SHERIDAN — Considering the expected growth in Sheridan County with the relocation of Weatherby, the potential opening of a Ramaco facility near Acme and the possibility of new businesses moving to the county, the housing demands are apt to change considerably in the near future. Some housing experts are asking whether the county will have enough affordable housing as it continues to expand.
“We’re focused on the economic development and these businesses coming in, and that’s great, but we have to remember that there are some serious housing needs that come along with that,” said Marie Lowe, a Sheridan real estate agent and the former director of the Sheridan Housing Action Committee, a nonprofit organization that worked to facilitate the creation of affordable housing in Sheridan.
Lowe said the rising housing costs in Sheridan remind her of the conditions that led her, and fellow residents, to create SHAC in 2004. At the time, Wyoming was in a boom and housing prices were increasing throughout the city, which caused a large exit of young residents who could not afford to live and work there any longer.
With SHAC, Lowe stressed the importance of getting people to buy, rather than rent, affordable housing. She cited a Federal Reserve survey of consumer finances that showed the net worth of homeowners was between 31 and 46 times higher than the net worth of renters. Homeowners, Lowe argued, are also more likely to stay in the community. If someone is renting a place when times get tough, they are much more likely to pull up stakes than someone who is anchored in the community by their home. SHAC promoted affordable home ownership by investing funding it was awarded by government agencies like the State Loan Investment Board and various grants into infrastructure, such as extending water and sewer lines out to developments. The committee also took time to educate people who were buying the affordable homes.
“Our goal was to help people who were willing to buy in a little bit. They had to make a down payment, they had to go through financial literacy education, how to buy a house, what it meant, what the commitment was, and had to save money every month in their own savings account,” Lowe said. “We didn’t give anything away; they earned it.”
Lowe said she left SHAC around 2012, and the group disbanded a couple of years later.
By that time, Wyoming had entered a bust cycle and housing prices had dropped, which temporarily eased the demand for affordable housing.
But as housing prices in the city begin to climb again — and not due to a boom, but to the growth of industry — Lowe said she believes meeting the coming affordable housing demand will be crucial to the city’s future. A company like Weatherby will attract “workforce labor,” like construction workers to build its facilities, in addition to its employees, and that workforce labor will likely require affordable housing.
“I think we’re at a tipping point in this community,” Lowe said. “It appears there are a lot of opportunities for jobs, and thus opportunities to grow as a community, but the key we have to keep in mind is the ability to keep people here.”
Not to mention, Lowe points out, the ability to retain people who are already here.
“When I moved to Sheridan, there was a shortage of teachers in the community,” Lowe said. I don’t want to hear again that we can’t get teachers to teach our children because there’s no place to live.”
Officials in both the city and the county acknowledge that affordable housing demand could become an issue, but strategies for addressing affordable housing demand are still being developed.
“Our housing stock hasn’t grown as fast as our employment,” said Brian Craig, Sheridan community development director. “Right now it’s a concern, and we want to address it before it becomes a problem.”
Craig said the city is planning on conducting an affordable housing study in the spring and intends to open a request for proposal to hire a consultant and start speaking to residents and businesses in the community to get a full picture of the affordable housing landscape in the community. Craig added, though, that some of the solutions to the problem are going to have to come from the private sector.
“Homebuilders and realtors are working on this on their own,” Craig said. “I think the city has a role in creating the space and the opportunity and the regulations to make this happen.”
Renee Obermueller, the administrative director in the Sheridan County Business Office, reiterated that local government cannot address the issue on its own.
“It really comes down to working with private developers,” Obermueller said. “The city and county don’t own property that is suitable for development into a housing complex.”
Obermueller acknowledged, however, that whereas in the past the county worked with SHAC, it has not worked with any similar groups since SHAC disbanded.
“In a perfect world, I think the city and the county would engage in conversations with individuals and developers,” Obermueller said. “I think the conversation needs to start. That would be the first step.”
People and organizations throughout the county have realized independently that affordable housing availability is a growing concern. Addressing that concern will require them to work together.