Stephen Dow – The Sheridan Press – Jan 13, 2022

SHERIDAN — The recently completed Sheridan County housing study unveiled during a public meeting Wednesday gave a better picture of local housing needs and potential solutions.

The study, which particularly focuses on housing needs in the municipalities of Sheridan, Dayton and Ranchester, considers community demographics and current housing inventory to determine the county’s housing needs and also provides potential solutions of how to meet those needs, according to Sheridan Community Development Director Wade Sanner.

Aaron Gruen and Debra Jeans, of San Francisco-based land use firm Gruen Gruen and Associates performed the study through reviewing secondary data, such as housing data and demographic data, along with conducting in-person interviews and on-site visits. The study was jointly funded by the county, city of Sheridan and the Sheridan Economic and Educational Development Authority.

The study shows there will be an increased housing need in Sheridan County in the near future, Jeans said. Over the next 10 years, it is projected the county will need 990 additional units including 725 single-family units and 265 multi-family units. This projection takes into account workforce and senior citizen housing needs, Jeans said.

Based on 2019 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Jeans compared the available housing stock to the number of people who can afford those units.

For rental properties, rent for 3,085 units in Sheridan County range from $375 to $1,250 a month. However, only 1,721 households in the county fall into that price point, Jeans said. Sheridan County needs additional rentals below the $375-a-month price point, and more high-scale rental options that can appeal to those above the $1,250-a-month price point.

When it comes to home ownership, the existing number of homes below $75,000 exceeded the anticipated demand, as did the number of houses between the $170,000 and $365,000 price points. The county needs to increase its supply of houses in the $75,000 to $170,000 price point and those above the $365,000 price point, Jeans said.

The best way to meet those housing needs is to build additional market-rate housing, Gruen said, Market-rate housing satisfies the demand of higher-income households, thus freeing up more affordable housing options for lower-income individuals, including workforce and seniors.

“Housing is not immune to that basic law of supply and demand,” Gruen said. ”… The main thing is, if you want more affordable housing, build more market-rate housing, and it will naturally work to produce affordable housing.”

The 60-page report includes 13 other recommendations ranging from supporting employer-assisted housing programs to anticipating the need for a greater amount and variety of senior housing services.

When asked by Sheridan County Commissioner Christi Haswell which of the goals the county should prioritize, Gruen came up with a “top three” list for her.

First on the list is increasing the speed of the approval process for construction.

“I’m not suggesting to do things that are unsafe or are not going to create nice neighborhoods or result in crummy products,” Gruen said. “But the early stages are when developers don’t have cash coming in, but they do have cash going out. So anything you can do to reduce uncertainty and increase speed would be appreciated.”

Secondly, Gruen recommended finding areas where zoning could change and the density of housing could be increased.

“I understand the historic character of the community and community preferences, but…increase the densities where you can,” Gruen said.

Sheridan City Administrator Stuart McRae noted this could be a hard sell in the community. For example, when the city considered changing zoning in some parts of the city to accommodate accessory dwelling units, the suggestion was met by concerns about how the change would affect property values, infrastructure, parking and the general character of the neighborhoods.

The solution, Gruen said, is to take things slow.

“I would try to start with one project that’s really done well, and maybe don’t go bananas on the density increase at first,” Gruen said. “But make it so it improves the economics from the builders’ point of view and reduces the costs from the buyer’s point of view. And mainly make sure it’s a really great project that people can get excited about.”

Lastly, Gruen suggested governments assist developers by providing capital assistance for the creation of public infrastructure for potential housing developments.

“Funding infrastructure is hard because developers generally have to do it with cash when they don’t have cash coming in,” Gruen said. “So aid from the governments would be helpful.”

Gruen noted that, while the study was completed, his company’s suggestions should serve as a beginning for the community.

“Don’t let this be the last gathering,” Gruen said. “I do think interaction breeds trust and an opportunity to work out our differences…I don’t think there is anything gloomy here — just opportunities to get even better.”