Statewide housing shortage hitting Fremont County towns; officials seek solutions

Four Fremont County communities that participated in a statewide housing survey this spring all said they were experiencing “some type of housing shortage.”

Riverton, Lander, Shoshoni and Dubois all answered “yes” to the question – as did 90 percent of survey respondents, according to the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, which conducted the poll.

“All of our communities are having housing issues,” WAM executive director J. David Fraser told the legislature’s Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee last month. “We are hearing it from everybody – large towns, small towns, college towns, tourist towns, rural towns. …

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“When Shoshoni tells you that they’re having housing issues,” he said, “you know it’s a statewide issue.”

‘We do need help’

Shoshoni’s survey response indicates that the town needs more workforce housing, senior housing, and affordable housing.

“We have a lack of all three here,” Shoshoni said in the survey. “We are moving forward (with) all that we can do to help ourselves, but we do need help.”

Shoshoni recently purchased 113 acres of land northwest of town for housing and business development and is in the process of installing a new sewer line to the area, the survey states.

The development will allow more municipal and school employees to live in town, “instead driving from Riverton (24 miles) and Thermopolis (35 miles) every day,” the survey states.

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More housing should also facilitate economic development, Shoshoni said, pointing out that Wyoming Mushrooms and the Fast Lane gas station are both expanding and need additional employees.

“Fast Lane is currently seven people short right now and plans to employ a lot more, with 28 new fuel spots and (an) 8,000 square foot travel plaza next year,” the survey states. “Wyoming Mushrooms has a proposed project to build eight duplexes on their property for workforce housing, but that will not be enough.”

Other businesses might move to town if more housing were available, the survey says, noting that a pet supply company was looking at Shoshoni as a potential relocation spot for their business, but “we did not have the infrastructure or the housing for their staffing.”

“Companies are reluctant to relocate where there is not housing,” Shoshoni said. “The need is here.”

Workforce housing

Riverton, Lander and Dubois also said they have issues finding housing for their workforce.

In Lander, city staff have heard from “several businesses” who are having trouble hiring people because of a “lack of reasonable housing” in town.

“It’s either too high-priced (or) not available, or (the) condition for (the) price is unfavorable compared to other locations where they’ve been offered work,” the Lander survey states. “This is a No. 1 concern for Lander Chamber business members.”

The issue affects seniors, too: The survey says housing options for seniors in Lander are “too expensive for many,” and “if care is needed, that just makes things all the more complicated.”

Even healthy seniors who “simply want to downsize” have difficulty finding smaller homes that are “in good condition,” the survey states – which is “too bad,” because their “five-bed homes with large yards” could be occupied by younger families if the seniors were able to find “new, well-maintained, two- to three-bed, 1.5-bath homes.”

The city has tried adding options for building those “missing middle” homes in the past, but the effort was “shot down by (a) forceful misinformation/fear-mongering campaign,” the survey states.

‘Missing middle’

Riverton realtor Laurie Urbigkit said “missing middle” is a relatively new term that’s being “thrown around a lot” in the housing industry to describe “the duplexes, the triplexes – that middle ground.”

Consumers are interested in those kinds of housing options, Urbigkit said, citing a study from the National Association of Realtors that shows people “prefer walkable, connected neighborhoods” – especially “the younger buyers, the people that we want to keep in Wyoming as they graduate from our university.”

The “not in my backyard” response to higher density housing only tends to arise when “neighbors aren’t involved” in the development process, Urbigkit said, recalling the move, “many, many years ago,” to allow rental units in residential neighborhoods in Riverton.

At first, Urbigkit said, people in certain neighborhoods opposed the idea, claiming that renters would cause problems.

But after the community got together for a series of meetings on the topic, she said “we all saw the same vision – that we have to have affordable housing.”

‘Multiple solutions’

There isn’t a “single solution” to the housing issue in Wyoming, Fraser said, but WAM is working with multiple agencies and organizations in the state to come up with some strategies that might help.

“It’s going to take multiple solutions to take a bite out of this,” he said. “Some of those will be legislative, (and) some will come from cities. Some will come from private industry, and some may come from the executive branch. … We need to look for all of those.”

His “big ask” to the legislative committee last month was to “let us stay in this discussion with you.”

“We want to have an opportunity to figure out some solutions and bring those to you,” he said.

The Corporations committee voted to move forward with two draft bills related to housing at the end of last month’s discussion: one that would create a housing authority under the Wyoming Business Council, and another that would adopt a state housing trust fund.

The committee’s next meeting is scheduled to take place Aug. 25-26 in Saratoga.

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