SHOSHONI—Up until the last few years, many residents of this town of 600 people near the east bank of Boysen Reservoir believed their community was dying out. 

The median age was 55. Businesses had little interest in coming to town. Chris Konija, the town’s chief of police, said there was “almost an acceptance of fate” that Shoshoni was on the path to becoming “another Jeffrey City” — a former uranium mining boomtown now home to just a couple dozen people. 

“It was known as a living ghost town,” Konija said of his community. “It was a town that was slowly decaying and had been for years.” 

Due to a confluence of factors, however, Shoshoni has started to come back from the brink.  

As the housing market boomed in places like Lander and Riverton, it pushed more residents to look for housing in Shoshoni. The COVID-19 pandemic — and the premium it put on living amid open spaces — was also “partly” responsible for the change of fates, he said.  

The town’s mayor, Joel Highsmith, was the “driving force” in helping revive Shoshoni, Konija said. Now, a new plaza has reinvigorated the downtown area. The municipality hosted events, like a car show and concerts, in the summer of 2022. Businesses are courting Shoshoni and existing ones want to expand. 

Fremont County School District #24, which includes Shoshoni High School, pictured, is the largest employer in the community. “From janitors to office administrators to teachers, a large majority of them cannot live within the confines of Shoshoni due to lack of housing,” Shoshoni Police Chief Chris Konija said. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

But that’s been a challenge, Konija said. There’s nowhere for their prospective employees to live. One local developer recently located nine prefabricated homes in Shoshoni, he said, and already every one is rented out. The housing shortage, he said, has slowed a planned expansion at the town’s commercial mushroom farm and stymied the effort to attract a hotel. 

“If you don’t have housing and places to live, you can’t have businesses that thrive,” the police chief said. “They are codependent.” 

Shoshoni’s housing shortage isn’t unique. There are major issues with affordability and lack of supply nationally, and the West has generally been pinched harder than most regions. Wyoming’s affordable housing dearth in super-pricey destinations like Jackson is well-known, but the state has been hit across the board. 

“It’s been super eye-opening to us that all of our communities are having housing issues,” Wyoming Association of Municipalities Executive Director J. David Fraser said. “When Shoshoni’s telling you that they’re having housing issues, you know it’s a statewide issue.” 

Fraser made those remarks while testifying before the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee in June. Surveys the association conducted indicate Wyoming communities of all shapes and sizes have a paucity of dwellings for their residents, he said. 

“We were hearing it from everybody,” Fraser said. “Large towns, small towns, college towns, tourist towns, rural towns.” 

Fraser ran through the results of a survey that, at the time, had been completed by 41 municipalities, from La Barge to Lander to Lingle. Of those towns and cities, 88% reported needing more affordable housing, while 83% sought more workforce housing. Some 70% of respondents indicated lacking housing was hurting their efforts to attract and grow businesses. 

Inaction so far

The Corporations committee heard those remarks in preparation to draft bills during the interim session related to its No. 2 priority: exploring solutions to a workforce housing crisis in a state where the average single-family home price has surpassed $425,000. 

The cost of a single-family home in Wyoming increased from around $275,000 at the depths of the Great Recession to more than $425,000 today. (Wyoming Economic Analysis Division/Data from Federal Housing Finance Agency)

One of those bills would have created a state housing trust fund, something 47 of 50 states currently possess. The simple act of creating the fund concept — not necessarily appropriating funds to fill it — proved a non-starter, however. Anna Johnson, a staff attorney for the Legislative Service Office, told the Corporations committee at a Casper meeting two months later it was “problematic” to create a government-administered trust fund that would pick private businesses or nonprofit organizations to be the recipients of state appropriations. 

“There’s a constitutional prohibition against legislative appropriations for charitable or industrial purposes,” Johnson said, “unless the recipient is under the control of the state.”

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), who co-chairs the committee, watched the idea die. 

“The committee voted not to sponsor a bill on a statewide housing trust fund by one vote,” he told WyoFile. “But I believe you will see several legislators, probably me included, bringing it back as an individual bill.” 

Another idea that still has potential as a Corporations-sponsored bill is the concept of land banking. That would allow municipalities and other public entities to acquire and possess vacant and abandoned properties for housing. 

