What do you get when three ranchers, a school teacher, a real estate agent, and one community development coordinator walk into a bank? In Guernsey, Wyoming—a possible solution to the affordable housing problem that’s plaguing many parts of the nation, including the Mountain West.
There’s not a single traffic light in Guernsey, Wyoming; only stop signs and two main roads—U.S. Highway 26 and Wyoming Avenue.
Doug and Chuck Frederick have lived in Guernsey their entire lives.
“My great-grandad was a soldier at old Fort Laramie, homesteaded up Flaming Canyon in 1879. We’re the fifth generation, so we’ve been here a long time,” said Chuck.
Doug said it’s a friendly town.
“We used to know everybody, but times are changing!” he added.
One of those changes is affordable housing in this small town of about 1,100 people.
Right now it costs an average of $250,000 to buy a house in Guernsey. Bruce Heimbuck said that’s what inspired the group to take action.
“We decided going in that we weren’t going to make money,” said Heimbuck. “But we were going to use our money to try and at least make a little bit of a difference.”
So, over the last few years, Heimbuck along with Chuck and Doug Frederick and three of their peers have met on a regular basis in the backroom of Wyoming West Realty to tackle that problem. They call themselves Growing Guernsey, or G2.
This was their idea: the six of them would approach the bank and ask for a line of credit. Each would offer $20,000, either inland they owned, or the cash itself as collateral.
“It was definitely an interesting first discussion,” said Dan Sissin, the President at First State Bank in Guernsey.
“Obviously if you’re in business, you’re looking to make money,” said Sissin. “But they're more concerned with helping clean up some areas in town and have some new housing for people.”
Sissin said the bank approved a line of credit for $120,000 and G2 used it first to buy an old apartment building at auction. G2 member Bruce Heimbuck said the building was cheap because it was basically stripped down to the studs.
“We turned around and sold that at our cost to a local contractor who then completely finished it off and it now has ten apartments,” said Heimbuck.
That’s ten rental apartments that are now affordable housing in the community. The group then turned their attention to building a house from scratch. Heimbuck said first they had to find the right lot to build on.
“Because lot costs are a major factor in housing,” said Heimbuck. “And you can’t do affordable housing if you don’t have an affordable lot.”
Finding an affordable lot was one challenge. Chuck Frederick said finding one that the owner was willing to sell was another.
“We still have a lot of vacant lots, but some people are not willing to release them and sell them,” said Chuck. “Some of them are, ‘No, I’m going to give it to my son or daughter. We’re going to keep it in the family.’”
Eventually, success! They found a lot, hired contractors, and built their first house. It was a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, two-car garage home.
“Not a fancy home, but we sold it for about $135,000,” said Heimbuck. It was just below market price.
And it was just what Mark and Heather Wilson had been looking for. The houses they had looked at in the area that fit their needs were out of their price range, but then they saw the house G2 built and they bought it.
G2 built two more houses and even fixed up a property downtown that now hosts three different businesses.
But the last house they built stayed on the market for a while and then they had trouble finding another lot to buy. Chuck Frederick said it appeared that the market was changing and fewer people were looking to buy houses. They needed something else.
“Rental homes are certainly needed in the town,” said Frederick. “There’s very few places to rent.”
At that point, they decided G2 had run its course. They paid back their loan and pretty much broke even. Now they hope some younger people in the community will pick up the baton. Dan Sissin at First State Bank said he’s not sure that will happen anytime soon.
“To be honest with you,” said Sissin, “I think it took a special group of people to come together that were willing to take some risk”
He said he’s not holding his breath.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.