State lawmakers have rejected — at least for now — a bill to allow Wyoming counties to charge a fee on vacant homes.
The bill is the creation of Rep. Mike Yin, a Democrat from Jackson. He argues it would give Teton County the means to address the impact on the community of vacant homes, which intensify the valley’s housing shortage and drive property tax increases, pushing out residents who can’t keep pace with the ever-escalating cost of living.
But during a meeting in Cheyenne, members of the joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee declined Monday to adopt the bill, citing concerns over enforcement, private property rights and unintended consequences. Just three of the 14 lawmakers voted to move the bill forward.
“I think there are some unanswered practical questions,” said Sen. Charles Scott, a Natrona County Republican. “This bill would require quite a bit of work before we can take it forward.”
It would impose a flat fee, based on square footage, on houses left empty for longer than six months a year. Second-home owners could avoid the fee by renting out their homes while they’re away, though some have noted it could be difficult to rent such a home to anyone who needs housing year-round.
Nearly all of the revenue generated would go toward the recently resurrected Wyoming Property Tax Refund Program, which Yin said “becomes a struggle to keep funded, or fund at all, in any given budget session.” The other 5% would go toward administration and enforcement.
Several legislators suggested the policy would do more harm than good in their counties, but Yin emphasized that officials in each county could decide whether to enact it based on their specific circumstances. It could also include exemptions for certain buildings, like small cabins and buildings under a certain market value. Yin said he is open to considering any amendments.
Some questioned the propriety of seeking a new fee when Teton County still has the ability to increase its property tax. Still others argued the bill runs counter to Wyoming’s private property values, though Yin disputed this notion on the grounds that it doesn’t require second-home owners to rent their houses.
“I don’t think this infringes on private property rights at all,” he said. “I think what it does is fix the market failure where in Teton County where we have $1.8-million median homes.”
Despite their unwillingness to move the bill forward, some of Yin’s fellow legislators complimented him on what they deemed an innovative solution to Teton County’s housing challenges. Sen. Bill Landen, a Natrona County Republican and chair of the committee, encouraged Yin to keep refining the bill in light of the committee’s reservations.
“I think you did hopefully hear what several of us are saying, which is I don’t think you’re on the wrong track here at all,” he said. “I think the concept that you’ve thrown out here is unique, and I think it has potential to work.”
Yin said he was encouraged by the “surprisingly positive” response. He plans to reach out to each of the legislators who voiced concerns to see how he can address them and “make it a stronger bill.”
“They understand that we do have a workforce housing problem in Teton County,” Yin said, “and it does sound like there’s interest in tools for us as long as it doesn’t negatively affect the rest of the state.”
Their open-mindedness seemed to validate the prediction of Rep. Andy Schwartz, a fellow Teton County Democrat. In the past he has tried to take advantage of the area’s wealth by sponsoring bills for a real estate transfer tax but has never found enough support. However, because the second-home fee would benefit the entire state through property tax relief, Schwartz argued the Legislature would be more amenable to it.
In public comment on the bill, he recalled that during door-knocking sessions in his last campaign, in 2018, he found the prevalence of empty homes “shocking.”
“I was going into hollowed-out neighborhoods,” he said. “People would tell me. ‘Don’t bother with any of the rest of the houses on this block, because nobody lives there.’ ”
That fits with the Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department’s assessment of the problem. According to the latest annual housing report, 38% of dwellings in the valley belong to second-home owners or retirees.
“I just don’t think you can comprehend the scale of the problem,” Schwartz told the committee. “We’re going to have to do something.”