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As local governments take on housing issues, Wyoming lawmakers to consider statewide solutions

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Apartments

Apartment buildings at the Village at Sage Creek are seen in Casper. The State Legislature will look at options to create affordable housing in Wyoming.

In 2021, Sheridan commissioned the research firm Gruen Gruen & Associates to put together a report on the biggest housing issues facing the county — and what it could do to fix them.

The report, published in December, put into words what many residents had long observed anecdotally: Sheridan doesn’t have enough housing, and what’s available is too expensive for its essential workers.

At the time of the report’s publication, the county had more than 1000 job openings. Employers across multiple industries told the firm people were turning down jobs because they couldn’t find places to live.

On the heels of that report, Sheridan is taking initial steps to turn its housing situation around.

County and city officials are considering creating a housing trust fund, for one, said county administrative director Renee Obermueller. It’d be a pot of money for funding future affordable housing programs.

As anxieties about affordable housing swell, reform is becoming a priority for local governments across the state.

Cheyenne launched an Affordable Housing Task Force in 2021. Laramie has adopted two zoning changes aimed at affordable housing this year.

Teton County, meanwhile, has been trying to manage housing problems for decades. Jackson Hole’s local housing trust fund turned 30 last year.

The state will join the effort very soon.

The Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee in April identified workforce housing as its second-highest priority for the interim. (During the interim session, lawmakers meet to research problems affecting the state and brainstorm what kind of legislation could address them.)

It’s the first time the State Legislature has taken such a sweeping look at housing issues. The committee’s inaugural meeting on workforce housing takes place Thursday in Hulett.

High housing costs and a lack of inventory seem to be affecting all but Wyoming’s smallest towns, committee co-chair Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said.

It’s time for the state to help ease that pain, some advocates and lawmakers say. But as cities get around passing their own reforms, the challenge will be working out exactly what role the state should play.Thursday’s meeting will be about exploring all available options, Driskill said.

“We’ll get it on the table, then start critiquing all the different things we can do,” he said.

Implementing a state housing trust fund program will be one of the first solutions to go before lawmakers.

Two representatives from Wyoming housing organizations will speak in favor of the model on Thursday: Brenda Birkle, executive director of My Front Door, a nonprofit that helps first-time home buyers, and Dan Dorsch, special projects coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Laramie County.

They’re part of a new coalition of housing leaders advocating for bringing more housing trust funds to Wyoming. Among them is Scott Hoversland, executive director of the Wyoming Community Development Authority.

(Birkle also chairs Cheyenne’s Affordable Housing Task Force, of which Dorsch is a member.)

Wyoming is just one of three states without a state housing trust fund — the others being Alaska and Mississippi.

Such programs can take many forms, Birkle and Dorsch said, but they recommend models that give local governments flexibility over how they spend the funding.

Iowa’s state program, for example, has 27 different housing funds that represent its 99 counties, Dorsch said. The program allocates the majority of its money to those local-level funds.

“Those communities get to decide where that funding goes for their own unique situations that they’re facing,” Dorsch said.

Iowa funds the program through its state budget, as well as revenue from real estate transfer taxes, Dorsch said.

There’s also the federal National Housing Trust Fund, which offers several funding opportunities for state and local housing groups.

“Those programs are necessary, but for small organizations and small nonprofits it can be very complicated to access those funds,” Dorsch said.

Lori Urbigkit, government affairs director for Wyoming Realtors, will speak at Thursday’s committee meeting, too. She’ll be giving a presentation on the National Association of Realtors’ “Smart Growth for the 21st Century” program.

The program teaches cities 10 principles for responsible community growth, including prioritizing walkability, diversifying housing and transportation options, making room for green space and allowing for mixed land use.

Urbigkit has taught the class to local leaders all across the state. Usually, it’s a 3-hour, “in-depth discussion about what a community can do expand their housing opportunities,” she said. On Thursday, she’ll have 15 minutes.

While she only has time for a brief overview, she hopes the program can provide some “guide posts” for lawmakers as they start thinking about housing solutions.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation is also expected to speak at the meeting.

Corporations committee co-chair Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said the agency has a unique perspective to offer on the challenges of housing for state employees. WYDOT staff live in urban centers as well as far-flung places, he said.

State and local data show housing costs have increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Jan. 2020, the average home value in Wyoming was $258,000, according to real estate website Zillow. In May of 2022, that figure had risen to $318,000.

Rents have risen, too.

Average rent for a Cheyenne two-bedroom apartment in January, 2020 was a little over $800, rental listing website Zumper shows. In May of 2022, it was $975.

Casper was about $750 a month in January, 2020, according to Zumper. Come May of this year, it was $1000.

The average two-bedroom apartment in Teton County cost about $2,500 a month over the first quarter of 2020, according to reports from the Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department. It rose to roughly $4,170 a month during the second quarter of 2022.

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