CHEYENNE – With the city’s population growing – and an added surge expected to accompany missile upgrades in coming years – Cheyenne needs to address its shortage of housing that is affordable to lower wage earners, and its shortage of housing, in general.
This was the main finding of a recent study conducted by four U.S. Air Force Academy cadets and their advisors. Members of Cheyenne’s Affordable Housing Task Force pitched the topic to the cadets’ research program, which was looking for projects.
The purpose of the study was to “predict population growth, housing demand, and identify areas for affordable housing improvement” in Cheyenne.
The results weren’t necessarily surprising to task force members, said Affordable Housing Task Force Chairperson Brenda Birkle.
We “really learned that much of the things that we suspected were played out in the final report, and, in particular, supported by the data that the cadets put together for us,” said Birkle, who also is the executive director of My Front Door, a local nonprofit that helps low-income families become homeowners.
“I think one of the things that we learned along the way is it’s not necessarily affordable housing, but rather housing affordability that we’re looking at, with affordable falling underneath the overarching umbrella,” Birkle said.
“And some folks are calling it attainable housing, that kind of thing, but it really is supporting every section of the housing continuum: from 0% of (area median income), all the way up to market, which is about 120% (area median income).”
Between 2010 and 2020, the average cost of a house increased by 31%, an apartment by 32%, a mobile home by 32% and a mobile home lot by 24%. These trends are laid out in the Wyoming Center for Business and Economic Analysis: Economic Indicators for Greater Cheyenne, March 2022 Annual Trends Edition.
The number of housing units affordable for households whose yearly income is $35,000 to $50,000 are expected to decrease, even as that population is expected to grow in Cheyenne. But the number of units affordable for families who make more than $75,000 each year is increasing, while that population decreases. This is according to a 2019 report cited in the cadets’ study.
The cadets estimated the city’s population will be between 71,000 and 75,000 by the year 2030. They incorporated estimates of workers the Air Force will bring to Cheyenne to work on the modernization of F.E. Warren Air Force Base’s Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missile program. While a majority of the workers will live in western Nebraska, about 250 to 350 of them are expected to live in Cheyenne.
These new residents will be “high wage earners,” according to the study. However, these numbers don’t include lower-wage workers – construction workers, truck drivers, service industry employees – who will likely be in higher demand to support the project, and who will be in need of an affordable place to live.
In all, it’s estimated Cheyenne will add about 1,800 additional residents just for the missile upgrade project, but these workers and their families will begin to leave starting in 2030.
The estimated number of rentals the city will need to keep up with demand depends on how fast the population grows.
“The results were that at least 400 rental units will need to be made available by 2026 and 600 by 2030 if slow growth is seen, 600 units by 2026 and 800 units by 2030 if the city experiences moderate growth, and 800 units by 2026 and 1,000 units by 2030 if the city experiences fast growth,” the study says.
The missile upgrade project will be temporary, as will its economic benefits, the study notes. After construction was completed on the Minuteman project, “vacancy rates skyrocketed,” according to a 1966 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Because workers who come to upgrade the missile system will be more spread out across the region, the same thing is unlikely to happen, but “future housing actions should still take vacancy rates into account,” the cadets write.
‘No obvious solution’
Demand for affordable housing is already high. Birkle said the Cheyenne Housing Authority reports a 1,800-person waiting list for its properties for very low-income people.
The cadets’ study recommends several possible ways Cheyenne could increase affordable housing stock, while noting that “there is no obvious solution.” Their broad suggestions include building new units of different capacities, renovating older units and increasing government aid for affordable housing.
As Cheyenne grows, improving the city’s public transportation system will be vital, as well, they said.
“Easy access to travel is both a time and money saver, which renters have been shown to put a lot of value into,” the study says, citing the 1966 HUD report. The same report says adding support services to affordable rental units, such as day-cares and mental health clinics, are “undervalued factors that attract many people.”
The cadets created an “optimal housing decision matrix” the city could use to easily analyze different rental housing options.
Mayor Patrick Collins echoed the sentiment that there’s no single, easy fix in a Friday interview with the WTE.
“I think that there’s enough little tools that if we can find a way to combine them, we can get close, and we can start building hundreds of units a year. And if that we can get that going, that would be huge,” the mayor said.
The City Council invited Affordable Housing Task Force members to present their findings at an Oct. 28 work session. During the hour-long meeting, task force members and city staff presented several methods that could move Cheyenne closer to meeting demand – some of which the municipality is already doing.
This would likely mean 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.
One thing the mayor has learned, he said, is that the government must be involved to solve this issue.
“To create affordable housing requires subsidies, whether that’s in land or infrastructure or all of the above,” Collins said. “The typical low-income housing that you see now, about 70% of the cost of those buildings come from tax credits and things like that. Without those tax credits, it’s almost impossible to replicate that.”
Collins and Birkle both mentioned Longmont, Colorado, as a potential model for Cheyenne’s housing affordability efforts. Longmont has a permanent housing affordability office, which it spends $1.5 million annually to fund, Collins said. Longmont puts about $1.3 million in general fund dollars each year toward affordable housing efforts, and around $300,000 in cannabis tax revenue, Cheyenne’s mayor recalled.
Although Longmont hasn’t reached its goal of 300 new affordable units each year, “they’re gaining the momentum and learning the strategies,” Collins said.
The cadets’ study agrees that government involvement is a key piece of the puzzle.
“The largest area for further research lies in the conditions of current housing and investigating the best ways government can assist families that are burdened by housing costs,” it concludes. “Further investigation into which programs help people the most would be worthwhile so that programs that do not work as well can either learn from the better programs or be defunded to support the better ones with more money.”