SHERIDAN — Affordable housing shortages, and awareness of those shortages, are an increasingly widespread concern.
“Affordable housing,” though, has become something of an umbrella term used to describe a broad, nationwide demand.
Housing prices are rising faster than wages throughout the United States as the relative supply of available housing units shrinks. A confluence of market trends have limited efforts to address that supply shortage, including rising costs of building materials, labor shortages, expensive building regulations and the ever-diminishing availability of land.
That general trend manifests itself differently in different communities, however. That fact has been highlighted by updates to local affordable housing initiatives in recent weeks.
Last week, the Wyoming Business Council reviewed its 2019 Action Plan via teleconference with officials from around the state.
The plan describes a number of strategies the state can use to leverage federal funding, primarily from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, to meet Wyoming’s affordable housing needs.
While Sheridan and the WBC nominally have the same goal, the two entities have slightly different definitions of “affordable housing.”
“We’re kind of targeting a different segment of the market,” said Sheridan Community Development Director Brian Craig.
Sheridan is not eligible to receive much of the federal funding the WBC hopes to use for affordable housing projects, Craig said. HUD’s funding — much of which is available through programs like Section Eight and Community Development Block Grants — is largely intended to help communities build low-income housing options.
The rising demand for affordable — or “workforce” — housing in Sheridan has been spurred on by economic growth, with the addition of companies like Weatherby and the expansion of companies like Kennon and Vacutech.
Though employees of those companies generally do not qualify as “low-income,” Sheridan has noticed a shortage of housing units those employees can realistically afford based on their salaries. Craig said the city hopes to facilitate the construction of more homes available somewhere between $225,000 and $275,000.
While the city could explore funding opportunities from either the federal or state government in the future, Sheridan’s primary focus has been on revising its building regulations and forging community partnerships to lower costs associated with private housing construction.
The city does not have the resources to build housing on its own, after all, and many of the factors contributing to the cost of housing are market forces it has no influence over.
But its first step in approaching local housing demand was to hire a consulting firm, Cascadia Partners, LLC, to review the city’s building codes and suggest policy changes that could lower construction costs.
Craig said that code audit is nearly complete and that he hopes the city can present Cascadia’s suggestions to Sheridan City Council sometime in July or August.
If the city does decide to pursue government or grant funding, Craig said the Sheridan Economic and Educational Development Authority Joint Powers Board’s approval of a $20,000 contribution to a local housing assessment could be a step in the right direction.
Craig noted that, though the city has a good idea of where its housing need lies, having those needs documented in a formal study will strengthen any grant applications the city and its partners might pursue in the future.
But, Craig said, the city is not targeting any specific grants at this time.
For now, the city is focused on implementing the solutions its spent the better part of the past year exploring.
“It’s kind of an exciting time as far as housing goes,” Craig said. “We’re starting to tick off the check boxes of the things we know we need to do as a city.”
Local housing demand extends beyond the city, however, and Habitat for Humanity of the Eastern Bighorns’ Executive Director Christine Dieterich said housing needs in Sheridan County may require a different set of solutions.
This week, the local Habitat chapter announced it would participate in Habitat for Humanity’s national Cost of Home advocacy campaign. Dieterich said the local group’s participation in the campaign — which aims to raise awareness about housing affordability issues and advocate for policies that address those issues — is directly tied to its experiences locally.
As in the city of Sheridan, Dieterich said Sheridan County is seeing a rise in demand for houses that don’t qualify as “low-income” and are not eligible for many of the state and federal resources.
But because both costs and salaries are slightly higher in Sheridan County, families who are not low-income still struggle to afford a place to live.
“You would be surprised who qualifies for a Habitat house (in Sheridan County),” Dieterich said.
As the costs associated with building houses have continued to increase, though, the local Habitat chapter has struggled to help those qualifying families.
“There is a gap between what it costs to build a Habitat house and what a family can afford for a mortgage at the end of the process,” Dieterich said. “That gap has just grown wider as the cost of construction has increased, and we need to fundraise and rely on the community to cover that gap.”
That gap has led the group to recently change its policy. Previously, Habitat would offer families a loan that would pay for the cost of construction on a house. With the recent change, Habitat is working to get families in a home with a monthly mortgage that doesn’t cost more than 30 percent of their gross monthly income.
Even with that policy, Dieterich said the local Habitat needs more funding to achieve its goals. While it’s too early to tell if the rising costs will slow the rate at which Habitat can execute local projects, Dieterich said her group is discussing that possibility.