BUFFALO — For years, Bruce Allison has worked to open a skilled nursing facility at the Veterans Home of Wyoming in Buffalo. Working with local elected officials, Allison, who is the superintendent of the Veterans Home, has helped shepherd the project from a far-flung idea into physical reality.
After years of work, the assisted nursing facilities are complete and are ready to receive veterans who need care.
But there is one problem. Allison can’t find certified nursing assistants to staff the facility and provide the high-quality care that veterans deserve.
And a big reason it’s hard to find and recruit staff is the lack of housing options in Buffalo and Johnson County.
“They just can’t find any housing,” Allison said. “For a CNA to relocate to Buffalo, there is no affordable housing. We have just started the hiring process, and a couple people have indicated that to us.”
Allison said that the Veterans Home had recruited one aide to work in the new facility. The person had interviewed, and even accepted the position, but had to turn down the job offer after the CNA realized there was no housing they could afford in Buffalo.
“We just don’t have a lot of people applying right now,” said Allison, who is still searching for staff for the facility.
The challenges that the Veterans Home is facing in recruiting employees due to a housing shortage are not unique to Buffalo, Johnson County or Wyoming as a whole.
Rental and housing prices up, vacancies and sales down
Over the past few years, housing and rental prices have risen across Johnson County as the number of vacant rental units and available homes for sale have gone down. A slew of data from state and federal agencies support that claim.
Prices for homes in Johnson County have spiked 69% from 2019 to 2022, to a median sales price of $325,000 in 2022, according to data from the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information.
Prices for rentals have increased dramatically from 2021 to 2022, as well. Average rents for two- or three-bedroom, single-family homes in Johnson County increased 20.1% from the second quarter of 2021 to the second quarter of 2022, from $1,090 to $1,309. Rents for two-bedroom apartments have also been increasing, up to $646 a month from $615 in 2021.
But even while prices for homes and rentals are on the rise, the larger issue for workers is finding vacant homes or rentals to move into in the first place.
“When people come into the community, they’ve got to live somewhere,” said Jim Waller, the Johnson County planner. “When you hear there are no rentals, I say, ‘Oh, wow,’ because we still have businesses that need to hire people.”
Data from the Wyoming Rental Vacancy Survey shows that rental vacancies are near an all-time low in Johnson County.
The most recent survey from June and July of 2021 showed that the vacancy rate in Johnson County was 5.3%. In the first portion of 2020, that vacancy rate for the county was a mere 0.8%. The vacancy rates for the city of Buffalo are even lower than those for the county. Survey data from November and December of 2021 — the most recent available — shows that there was only one vacant rental unit in Buffalo, for a vacancy rate of 0.7%.
In comparison, the vacancy rate for rentals across the state in 2021 was 8.0%, according to data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve.
Housing sales are also down across Johnson County.
In the calendar year 2021, there were 195 home sales across Johnson County. In 2022, there were only 112, and the trend is moving toward even fewer sales in 2023, according to the Multiple Listing Service. From January through March, there were only 19 sales in Johnson County.
Data provided by Buffalo Realty showed that the average sales price for homes so far this year was $519,844. On May 4, there were 41 residential properties for sale in Johnson County.
“There are young couples and first-time homebuyers who would love to settle in Buffalo, but it’s been tough because there are not many of those homes left in the community,” said Cristy Kinghorn, a real estate agent with Buffalo Realty.
She said that in her decades of experience working in real estate in Johnson County, she had never seen such a tight market.
Bryan Serres, a vice president and real estate relationship manager at First Northern Bank in Buffalo, said that with the limited supply of homes for sale and the narrow price and condition requirements on mortgages for first-time homebuyers, there’s a “small, little sliver” of homes available.
Rising sales and rental prices, plus a very light inventory of rental units and homes for sale is making it increasingly difficult for new workers to move into the community.
Lack of housing stymies economic growth
Myra Camino was born and raised in Buffalo and has worked for Johnson County schools for over 30 years. Now, as a newly elected member of the Buffalo City Council, she’s worried about how the lack of housing is impacting the local economy.
“We don’t have affordable housing, we don’t have workforce housing (for) our service personnel, teachers, cops, nurses, “Camino said. “It’s something that definitely impacts our economy, and not in a good way.”
Mike Madden, another new member of the Buffalo City Council and a longtime member of the Wyoming Legislature, also spoke about the concerns he had about how a lack of housing was cramping economic growth.
Madden, who has a doctorate in economics from Iowa State University, said that employers are looking to communities with a larger labor force or housing stock for specialized employees, such as Sheridan or Gillette, rather than Buffalo.
Madden said that a lack of housing is one of the “critical central issues” in attracting new businesses to the community.
“We all know there are all kinds of people who want to move here, who want to work here, but the way it is set up right now, there are just not enough opportunities to put down roots and get affordable housing they can feel good about,” he said.
Madden repeated concerns he had heard across town about hiring challenges at the Veterans Home, the hospital and the school district. In particular, he was concerned about the hospital having to compete with the Veterans Home for the same pool of CNAs.
“It’s not a theory, it’s already been proven here,” Madden said, connecting the staffing shortages at Amie Holt that, in part, are creating a $2.5 million projected loss at the facility with possible challenges to find CNAs at the Veterans Home.
Camino said that, with the aging population in Johnson County, she is concerned that as teachers, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service employees retire, new housing stock might not open up, meaning that new employees would not be able to move into the community to fill those positions.
Love’s truck stop sparks additional workforce housing worries
In particular, Camino expressed concerns with the planned Love’s Travel Stop that is going to be built on U.S. Highway 16 East near the Interstate 90 interchange. According to prior Bulletin reporting, the store will employ about 60 people.
While Camino was enthusiastic about the boost to the local economy that the truck stop represented, she was worried about the housing options for those new employees.
“Where are those 60 employees going to live?” she said.
She said that the developers for the project did not seem concerned about where those employees might live or that there were already many help-wanted signs across the community. Madden had the same concerns about the Love’s facility, even as he said that the facility will probably employ closer to 30 people because Love’s won’t build an auto repair facility to go with their gas pumping and restaurant complex because of the location’s close proximity to Big Horn Tire.
“I can see people living in RVs until something is built,” Camino said of the possible Love’s employees. “I have not talked to the Love’s people to ask if they did their research on that, or if their motto is build it and they will come.”