The median list price of a single family home in Jackson, pictured, was $3.1 million in August 2022. While the housing crisis is especially acute in Teton County, communities across Wyoming’s other 22 counties are also struggling to house their workforces. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

It’s not yet clear if there’s momentum in the direction of a workforce housing solution elsewhere in the Legislature. A Revenue Committee-sponsored county-optional real estate transfer tax failed in the 2022 budget session, and now that committee has segued into prioritizing property tax relief for existing homeowners. While Zwonitzer didn’t sense there was an appetite for direct government intervention within the Corporations committee, he’s hoping there are non-statutory solutions on the horizon his fellow solons will pursue. The Appropriations Committee, he said, is looking into setting aside funds to attract a home-building business that manufactures “high-quality, but inexpensive” prefabricated homes to set up shop in Wyoming. 

Relief in sight?

Such a business could benefit a community like Shoshoni in particular. Local builders don’t have the capacity to produce the volume of homes the local economy demands right now, Konija said. 

“They can do approximately two houses a year,” he said of the town’s most active builder.

Just west of town, Shoshoni’s municipal government has the deed on a platted 40-acre parcel of land where the vision is for 72 homes on third-acre lots. Getting that area built out is “easily attainable,” Konija said, but developers aren’t keen on building in rural areas unless they’re incentivized to do so. Left to the free market, he said, Shoshoni is competing for builders with places like Casper and Cheyenne, which are also in need of housing. 

“And then basically nothing happens,” Konija said, adding that a mechanism like a statewide housing trust fund or another incentive program could help. 

The Shoshoni municipal government possesses 112 acres on the west side of town, 40 acres of which has been platted for 72 lots that local officials want to see developed into workforce housing. So far, they haven’t been able to entice developers to build on the land, pictured here. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Another factor that could ease the tight market is federal government intervention. In its battle to rein in inflation, the Federal Reserve raised benchmark interest rates by another 0.75% last week. Mortgage rates have about doubled to an average of over 6%, effectively increasing the cost of homeownership. So far, however, the rate hikes are not having much effect on demand for homes attainable for the typical Wyoming working family — less than $300,000, for example.  

“If you have a house in that price range [on the market] in any community in Wyoming, it’s going to be sold in days,” said Laurie Urbigkit, lobbyist for the Wyoming Housing Alliance and Wyoming Realtors. “Anything under $200,000 is snapped up in a heartbeat, almost anywhere.” 

For the middle class, she said, there’s still an “extreme shortage.” 

Urbigkit declined to comment on the concepts of a statewide housing trust fund or land banking, saying she’d first want to see draft bills. 

“A lot of this is a local issue, and solutions may be at the city and county levels,” Urbigkit said. “There’s a limited amount the state could do to … reduce the cost of workforce housing.” 

The Legislature’s Corporations committee will consider a draft bill workup for the Wyoming land bank act during its next meeting Oct. 13-14 in Cheyenne. 

Mike Koshmrl

Mike Koshmrl reports from Jackson on state politics and Wyoming's natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures...

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  1. Our plan for retirement was to aquire rental units and serve the working people while supporting ourselves. The plandemic ended that idea. Why buy rentals if the tenants can claim hardship and refuse to pay you? I have been on both sides of that fence. I have had slumlords as landlords and I have dealt with tenants. Contracts rendered invalid by the CDC? What a ripoff!
    The feds have intentionally ruined small business. That includes the mom and pop landlords. They want everyone to be renters and the feds to be the landlords. It is called feudalism.

  2. On the bright side….
    Americans are dying off and not reproducing. Those homes will come to market. This is deflationary.

  3. “No easy fixes in sight for Wyo’s statewide housing shortage”

    There will never be a fix, easy or not, to the affordable housing crisis in places most people actually want to live. Never. Ever. Nationwide. In the early 80’s, over 35% of new homes were starter homes. Today it is around 8%. This will not improve.

    The best solution to affordable housing is to figure out a way to make lots of money. This is today’s reality. It is how our free-market economy operates hand-in-hand with government policies of all stripes that harm those who aren’t homeowners and many who are (property taxes, etc). Regulations, building codes, land-use policies, tax laws, zoning, immigration policy, Federal Reserve policies, and NIMBY thinking have exacerbated the problem. It doesn’t help that Wyoming has some of the lowest wages in the nation, either.

    People don’t want to depend on government handouts or housing charity. They want a fair shake when it comes to housing, to house themselves on their own terms. Lower-income families aren’t finding that in Wyoming. Many middle-income families aren’t either. Government is to blame more often than not.

    The government is not your friend. They are not going to make your life better. They are not here to help. They will screw you a dozen different ways when it comes to housing.

    Jackson Hole is the poster child in Wyoming for clueless, and purposely harmful, public policy in regards to housing for the working class especially those not in the middle class but you can find variations of their thinking in many communities nationwide.

