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Governor eyes affordable housing

Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

By Mary Steurer
Casper Star-Tribune
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — Gov. Mark Gordon’s office wants to put $25 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars toward affordable housing. The office is preparing to submit a funding proposal to the State Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee, policy advisor Ivy Castleberry said Friday at a state conference for Habitat for Humanity affiliates.

According to Castleberry, the office wants to set up a grant program for “shovel-ready” housing projects around the state.

“We’re looking at a project-based application at this point,” she said at the conference.

Gordon’s office on Monday declined to offer more details about the measure.

“This is a preliminary proposal, so we’re not going to comment further on it at this time,” Michael Pearlman, Gordon’s director of communications, said in a text.

The money would come from the roughly $1 billion Wyoming is expected to receive through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

In addition to setting the regular two-year state and education department budgets, lawmakers in February had to set a third budget allocating the ARPA funds. As of March, about $72.1 million of that money remained unallocated, according to the Wyoming Legislature’s website.

Castleberry said that initially, the governor’s office staff considered bringing a proposal to use ARPA money as seed funding for a housing trust fund. Housing trust funds are standing pots of money used to address housing needs.

“The estimates on that were nearly $500 million to really make a meaningful impact in a time frame that would be reasonable,” Castleberry said at the conference.

In the housing world, $25 million isn’t much money — especially right now. Costs for new construction rose about 22% from August 2021 to August 2022, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It’s not where we want to be,” Castleberry said of the $25 million, “but we think that we can use it as a primer to bear witness to additional money.”

The grant would likely only serve housing projects that are well past the planning and development stages, she added.

That’s because there are looming deadlines attached to the ARPA money. The funds have to be obligated (set aside for a specific purpose) by 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

If the Appropriations Committee gives the proposal its blessing, it would still have to survive both chambers of the Legislature during next year’s legislative session — where it could be subject to significant revisions, or be struck down altogether.

It would be the first of the $1 billion Wyoming received from the federal package to go toward addressing housing problems.

The governor’s office attempted to earmark a similar amount of money for housing efforts ahead of the 2022 session.

Originally, the Wyoming Community Development Authority asked Gordon for $100 million in federal relief money, executive director Scott Hoversland said at a legislative committee meeting in June.

The agency is best known for lending low-interest mortgages to first-time home buyers. The Wyoming Community Development Authority wanted to use the money for affordable housing projects, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported in February.

Gordon’s budget proposal cut that down to $22.6 million, Pearlman said in an email.

The Joint Appropriations Committee rejected that proposal, leaving housing out of the budget altogether.

The JAC meets again on Oct. 10 to discuss matters related to education funding, according to an agenda on the Legislative State Office’s website. The committee reconvenes Oct. 26-27 and Dec. 12-16, but specifics about those meetings haven’t been announced yet.

If the proposal passes, Wyoming would follow in the footsteps of Idaho, which earlier this year set aside $50 million of its APRA funding for affordable housing programs — a first for the state.

Nevada and Colorado, by comparison, are on track to funnel $500 million and $528 million of their ARPA money toward housing, respectively.

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