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Affordable housing nonprofit director says a lot of challenges are causing the housing crisis

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Friday Otuya
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Wyoming Public Media
Wyoming Public Radio's Friday Otuya spoke with Melissa Noah at the 2022 Governor’s Business Forum in November.

Home renters and home buyers in Wyoming are facing a crisis. Some people are homeless or on the verge of being homeless. Others cannot afford existing homes or are just one misfortune away from housing instability. While for many first-time home buyers, housing is simply not available. Melissa Noah works with the Wyoming Housing Network, a nonprofit that develops affordable housing across the state. She spoke to Wyoming Public Radio’s Friday Otuya.

Friday Otuya: The cost of housing is really one of the biggest challenges people have. In some areas, it's not just as if there are no houses, but can you afford them? What can you say about that? What is the organization doing or what's going to be the solution to that?

Melissa Noah: There's a lot of challenges out there, right now. Interest rates rising means that people can afford less house, right? The market right now, there's not enough inventory. When you want to look for that affordable housing range is 300 and below; and 300 can be high for people, right? If you think about what they make, and that their housing should be no more than 28 to 30 percent of their income, right? So people can't afford a mortgage payment that's 50, or 60 percent of their income. There's just not a lot out there. We're also seeing impacts from COVID. And the remnants that people lived off their credit cards to survive, people tapped into their retirement accounts in order to pay their mortgages and things like that. So we have people who are going to have a harder time even qualifying for a home because their credit might be damaged, or their debt-to-income ratios are not in alignment. But there's so many factors that go into home ownership. And if you have negative implications, hardships in a lot of those areas, it makes it that much harder.

FO: Okay, let me ask you a general question about the state of Wyoming. Compared to other states, how is the state faring in terms of affordability? Availability? How was the state faring? Are we, like, down below or doing okay?

MN: Good question. So typically what we find when there's, like, an economic swing or COVID, normally it happens in other places first, and then Wyoming feels the impact afterward. What we're seeing is that as far as affordability goes, and the impacts of this, Wyoming's on trend with the rest of the country. This is something we're all feeling, that there's low inventory, that the prices have gone through the roof for housing, that you see the corporatization of the housing market, a lot of the markets being bought up as rentals or investment properties, which then limits the ability for first-time home buyers to come into the market, right? So from that perspective, as far as what we're seeing, it's kind of across the board. We still are more affordable than other places, when you look at some of the urban areas and things like that. But as far as its impact on our state, those housing prices have gone up. And interest rates have gone up, you know, all those things hit us the same.

FO: In terms of policy, is there any policy that is perhaps worsening the situation or ameliorating the situation? From a policy and governmental perspective, what can [the] government do that they're currently not doing?

MN: We develop housing, and we have a property that we were ready to close on ready to go and the escalating cost of materials, and the amount of time it took to get that property ready to go, makes it unaffordable right now. We have to go back to the drawing board to see about other funding or how we can make that project happen. And so when they're talking about what city ordinances do you have? What do you require in your building? How long does it take? You know, when we get to those things, they are very material in our ability to develop affordable housing.

FO: Okay, so you talked about the housing continuum. Can you talk about how it can address the housing challenge or crisis we currently have?

MN: Well, this idea of the housing continuum is, when we look at housing, a lot of the times our communities are looking at a single area. We need single-family housing, or we need more apartments. And so you get groups that are working in these silos. And really, the conversation needs to be a broader conversation about housing in general, so that we're creating this continuum in housing. And it starts with our homeless, right? Because when we have people who are low income, that risk of homelessness goes quite a ways up into our workforce. And so you want to look at how do we take our homeless population, and we move them into state stability and stable housing, which would be rentals, some kind of apartment, right? And that's where we are with affordable housing and people with limited income, or our elderly population or disabled population, they're on a fixed income, right? So your community needs to make sure they're planning for that. And then we're moving into market-rate rentals. And we want to move people who are now stable in their rental into home ownership because homeownership is the single best way to build wealth in a community and to build generational wealth in a family. It changes families and family dynamics when they become homeowners. And so we can move them into homeownership, well, they get entry-level homeownership, first-time homebuyers. Those first-time, you know, smaller homes, maybe older homes. And then we want to encourage those people as they become more stable, and they grow some of that wealth to move up in that housing continuum, right? So we're moving along. And ultimately, what we're doing at each point is trying to educate people. In our organization, how do I get from this point to the next point? How do I continue to grow in my housing journey? That creates communities that are stronger because then you have people who can come back and reinvest in your community as well. And so if you don't have all of those pieces at the table when you're talking about how to improve housing in your community, you're missing pieces. And we're not going to really solve the whole problem if we're not looking across the whole spectrum.

Friday Otuya is a master's student in International Studies at the University of Wyoming.
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