  4. By the way, with respect to “modular homes”, what I see when I head to the east end of town is about nine new, single-wide mobile homes, towed in and set up (very close together) on a level area that was graveled, behind a failed bar (this happened a year or two after the current administration took office, in 2019). The bar is now a health clinic, under some agreement town “officials” made with some medicos in Hot Springs County (and now the mayor is whining because the county wants its property taxes!). Maybe they have the modulars hidden away somewhere else (Thermopolis, perhaps????).

    I would suggest that the author actually look around and talk to residents not affiliated with town government before reporting “findings” and blathering consultant nonsense peddled by a political appointee.

    Ask them how they like driving around on graveled streets that are not maintained because the mayor doesn’t have the money (though he inherited a $1.5 million budget surplus from the immediately prior administration…where’d it all go yer honner?) If you have to drive uphill on one of them, be prepared to have your teeth shaken from their sockets (or, if the view is clear, drive uphill in the LEFT lane). Ask them how they like to have water lines break or start leaking because there’s no money to fix them, since it’s all been spent on circuses and frivolities like burnout contests and songfests and the public-nuisance rifle range. Ask them how they like having the best maintenance chief the town has had in my twenty year tenure here (and his helpers) quit in disgust recently.

    Ask town officials to quit babbling consultant (town planner, about equivalent to economist BS in my estimation) lingo and speak English. Your are capable of much better work than this piece of tripe.

    Quit painting rosy pictures with words without confirming the existence of what those pictures depict.

    Finally, I’ve cast my general election ballot and mailed it in. At the town level, not one oval was darkened when it appeared next to the name of an incumbent city official…and no oval at all was darkened in the mayoral runoff.

  5. The US needs to wake up and discard its (kaputalist-driven) love affair with growth. Growth does NOT ameliorate problems; it only makes them worse. With a population over six times the natural carrying capacity for human monkeys, the US needs to find ways to curb growth…

  6. Many cities’ zoning prevents efficient use of land, which increases prices. Allowing more efficient and cost-effective building forms (e.g., duplexes where only single-family houses are currently allowed) would help affordability.

    Urbigkit says “There’s a limited amount the state could do to … reduce the cost of workforce housing.” But every municipality’s zoning authority is granted by the state. Therefore the state could override local zoning to allow more, and more affordable, forms of housing. Many states are seeing movement in this direction, including Utah, Nebraska, and Colorado.

  7. Part of the reason you cannot get affordable housing built has to do with the regulatory environment. Cities/Counties often are the first ones with their hands out wanting tap fees, permit fees, inspection fees, dictating terms like the number of trees, the location of sidewalks…..while at the same time the politicians claim they want more affordable housing and how easy there community is to work with. Permits, fees and regulatory gauntlet eat up a considerable amount of the new housing costs – and the permit/inspection process is broken in many of these communities – as an example it takes a week or more for somebody to come and sign off after an inspection when the correct is made within hours. Cheyenne has this problem at both the City and County level and the politicians turn a blind eye to the Kingdom building in our communities – we are business friendly until the rubber hits the road. What should take a few weeks often takes months because the powers that be in the planning department do not want to upset their regulatory kingdom they have built.

    Builders/developers can certainly earn a good return on their investment assuming everything aligns correctly. By time you factor in land, permits, material prices all over the road map, labor that is non-existent and a bank loan/fees to secure the funding as well as the 5-6% to the real estate agents, there is not a lot of meat left on the bone. Markets change rapidly sometimes and the building/developer can often be left holding the bag if they are not careful and time everything correctly. Builders/developers have to offset that risk, so they build what is most profitable.

    There is no easy solution. It is a supply and demand issue, people have come and want to come because of the lifestyle. At the same time, our resources are limited and toss in a few regulations and it’s a slow draining process to get anything done.

  8. It would be great for our lawmakers and journalists to look into the role of corporate landlords and their role in skyrocketing rent and lack of housing. It has been a real issue elsewhere and I suspect it is a problem here too. Packing rentals into investment products is perverse and morally bankrupt. They are bad actors and corrosive to our communities.

    We need the government to step in and properly regulate residential property ownership and rentals so that people can actually afford to live here, or anywhere for that matter.

  9. If solving the affordable housing problem becomes an actual issue in our legislature, and taxes or accepting federal funds to help as part of the solution, providing a roof will go the way of Medicaid, the equivalent of “Let them eat cake.” With a slight hiccup, and a pause, legislators will harken to the self-bonded (and in arrears) extraction corporations which abandon drill sites and surface damage abatement while accepting state funds to pay for tax increases on federal leases.
    And hardly anyone will blush.

