Cheyenne workers struggling to find affordable homes

There are plenty of homes to go around, but this doesn’t mean that home ownership is a realistic option. And as Wyoming’s workforce needs to continue to grow, housing becomes more critical.

“The need for new, affordable construction is paramount,” reads the executive summary of the 2007 Wyoming Housing Needs Forecast. “Housing availability problems will worsen over the next few years without sound policy action now.”

The statewide housing shortage was one of the highlights at the 2007 Governor’s Summit on Workforce Solutions. And earlier this year, state legislators tried to ease the problem with the creation of the Wyoming Workforce Housing Program.

“It’s something we’re struggling with as cheap jerseys a department,” said Jerimiah Rieman, a policy analyst with the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. “We can’t be (responsible for) building things, but we want a housing stock where people can buy homes and put roots in Wyoming rather than coming in for the short term and leaving.”

He added that this is not an issue tied to low income individuals. Teachers, police officers and firefighters are struggling to find affordable housing.

The Center for Housing Policy estimates that the number of working families with critical housing needs increased 73 percent from 1997 to 2005. Two years ago, 5.2 million families paid more than half of their income for housing. Department of Housing and Urban Development, housing should not cost more than 30 percent of a family’s annual income. Families that pay more than this total are considered cost burdened.

But adding to the stock of affordable homes isn’t easy.

It is not an attractive option for developers when construction costs are rising. And builders are expected to add the roads, water and sewer lines that lead into their subdivisions.

Steve Achter, director of Investment Ready Communities for the Wyoming Business Council, said the Wyoming Workforce Housing Program was created to pick up some of these costs. One million dollars was dedicated to the community loan program.

“The idea behind this program is that workers need housing,” he said. “The private sector provides housing, and this would help pay for the infrastructure to that housing.”

Achter added that there is more incentive to build if someone else is paying for the pipes and asphalt. Participating developers also must agree that their homes will fall within a certain price range.

He said the rules for the housing program are being finalized before the Business Council can accept applications.

But lower priced homes aren’t necessarily cheap.

Mary Bienz, outreach program director for Community Action of Laramie County, said options are limited when someone makes less than $1,000 a month.

“We’re becoming a service community,” she said. “There are more part time service jobs without benefits than full time wages.”

Community Action usually has a waitlist of five to 10 individuals for one of its four reduced rate apartments. But even after rents were raised to $400 for a three bedroom apartment, she said, it still isn’t enough to maintain the building.

A homebuyer program to help individuals reach ownership shut down five years ago. Bienz said it was difficult finding eligible families. Most had too much debt to take on a mortgage payment.

“There are a lot of nice homes going up (in Cheyenne),” she said. “But they are out of reach for our clients. When you’re paying two thirds of your income for rent and don’t qualify for benefits, it’s difficult.”

“A mom and dad who both work probably can afford $700 in rent, but a mom with three kids she is the only one working, plus she has the costs of daycare. She probably has no health benefits and still makes too much for food stamps. Then, since utilities have gone up 15 percent, it gets worse.”

Cheyenne City Councilwoman Georgia Broyles said when she met with the Wyoming Building Association, she heard the comment that there is no such thing as affordable housing. She also was surprised to learn that officials in Jackson proposed affordable housing requirements on new developers.

“I think it’s interesting that they could be in that position,” Broyles said.

But Cheyenne’s officials are evaluating a different option.

The city partnered with the county to add four single family homes and two duplex units on Messenger Court. Habitat for Humanity will build the homes, while city and county community development block grant money will pay for the infrastructure to connect the county pocket to city services.

Broyles said the city approved $250,000 toward sidewalks, roads, and water and sewer lines. She added that she was unaware how much infrastructure requirements add to the final cost of a home.

“It’s expensive,” she said. “Anyone who wants to replace a sidewalk in front of their house quickly learns how much that costs.”.

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