CHEYENNE – When it comes to building affordable housing, the barriers come down to four P’s: perception, placement, planning and permitting, Cheyenne city planner Mark Christensen said.
Christensen spoke Monday afternoon as part of an Affordable Housing Awareness Week panel, in which representatives from the city and local organizations spoke about barriers residents have to affordable, safe and stable housing.
Housing is considered “affordable” when it requires someone to spend 30% or less of their income on rent or mortgage payments. According to the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 housing report, 10% of residents in Laramie County spend more than half of their monthly income on housing, and 18% of residents spend between 31% and 50% of their income on housing – pointing to a clear need in the area.
When thinking about perception, Christensen said communities working to develop affordable housing should be careful with messaging. The term “affordable housing” can carry a negative connotation, sometimes prompting backlash from neighbors worried about the effect on property values. Placing more of an emphasis on who will live in a new development can help mitigate these concerns.
“(It can) be housing for your barber, for your bank teller or for your grandparents,” Christensen said. “I really think it’s important to have the person first – the housing is for a person, it’s not for a ‘low income.’ ... Housing prices are exploding, so even those making 120% of the area median income might need affordable housing options. It’s really important for our zoning ordinances and the like to address these components, as well.”
Christensen said neighbors may also be concerned about the visual impacts of a new development coming in, so it’s important to integrate that development – whether it’s duplexes, townhomes, senior living or an apartment complex – into the existing neighborhood from a design perspective.
Affordable housing developments are often located on the periphery of communities, Christensen said, because the land is cheaper. This means people living there may be farther from vital services like public transportation and grocery stores, and from amenities like parks or entertainment.
Ideally, affordable housing would be distributed throughout the community, the city planner said. This could mean an increase in mixed-use zoning, which permits a mix of residential and commercial buildings in close proximity to one another.
It’s important for a city to have actionable, attainable goals if it wants to add affordable housing, Christensen said. Cheyenne, unfortunately, is not a good example of this, pledging in its comprehensive plan to “encourage” and “promote” this type of housing, he said. A better way would be to set a specific number of units or a percentage for the city.
Permitting “is potentially the largest barrier,” Christensen said, especially when it comes to the city’s parking requirements. For residential developments, Cheyenne currently requires one and a half parking spaces per “dwelling unit,” and one parking space is around 200 square feet. With added requirements for landscaping, access lanes and drive aisles, the required space is realistically much larger, Christensen said, and having to allocate more space for parking means higher cost to develop an area.
Because people who live in affordable housing may not own as many vehicles as someone with a higher income, it may make sense to offer developers incentives in the form of reduced parking requirements, he said.
The city could also consider changing requirements for building multifamily developments, getting rid of the need for a conditional use permit and speeding up the development process.
The city of Cheyenne recently created an affordable housing task force, which could work to address some of these issues, Christensen said.
Personal barriers to finding housing
Even if enough affordable housing is available, there are still many social, legal and financial barriers that members of the community may face when it comes to finding safe and stable housing.
“If you have no address, how do you get a job, even if you’re an adult? How do you get enough sleep to perform at work if you are facing (housing) instability?” Legal Aid of Wyoming’s Samantha Daniels said. “It’s a cycle. It’s a vicious, evil cycle.”
Someone who has been convicted of a felony, especially a sex crime, may be ineligible for housing, Daniels said. Prior evictions, or any other kind of issues that may arise between a landlord and a tenant, can make it harder for that tenant to find housing in the future.
Daniels works as an attorney for the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, a federal initiative meant to help people struggling to pay rent and utilities because of hardship related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though certainly not a panacea for the state’s housing issues, Daniels said the program has “vastly opened things up” and allowed them to offer assistance to people they’ve had to turn away before because of tighter restrictions on how the money can be spent.
Lana Mahoney, executive director of Recover Wyoming, spoke about the challenges someone in recovery from substance addiction may face when it comes to housing. Recover Wyoming coordinates the PATH Program, which offers help to people experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness because of mental health issues and substance use.
Mahoney described the hurdles for people in recovery as “very intertwined,” as different facets of the recovery process – physical and mental health, legal issues stemming from substance use, employment and housing – can easily affect one another.
One of the largest barriers to finding stable housing as someone in recovery, Mahoney said, is stigma.
“I know as a person in long-term recovery, it took me a long time to reach out and just ask for help,” she said. “Stigma is preventing them from from becoming stable.”
People who participate in the PATH Program are sometimes given a deposit for an apartment, though the program does require a person to have some kind of income to ensure their long-term stability, Mahoney said.
“By providing different opportunities for people to get recovery support services, that can help them keep all the elements together in their lives and keep them focused and on the recovery road,” she said.
Young people also face challenges
Michelle Coronado, Cheyenne coordinator for the Unaccompanied Students Initiative, works with youth ages 14 to 20 who are experiencing homelessness while not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian. The program provides a place for these youth to live and encourages them to finish high school.
A central challenge for these individuals is often their age: someone under the age of 18 can struggle to open a bank account without a sign-off from a parent or guardian. The same thing goes for building and maintaining good credit, which can be necessary to rent an apartment.
Renting as a minor can also be extremely difficult, if not impossible, Daniels said: people under 18 cannot enter into a contract without someone cosigning, unless they are emancipated, which is often a complicated, lengthy legal process.
Even if a young person is determined to get a job and better their situation, they often aren’t able to find employment without a home address. This is just one way housing provided by the initiative can be vital, Coronado said.
If young people are escaping a bad home situation, they may not be able to take important documents with them, such a birth certificate or Social Security card. The Unaccompanied Students Initiative can also help youth in their care obtain new copies of these.
Without safe and stable housing, succeeding academically can easily fall by the wayside for kids facing homelessness.
“When you are at the age of 17 or 16, and you’re trying to graduate from high school, you’re not focused on your next gym class or your next math class. You’re focused on: ‘Where am I going to sleep? Where am I going to get my next meal?’” Coronado said. “So, that’s what we try to do is we provide them with academic success, so that they are able to get their diploma or get their GED.”