A report commissioned by the Wyoming Business Council shows that Teton County’s affordable housing shortage is a problem shared by the entire state.
Rather than trying to solve the issue community-by-community or even county-by-county, the council commissioned a statewide housing study in hope of creating a unified strategy and a possible funding source.
“Housing has been a problem in Wyoming for well over 20 years,” said Kim Porter, the community initiatives director for the Wyoming Business Council. “It’s too big of an issue to tackle individually, but if we get everybody together it will make it easier.
“We want this to be a grassroots effort that can bring people together,” she said, to “identify areas where we can improve and start brainstorming how we can start finally moving the needle on housing.”
The first step in the process — the report by the Business Council that compiles raw housing and economic data for all 23 counties in Wyoming — was taken last week.
Most notably, it shows a surprising amount of parity throughout the state, highlighting the shared housing struggles in all counties rather than their different strengths.
While Teton County ranks near the bottom in affordability and supply, the cost of rent as a percentage of a household’s income is relatively even throughout the state and actually slightly behind the national average.
According to the report, Teton County needs 1,502 units to meet current rental needs, 1,268 of which would need to rent for less than $1,869 per month, and 1,483 owner units, 686 of which would have to cost less than $289,394.
Laramie County, on the other hand, needs 4,413 units to meet current rental needs, 4,055 of which would have to rent for less than $1,515 per month, and 5,108 owner units, 3,337 of which would need to cost less than $234,581.
Natrona County needs 3,815 units to meet current rental needs, 3,485 of which would need rents less than $1,428 per month, and 3,801 owner units, 2,512 of which would need to cost less than $221,110.
While the need is clear, and has been for some time, lack of coordination between the state’s housing-starved communities has hampered progress. Attacking the issue from a regional or statewide perspective and pooling resources could speed the process.
“This will be a statewide effort, and hopefully different people will bring different ideas to the table,” Porter said. “We’ll also bring federal partners to the table, as they may be able to see something we don’t.”
Clark Anderson is the executive director of Community Builders, a community development consultant group from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, that helps develop regional housing strategies throughout the Mountain West. He said that in his experience regional coordination is the only way to tackle the issue of affordable housing, especially as housing problems in areas like Jackson Hole begin to spill into other communities.
“We just worked with Gunnison County, and they were really struggling with how to address their regional housing needs,” Anderson said. “We haven’t figured out a silver bullet, but the important thing is that they’re trying to collaboratively identify the best locations for housing so as to avoid sprawl, collaboratively identify a regional funding stream and collaboratively address the policy barriers so that the free market can also do its part.
“It’s critical,” he said. “The more payers you bring in, the more you can do and the more creative you can get.”
While creating a Wyoming strategy and coordinating best practices for development and housing regulations is fairly easy, “the challenge is going to be funding,” Porter said.
The city and county of Denver ran into a similar problem as the area’s population exploded over the past decade. Their solution was to partner with nonprofit foundations and business groups, including banks, to create the Denver Transit-Oriented Development Fund.
The purpose of the fund is to “support the creation and preservation of over 1,000 affordable housing units through strategic property acquisition in current and future transit corridors,” Anderson said.
Allowing greater access to capital through low-interest loans, the fund has acquired eight properties in the past four years that have preserved or created 626 affordable homes and 120,000 square feet of commercial space for a new public library, a child care program, a theater company and nonprofits.
Since being funded in 2010, the return on the investments has grown the fund from $15 million to $24 million.
“If you really want to address housing issues in communities that have a significant problem,” Anderson said, “and you want to partner with the private sector you’ve got to generate some revenue stream.
“If you’ve got a revenue stream you can be proactive. You can use it to land bank sites. You can use it to bring down costs to a private sector partner and make it easier to include deed restrictions. And you can fund the operational costs of having someone to go in and figure these things out,” he said.
While Wyoming has long relied on federal funds to build affordable housing, as those funding sources diminish the Wyoming Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment is looking to institute a program similar to the Denver Transit-Oriented Development Fund.
The proposed Wyoming Housing Trust Fund would provide a mechanism to increase and preserve affordable housing.
“Federal funds are increasingly unreliable and meet less than 50 percent of our housing need,” the Wyoming chapter’s website reads. “Our Housing Trust Fund would provide loans, loan guarantees, loan subsidies and/or grants to preserve and increase the inventory of rental and ownership housing available to Wyoming citizens who are not able to afford market-rate housing.”
Though such a statewide fund would need to be established by legislation, Porter said the Wyoming Business Council’s effort to coordinate a unified housing strategy is where the details and appetite for such a fund can be hashed out.
“We’re probably not going to discuss it during this legislative session,” Porter said, “but we’re starting to get feedback and building support for it.”