Office of State Lands and Investments provide land for the factory.
“Without the help of the state on the land, and investment and utilities, there is no possible way to create anything less expensive than what we’re dealing with now,” Ernste said.
Like Ernste, many of Thursday’s speakers arrived with fleshed-out proposals for housing projects and programs in tow. Wyoming doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, they seemed to say — it just needs to be willing to spend some money.
Birkle, the My Front Door executive director, floated land banks as a potential solution. They’re entities that buy and manage “vacant, abandoned or distressed properties” and turn them into affordable housing, she said. They’re usually run by nonprofits or government agencies.
The governing body can set restrictions on how the housing is used — by limiting rental hikes, for example — which helps ensure it stays affordable in the long run.
Making land banks viable on the local level would require some kind of state legislation, Birkle said.
Dan Dorsch, special projects coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Laramie County, raised the idea of creating a state housing trust fund. Wyoming is one of just three states that doesn’t have one.
In broad strokes, housing trust funds set aside money for affordable housing projects.
He recommended Wyoming adopt a program similar to Iowa. Iowa has a couple dozen municipal-level housing trust funds, which get money from the state.
Because those trust funds are managed locally, communities have relative freedom over how they want to use their money. They can invest in the housing programs they think are right for them, Dorsch said.
Struggling for funding
A recent push for state money by one of Wyoming’s largest housing organizations raises questions about whether lawmakers would agree to fund such ambitious ideas.
Ahead of the 2022 legislative session, the Wyoming Community Development Authority asked Gov. Mark Gordon’s office for $100 million in federal relief money, executive director Scott Hoversland said at the committee meeting. The agency lends low-interest mortgages to first-time home buyers.
The money would have come from the $1 billion Wyoming is expected to receive through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). In addition to setting the regular two-year state and education department budgets, lawmakers in February had to set an additional budget allocating that ARPA money.
The Wyoming Community Development Authority wanted to use the money to build affordable housing, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported in February.
Gov. Mark Gordon’s budget proposal cut that amount down to $25 million, Hoversland said. The Joint Appropriations Committee rejected that proposal, leaving the authority out of the budget altogether.
Hoversland and Cody Mayor Matt Hall spoke before lawmakers to get partial funding for the project added back in the ARPA budget, without success.
In a typical year, the authority doesn’t get any money from the state, Hoversland said. It does get funding from some U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development initiatives, including the National Housing Trust Fund and the Community Development Block Grant Program.
The Wyoming Community Development Authority has received criticism for its how it administered emergency rental assistance in 2020. In May of that year, state lawmakers earmarked $15 million in CARES federal relief money for people behind on rent because of the coronavirus pandemic. The state chose the Wyoming Community Development Authority to distribute that money.
The organizations administered less than $2 million to renters before returning the rest to the state at the end of the year. Housing officials said they had trouble advertising the program, and regulations for approving applications were too rigid.
The Wyoming Department of Family Services manages the state’s second pandemic relief fund, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which launched in April 2021.
No matter what the state decides to do, Wyoming cities will have to take charge to combat housing issues in their communities, speakers and lawmakers said at the meeting.
How can they do that? Urbigkit, the government affairs director for Wyoming Realtors, offered some thoughts on strategic city design.
Research compiled by the National Realtors Association recommends that cities let more of their neighborhoods allow for mixed-use development, Urbigkit said. That makes it possible for builders to fill in existing neighborhoods with duplexes, fourplexes and apartment buildings, which is cheaper than building more single-family subdivisions.
This approach lets people live closer to the city center, too, which makes communities more walkable and bikeable. The National Realtors Association’s data suggest people prefer living in more compact, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods over the perceived convenience of car-centric infrastructure.“Ironically, people actually want to be able to ride their bikes to the grocery store, or ride their bikes to their appointments or to their jobs,” she said.
Most American cities aren’t set up that way, however.
Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government enacted programs to subsidize suburban sprawl. States and cities adopted housing restrictions like single-family zoning to protect suburbs’ growth.
Exclusionary zoning laws have been widely criticized as racist and classist. The laws kept low-income Americans — especially racial minorities — out of the suburbs, because those groups couldn’t afford to buy single-family homes. And many builders refused to sell to them. And many mortgage lenders — including, for decades, the Federal Housing Administration — refused to give them loans.
Today, zoning laws make it hard for cities to build high-density, mixed-use housing, Urbigkit said. Amending those zoning laws could be key to filling Wyoming communities with places to live that are more affordable to build, rent and buy.