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Councilors aim to address housing crisis “piece-by-piece”
With the least affordable housing in Wyoming, Laramie struggles to keep middle-income, working age adults past their college years. That kneecaps the local economy and scares off potential businesses.
Low incomes, high housing costs and a lack of unit diversity are driving a housing crisis in the greater Laramie area. That’s the backdrop against which the Laramie City Council is beginning to address local housing.
A council work session Tuesday opened the discussion, summarizing various housing and economic studies conducted since 2015 and allowing councilors to start plotting a path toward housing reform.
That reform could include municipal code revisions, private-public partnerships to encourage middle-income housing construction, and even rental regulations. But the process will be a long one, and several councilors expressed an interest in taking on the issue piecemeal in the months to come.
“I’m wary of large groups of code changes or omnibus code revision packages coming forward — I’m unlikely to support them,” Mayor Paul Weaver said. “I think these need to be piece-by-piece with individualized work on each aspect of them.”
Since 2015, however, Laramie has added just 500 new units.
“We’re definitely behind,” City Planning Manager Derek Teini said.
Reaching 4,100 additional units by 2030 will take an estimated $803 million — something far outside the city’s budget. But Teini said the city could pursue state and federal funding and encourage private-public partnerships to achieve that goal.
“Laramie doesn’t have a silver bullet when it comes to solving housing,” he said. “We’re going to have to have a multifaceted approach to taking on housing in Laramie if we’re going to be serious about it.”
The presentation also highlighted the 2020 Thrive Laramie Economic Development Plan and the Wyoming Business Council’s Workforce Housing Assessment — which were published around the same time and give a view of, respectively, Laramie’s housing crisis and how it compares to the rest of the state.
One major takeaway from those reports is the drastic difference between median incomes in Laramie and the nearby cities of Cheyenne and Fort Collins. Whereas working age adults can expect to make $70,000 a year or more in Cheyenne or Fort Collins, that same age group in Laramie has a median income of $53,000.
“Low median household income is persistent across every age group in this town, and especially so in our prime working age individuals, 25 to 44 year-olds, our young professionals,” City Manager Janine Jordan said. “Our housing problem is not an outgrowth of being a college town. It is not inevitable and it isn’t driven purely by the demographic and income trends that the students bring to the community.”
Low incomes, combined with a lack of housing and lack of housing diversity make Laramie unattractive to businesses seeking to hire middle-income professionals. But the same situation (low incomes and housing shortages) makes Laramie attractive to landlords, even those out-of-state.
City Councilor Erin O’Doherty said about 11 percent of the rentals in the county are owned by out-of-state individuals and companies, citing a conversation she had with the county assessor.
“I’m worried about houses being bought up by hedge funds or by people just as investment things, especially if they’re out of state,” O’Doherty said. “When I’ve gotten postcards from people wanting to buy my house — and everyone I know has gotten them — they are not from a real estate agent, as far as I can tell. They have very secretive addresses — just a P.O. box, just a first name, and there’s no Laramie business associated with it — but they want to buy all the houses here. I’m concerned that could be making things more expensive.”
Some of the proposals for expanding housing options in Laramie could actually encourage more people to become landlords or encourage more landlords to buy up lots in Laramie.
The 2020 Laramie Housing Strategy — a subsection of the Thrive Laramie Plan — recommends changing city code to allow for more units per lot. The code changes would make those lots more profitable and therefore more attractive for developers and could allow more Laramie homeowners the freedom to establish accessory dwelling units.
It could also make it easier to set up apartments downtown — a goal Laramie Main Street Alliance is already working toward.
But Mayor Weaver said the goal of council’s code changes should not be a proliferation of out-of-state landlords. That’s an important note to make in a community where half the population rents their home and half of the available living units are rentals.
“I’ll be very blunt: I’m not going to be extremely excited about encouraging more rent-seeking economic behavior in our local economy,” he said. “I don’t think that matches what our data tells us people are looking for, and it’s causing us some of the stunted economic growth.”
Laramie’s housing crisis is especially acute, but it is just one community of many in the rapidly growing Mountain West, and just one of many facing rising unaffordability.
“We’re seeing those same housing challenges that any other community is seeing,” Planning Manager Derek Teini said. “What communities are finding is that when housing is unaffordable, it’s tough for working people, it’s tough for the majority of your community members who are not at the higher end, not at the lowest end, but are in the middle. And when you start to have that strain, it becomes difficult for businesses to grow, difficult for your community to grow.”