In Laramie, Homes Are Scarce, Unaffordable And Hurt By The Rental Market
Laramie is unique for Wyoming. It's the state's only university town, one out of five people live in poverty, and a half of its population are renters.
But there's one thing it shares with just about everywhere in the U.S.: a housing crisis.
The Laramie City Council has met multiple times throughout the summer, digging into the city's housing problems.
Much of that has involved looking at economic and housing studies conducted since 2015 - from private consulting firms, from the Wyoming Business Council, and from the city itself.
"All of them have indicated to us that Laramie has an insufficient supply of housing and the housing we do have is well outside of what our economy can really bear," Laramie Mayor Paul Weaver said. "In other words, the cost of housing isn't commensurate with the wages here - and it's also not even the kind of housing that people suggested to us they want."
For example, the city's 2015 housing study called for 1,500 new housing units by 2020. So far, the city has seen just a third of that.
And Weaver said public housing is out of the question.
"I can't think of a single community in Wyoming that would be able to do that type of a project, where the city would take on building affordable housing," he said. "I don't see any way that we could do that. So we have to work with private sector partners."
That means the city has to make it profitable for developers to build affordable housing.
This could involve changing city code to allow for smaller lot sizes or multi-family homes, or to encourage smaller homes over large ones, homes the average person could afford.
"Sometimes, when you say affordable housing, people get the wrong idea. It conjures up all kinds of unfair imagery," Weaver said. "What we're talking about is housing affordability in general. When we say affordable housing, we mean housing that people who are working full time, trying to raise families here can afford to purchase and live in."
That lack of affordable and starter-homes has real economic consequences.
Brad Enzi runs the Laramie Chamber Business Alliance and works on recruiting businesses to set up shop in the Laramie area.
"When I started this job in 2018, and one of my very first businesses came in to visit, and we had lunch," Enzi said. "They were excited about Laramie, ready to move here. After lunch, somebody in the car pulls up realtor.com, and there were nine or 15 listings on the market, and they said, 'Well, we have 20 employees. They couldn't all come and get a house here.'"
If that company doesn't move here, it means there are 20 fewer people spending money in Laramie businesses.
"Without a visible path to housing, it's very hard for these businesses, making large capital decisions, to make a move into a community," Enzi said. "So it puts us at a disadvantage for recruiting."
Enzi said city code changes are a "long-term play." Some solutions in the shorter term could also include sweetening the deal for developers by, for example, publicly funding the city infrastructure developers usually have to pay for, such as road improvements.
Another problem is the rental market.
Laramie might not currently be very attractive to developers of affordable housing. But it's a very attractive place to landlords.
Half of Laramie rents their home and about half of the housing units in Laramie are currently rentals. And yet, even renters have a difficult time finding a good place to live.
Adam Huck has lived in Laramie for nearly a decade, renting from a variety of landlords and property management groups.
"In my experience, there's always been some available, but all the ones that end up being available when people are in sudden need for them are either really run down, not in a condition people want to live in, or they're way too out-priced," he said.
Huck wants more city oversight of the rental market and he wants renters to know their rights. Huck has drafted a document that suggests the city enforce current rules, conduct regular unit inspections and provide for mediation between renters and landlords.
The document he's come up with - one that he's passed around the Laramie bar scene for feedback - doesn't really entail radical changes. But Huck said it's not radical changes that are needed.
"I think one of the biggest issues is access to information," he said.
Huck said there's a power and knowledge differential between renters and landlords, and renters often don't know their rights or how to assert them.
Unsurprisingly, his document has gotten pushback.
"It's not necessarily politically appetizing, what I was looking at, because it does put a lot of pressure on a class of people in this town that do have a lot of power," Huck said. "The landlords have shown that they can group together and swing the council politics in a way that does favor them."
This happened in 2019, when the city considered a motion to further discuss rental regulations. Landlords - but not renters - showed up to the meeting, and the proposal was squashed.
All of this is unfortunate for renters like Huck, but it also has an impact on the rest of the housing market.
As Mayor Weaver put it, people purchasing single-family homes and dividing them into three or four cheap rental units puts a squeeze on the availability of middle-range and starter-homes that could otherwise be bought by the families and employees the city hopes to recruit.
"Any place where there's a hot rental market, housing affordability is terrible," Weaver said.
There are myriad issues facing housing in Laramie. While the last decade has seen those issues grow worse, Weaver said it's not a hopeless situation - that public and private actors just need to be committed to righting the ship.
"I think we can do it. I think it's just a matter of all the necessary elements coming together," he said. "And it's probably going to take longer than any of us would like."