affordable housing

CHEYENNE – Residents across several industries agree Cheyenne faces a multitude of housing issues. But what can we do about it?

That ended up being the main focus of a presentation dubbed “Economic Benefits of Affordable Housing” Friday morning that helped conclude Affordable Housing Awareness Week. The panel began with opening remarks from Gov. Mark Gordon, who called the event “absolutely essential.”

“What we hear, no matter where you are in the state, is that there is an immense need for affordable housing,” he said. “You’re having businesses come in with a workforce that has a hard time finding housing. … The thing my administration is focused on is how do we make sure we have more main street businesses and more opportunities for families to get started?”

According to the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 housing report, 10% of residents in Laramie County spend more than half of their monthly income on housing, and 18% of residents spend between 31% and 50% of their income on housing. For housing to be affordable, it should not cost more than 30% of someone’s monthly income.

Gordon admitted affordable housing is a complex problem that isn’t easy to solve, but said events like the panel are a pivotal step so those in housing-related industries can put their heads together.

The panel assembled to discuss this issue was made up of Laramie County Community College Technical Program Manager Penny Fletcher, Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Committee Vice Chair Tanya Keller, Monument Homebuilders Inc. CEO Ed Ernste, My Front Door Executive Director Brenda Birkle and Cheyenne LEADS Director of Business Retention & Expansion Jack McIntyre.

McIntyre noted that lack of affordable housing is a good reason for businesses to leave Cheyenne or decide never to bring their company to town in the first place. Keller agreed, and added that there’s a need to not only build more affordable housing, but to build it faster.

According to Keller, a root of the larger problem is that land costs are way too high, both in the city and in rural Laramie County. That doesn’t help prospective homebuyers, who are looking at an average cost of $320,000 to buy a home in Cheyenne. As of the night before the panel, there were 65 houses on the market in the capital city, and the average cost of those available was $410,000.

“Our workers are not going to come here if we don’t have housing for them,” Keller said. “We need to start talking about how to tackle this beast.”

Ernste said another root problem that needs to be addressed is the cost of supplies to build homes. Not only are lumber prices rising, but items ranging from trim to furnaces are suddenly much harder to find, which makes his job much harder as a contractor.

It also makes it near impossible for Ernste to list a price for a family wanting to build a new home.

“Buckle down and hang in there, that’s all I can tell you,” he said.

Opening the market back up with Canada would help a great deal with the cost of items such as lumber, Ernste added, but he recognizes that solution won’t be acted on overnight. Something that could be done perhaps quicker, he added, is encouraging the state to invest more in infrastructure to help get supply costs down.

Fletcher noted that when she and her husband relocated to Cheyenne about six years ago, they couldn’t find a place to rent, let alone buy, which is particularly bad if Cheyenne wants to maintain a skilled workforce.

Hearing the Biden administration voice its support for apprenticeship programs, however, gives her hope that they might receive help from the government to attract hardworking individuals.

“For our young people, in the short term, getting a free education … that is how we’re going to attract some of these trade workers,” she said. “That will hopefully address some of our shortage.”

As for the economic benefits of affordable housing, Birkle said after the panel concluded that affordable housing is not only a benefit, it’s essential to Cheyenne’s economic survival.

“If the amount of units stays stagnant, and we aren’t able to attract new businesses, people aren’t going to come to the community,” she said. “That’s how communities die out, without opportunity.”

She added that a lack of qualified labor also has a larger economic impact than one might expect, because that lack causes a need to pay more for whatever labor you can get, which ultimately raises the prices on houses.

“The benefits of wage supported housing touches every aspect of our community,” she said. “It can either be an asset or a barrier. A housing stock that keeps pace with economic development is more sustainable over the long term and supports the development and recruitment of an adequate, qualified workforce.”

Niki Kottmann is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s features editor. She can be reached at nkottmann@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3135. Follow her on Twitter at @niki_mariee.

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