CHEYENNE – Making housing more affordable in Cheyenne may mean doing things like increasing housing density, allowing more flexibility in the types of building materials developers can use, and creating a permanent office or group within city government dedicated to affordability.
These were some of the findings of the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force, which on Friday presented a final report to City Council members.
Formed in March 2021, the task force began meeting that summer. It was charged with looking at both the current and future state of housing affordability in the city, and to recommend new or better policies to improve housing affordability.
Defining the problem
The report “recognizes housing as a complex issue requiring a comprehensive and coordinated effort to leverage partners, resources, and programs,” but also offers several concrete recommendations, which “require swift action” to make the task force’s work worthwhile. These recommendations were reached through conversations with city staff, builders and developers, nonprofits and others.
“Most importantly, the city of Cheyenne must be committed to creating flexible, effective, and equitable long-term housing solutions,” the report says.
The full 109-page report includes a housing study completed by participants in the U.S. Air Force Academy Operations Research Program.
Brenda Birkle, who chaired the task force, began her presentation by describing the wide gulch between “housing affordability” and “affordable housing.”
“Housing affordability refers to no more than 30% of your income spent on housing (including utilities), regardless of income,” the report reads. “When individuals and families spend greater than 30% of their income on housing, they begin to face difficult choices between their basic needs. These choices can result in greater instability, poor health, and high-stress burdens.”
Affordable housing, on the other hand, “fits under the overarching housing affordability and is defined by (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) as housing serving those with AMI of 0% to 80%” and is “often misinterpreted as only subsidized or supported through government programs such as Section 8,” which contributes to “‘NIMBYism’ (not in my backyard) that can hamper housing solutions.”
Birkle said the task force “strongly” recommended the city create a permanent office to study and work toward more affordable housing. She suggested American Rescue Plan Act dollars could be used to help fund sustainable affordable housing efforts in the city, as the report notes Sheridan has done.
“At the end of the day, if we want certain results, we have to commit certain resources,” Birkle told council members.
The 15-person group, broken into three committees, continually saw overlaps in their work – specifically when it came to a “central lack of data” about affordable housing, as well as a “central lack of efforts,” said Birkle, who also is executive director of My Front Door, a local nonprofit that helps low-income families become homeowners.
Birkle also highlighted the group’s recommendation of establishing a local housing trust fund alongside county leadership.
“When you think about what this could do for economic development, workforce, improving property values – I mean, the list goes on and on and on. Maslow was not wrong,” Birkle said, referencing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which establishes things like food and shelter as the foundation of human need, which must be taken care of before other higher needs and desires can be pursued. “(Housing) serves as the basis.”
Several of the task force’s recommendations are linked to the physical development of housing. Charles Bloom, director of the city’s Planning and Development Department, said multiple zoning requirements could be modified to allow for more housing, and other changes could be made to help reduce costs often passed along to renters or buyers.
One could be increasing density, which means allowing more units on a lot, Bloom said. Another is reducing open space requirements and landscape setbacks, which “translates into less public improvements on the perimeter of a street,” he said.
The city has already begun implementing these in recent years, according to Bloom.
Density maximums could be further increased within Cheyenne’s Unified Development Code. The city could also increase its maximum height requirements for buildings, allowing for a greater number of units in a housing complex.
The task force also suggested changing a requirement that says homes must be set back 20 feet from a road. This would likely also save water resources within the city, as smaller front yards mean less vegetation to water, Bloom said.
Allowing more variation in what materials builders and developers can use on homes would likely help reduce the costs for renters, he added. Rather than being required to use brick or stone on a certain portion of the facades of multi-family structures, developers are increasingly asking to use wood or traditional siding, Bloom said, which means less overhead cost.
These potential amendments to the UDC would likely come before the City Council early next year, the director said. Seth Lloyd, a planner in the department, told council members that although reworking the code would be a lot of upfront work for city staff, it would likely reduce their workload in the long run.
Council member Jeff White voiced his support for what he thought sounded like “simple modifications.”
Council member Ken Esquibel said Front Range housing developments that have already follow some of these guidelines “are not really that aesthetically pleasing.” In addition, having homes closer together could create problems for emergency personnel trying to get between houses, or make it easier for fires to jump between structures, he said.
For council member Michelle Aldrich, the suggestion “to remove all density requirements scares me to death.”
“I don’t want to become a Front Range community with the kind of issues that we see in those areas,” Aldrich said. She also expressed concern about children’s safety if homes get closer to the street.
Lloyd said there would still be open space requirements for developments, which would keep some density limitations in place.
He added that the task force had looked at several items it didn’t end up recommending, such as reducing parking requirements for multifamily structures, because the city “doesn’t really have a good transit system,” he said.
Aldrich did express support for “low-maintenance or no-maintenance siding,” rather than brick or stone facades, which she said could be a huge benefit when it comes to reducing upkeep costs.
She also suggested the city put in place a renter’s and landlord’s bill of rights – a toned-down version of the one attempted by Albany County, she said – to increase the quality of rental properties.
Dan Dorsch, special projects coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Laramie County, told council members this is a current undertaking of the Laramie County Community Partnership, a collective of organizations meant to improve the lives of underserved people in the community. Dorsch said the partnership was also working on a mediation program to help people avoid eviction.