By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Four teachers who had signed on to work for a school district in Wyoming backed out of their contracts when they couldn’t find housing.
The example, presented by state Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, during the second day of the Governor’s Business Forum in Laramie on Thursday, is one example of how the state’s housing crisis is undermining efforts to attract workers for existing positions, much less build in new jobs by diversifying the economy.
Sweetwater County, meanwhile, had just 130 properties on the market as of this week, said Craig Rood of Green River, some of which were undoubtedly oil field, while Cheyenne LEADS CEO Betsey Hale noted that Cheyenne needs 5,000 more single-family housing units and an additional 8,401 rental units, according to a spring 2022 housing study.
In Teton County, meanwhile, rents have increased on average $1,670 from 2020 to 2022, putting the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment at $4,170, Hale said.
That set the stage for a panel that explored potential housing.
‘A War In Housing Crisis’
“Think about firefighters, teachers, police officers, service hospitality workers,” Hale said, adding later that, “I do think we’re in a war in housing crisis right now.”
Some of the problem, said state Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, lies at local levels rather than with the state.
Kinskey said he was recruited by friends in Sheridan to become that city’s mayor because of a critical housing shortage during the coal-bed methane boom.
“There were 20 vacant lots in the city and the entire county,” Kinskey recalled. “There was just no inventory, no availability.”
One of the first things Kinskey did was hire a consultant to review all the city’s processes, some of which were slowing down or in some cases preventing subdivisions and annexations.
“He convened a panel of developers, architects, engineers and contractors without any city employees, without any politicians present, and interviewed them about our building permit processes, our subdivision processes and our annexation processes,” Kinskey said. “Then he convened a group of city employees, and all of those departments, and interviewed them.”
From that, the consultant compiled a list of 98 things the city could do to improve, along with an 18-month timeline for implementing them.
The other thing the city did under Kinskey’s leadership was expand.
“We engaged in some broad-scale annexation, three of the largest annexations in city history,” he said. “We expanded the footprint of the city by over a third.”
But it was not enough to simply annex property into the city. The size of the annexation was important, Kinskey said. Developers needed to build at a certain scale to remain profitable.
The other thing Sheridan did was create margin for their projects by providing dollar-for-dollar infrastructure to projects, based on a per acre land cost.
“It was a fair exchange and from that we developed the shared high-tech business park,” Kinskey said. “So that was a win-win for everybody.
“Those are the three improving processes. Making sure you have plenty of land inventory, then using large developers with land for infrastructure deals to help reduce their risk, and that helped get what essentially became for us a land trust for a business park, but the same concept works very well for housing.”
Housing As Economic Development
Laramie County Commissioner Gunnar Malm, meanwhile, echoed some of the same issues Kinskey raised about needlessly time-consuming or expensive processes gumming up the works for developers.
“I guess one of my biggest frustrations now, being a commissioner, is knowing how the most important and the most expensive part of any transaction or real estate deal is time,” he said. “And that is what I think government can do better.”
As an example, Malm said he has a day care provider that wants to locate in a large commercial building he owns in Cheyenne. The building was previously a mental health data center.
“A child care center is different, so it triggered a whole new set of site review and plan changes, which include me replacing all of the sidewalk up front, because the grade and slope to the street is just a little bit too much,” Malm said.
“So now, instead of us having new child care facility, I have to make a determination as a business owner if putting this extra infrastructure into this particular building is going to be worth it for this tenant. Or, if it’s better for me to eat the cost of that over time and try to lease it to somebody else.”
Malm added that Cheyenne has been great to work with on the issue and has helped him come up with a work-around.
“But it’s just one of those things,” he said. “We might be 5,000 housing units short, but with those 5,000 housing units come a host of other services that we’re not equipped to handle – child care, medical, all of those things that are so great.”
The housing crisis is in some ways part of a success story, Malm added.
“A part of the success we’ve had with the economic development in every county is we have an influx of people and revenue and things like that in the corporate sector, but housing doesn’t pay for itself,” he said. “The system we have set up, without going off on a real tangent and keeping us here for hours, isn’t structured for housing to pay for the infrastructure that it requires.”
Like Kinskey’s consultant, Cheyenne’s housing study makes a number of suggestions, including using alternative building materials and other cost-reduction strategies, Malm said.
“We need to be flexible,” he said. “We need to continue to work with our partners in the development community.”
While affordable housing means one thing to the general public, it means something very specific to Melissa Noah, executive director of the Wyoming Housing Network. The statewide nonprofit’s goal is helping families achieve their next housing goal, whatever that may be. That could be a homeless person getting into an apartment or an apartment dweller getting into a home.
“Through that, we’re creating solid communities that have people who get to that wealth building and security, because they have solid housing that they can afford,” she said. “And that creates generational wealth, which is then invested back into your community.”
But for her purposes the word “affordable” is tied to dollar figures.
“How many of you have employees making less than $49,000 a year?” She asked. “OK, $49,000 a year is about the average 80% of AMI around the state of someone who would be considered low income.
“And what low income means is that that household and that person is in danger of one financial emergency, medical, job-related, whatever it might be, that tips them over the edge into potential homelessness or potential crisis.”
Affordable properties that Noah works with are for people who are 60% to 30% of area median income.
Know Your Demographics
These are all figures Noah suggested community leaders keep in mind when they are trying to balance their housing inventories to meet the needs for an area’s various demographics, from low and fixed incomes on up.
“The other thing I would challenge you to look at in your community is aging housing,” she said. “That’s an area we also look at, acquiring aging properties, because they can be an opportunity to redevelop and create clean, safe, affordable housing.”
“Or,” she added, “they become a risk for your community as they continue to go down.”
Low-income families most often end up living in older properties that slowly, but surely, lose their livability.
“We do counseling to help people move from a mold-infested house,” Noah said. “We have people who have no plumbing, who have doors that don’t seal in the winter and windows where snow comes in. These are things that happen when your housing in your communities is aging. So, I just encourage you to look at that as an opportunity.”
Business leaders should particularly care about safe and affordable housing if they want to attract talent and convince people to move to Wyoming to take jobs here, she said.
“If you want employees to come in and work hard, they can’t be worried about if they’re going to make the mortgage payment,” she said. “They can’t be worried about the food and having to choose between medication and rent. Those are real things that your employees are facing.”