  10. We rent a couple of older homes to long term tenants in Cody. We get pressure from our property manager to raise the rent to market price. If we did that we’d lose our tenants, and who knows where they would have to go to find a new home. We ascribe a lot of this problem to short-term rentals. The affordable older homes have been converted to short-term, or they have been bulldozed and a new building has been built, often expressly for short term rental. Meanwhile ugly generic apartment buildings are springing up, helped by a variety of public subsidies.
    There needs to be a conversation about limiting short-term rentals. We have travelled and stayed at VRBOs, and prefer them to corporate cookie cutter motels when the price is competitive. We understand the many perspectives on this topic, but the bottom line is they are gutting our neighborhoods, competing with established lodging & dining, and contributing to this affordable housing crisis. This is a nationwide problem—-Wyoming could look to what other states have tried, and get ideas for how to deal with this unanticipated crisis.

    1. Your comment contains many things that are at odds with each other.

      1. If there is a shortage of housing, why are you against apartments? Apartments are generally all workforce housing

      2. You say you prefer staying at short term rentals, but yet you want them banned? Is it a “do as I say not as I do” situation?

      1. I did not say that short term rentals should be banned, I said we need to have a serious conversation in Cody and other communities about how best to deal with this relatively new phenomenon, and address the impacts that it imposes on neighborhoods, affordable long-term housing, and hospitality businesses. Replacing smaller single-family homes in traditional neighborhoods with new apartment buildings changes the feel of the community. Many young families and retirees would prefer to live in a small house with a yard.
        Saying that I myself have enjoyed staying in VRBOs is not meant to confuse the reader, it is meant to be an indication of the conflicting feelings that many of us have about the proliferation of this type of lodging.

        1. Linda,

          Thanks for renting to locals and keeping your rents reasonable. You are the rare bird in Wyoming. And nothing wrong with trying to have more attractive affordable housing, or less government financing when their own policies and fees and prejudices have created the problem. Redlining the blue-collar working class out of a community is becomming all to common.

          Short-term rentals are sucking the life out of too many housing markets for local renters.

          Teton County went out of its way to give the Shooting Star housing development next to the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort the green light to allow more short-term rentals than initially agreed to years earlier, and to the chagrin of most in the community. The developers pushed the idea that they couldn’t sell their properties without short-term rentals. Hardly. And they pushed the idea that they couldn’t make a dime without more short-term rentals. Baloney.

          In a market with a critrical lack of employee housing before, during and after Shooting Star got developed, the county and Shooting Star choose to stiff the local workers, and community needs.

          While it pleaded poverty, the Shooting Star developers thought a dozen bunk beds in a large room was appropriate housing for those that serve its wealthy clientele. This is also the mindset of many local politicians and community leaders, and especially the Chamber of Commerce.

          And like you I have two minds about short-term rentals.

          If you own a mulit-million dollar home on 30 acres, I really don’t think a short-term rental is going to disturb the neighborhood vibe. And it is unlikely that too many locals could afford the rent. However, allowing more short-term rentals in major developments like Shooting Star simply takes land for local housing and gives it away to investors (absentee homeowners) who have no real stake in the local community. It also drives up local housing prices including long-term rental prices.

          Too many politicians in places like Jackson seem to think their hands are tied and only charity can save the day when it comes to housing for the people who make it possible to actually run a small town and without whom no taxes would be collected. It is a shameful mindset.

          Keep being a saint, Linda. And thank you.

  11. Dunno about your Wyoming community, but my tourism-oriented town of Cody has sold out to VRBO and AirBnB. There are over 350 listings for short term rentals in the Cody market urban and exurban. Those are the small affordable longterm rental units that the Cody working class and small young families used to rent , no longer available.
    But hey, aren’t those remodeled upsacled bungalows nice… for $ 200 / night by the week. Mr. Greedy Landlord can make more money in a week than he used to get in a month. ( Maybe we should not have been so hasty running off the trailer parks twenty years ago, either ).

    1. Question for Dewey. I am interested in this topic. Where did you get the number of short term rentals in Cody? That is an astounding number.

  12. I suspect that at least in some communities the short term rental business is having an effect on housing availability. People who years ago would have been staying at a motel are now instead renting rooms, apartments, and houses for a night or two or even weeks. That housing is no longer available to long term renters. Others besides those in the motel business are bring affected by Airbnb, Vrbo, Homestay and companies like them.