GUEST OPINION: Finding Our Midas’ Touch

By on November 17, 2015

Funding for housing means creating gold from unexpected sources. 

Solving our housing crisis might mean panning for gold. (Photo:

Solving our housing crisis might mean panning for gold. (Photo:

Jackson, WY – In my last piece I talked about funding sources for housing from the 35,000-foot perspective. It’s pretty clear that the resources are available and that tough political choices need to be made, but we know that our community has the ability to house its members.

The town and county are discussing either a SPET or an extra penny of sales tax. I support these sources of funding, but I also recognize that they are poorly targeted and regressive. They’re poorly targeted in the sense that, while they raise funds, they aren’t raising those funds from the people who have caused and profited the most from our growth and consequent housing shortage. They’re regressive because they will cost low-income residents a higher percentage of their income than those with higher incomes or net wealth. Nevertheless, I believe we’ve gotten ourselves in such a deep hole that these types of taxes are going to be necessary. Unfortunately, better solutions (a real estate transfer tax, for example) have been blocked at the state level to this point. We can and should be working toward changing things in Cheyenne, but until then we should make sure we are considering all of our options.

Towards that end, I’d like to toss a couple ideas out there about what we can do to raise money in a fairer way. Ideally, new funding methods will not only raise money, but also target those responsible for the problems we need to solve while helping to change the behavior that causes those problems. I’m not necessarily proposing that we do these things, but I’d like to start some discussion on them. If nothing else, it should be a useful exercise in thinking outside the box.

Employee Mitigation Fees

The rapid increase in the number of employees needed to keep local businesses, nonprofits and institutions open is perhaps the biggest direct contributor to our housing shortage. The reasons for this increase are myriad, but this is where the rubber meets the road.

What if we asked employers to pay a per-employee mitigation fee? We could target this to make it fairer by exempting employers with a small number of employees and waiving the fee for employees who have employer-provided housing or an income above a minimum threshold. We can also exempt essential services employees or have reduced fees for locally owned businesses. We could tailor the requirements to get the result we need. It would also serve as a constraint on growth.

Small businesses would benefit from an increased housing supply and likely would see very little impact. The mechanism is in place for this now. The town currently charges a three-tiered business license fee based on the number of employees. It’s a blunt instrument, but if it was made sharper, it could be a useful tool. It would not affect the competitiveness of local service providers, as the fee would be charged across an entire sector and be passed on to customers. It’s not a tax, so it could be passed by ordinance, and the entire amount collected would be retained locally. Is it completely fair? No, but then neither is any other method of raising funds.

Parking Fees

As a good friend told me this morning, parking fees are the low-hanging fruit of funding. There really is no excuse for not having paid parking in the downtown area. We can raise money, help get public transportation to a critical mass and let the people using public parking pay for it. It’s currently a huge subsidy to downtown businesses, and we’re using public money to pay for it. There a million ways to skin this cat, but I would like to see metered parking for non-locals. Local residents should be able to pay an annual fee for a sticker for each vehicle instead of paying at the meter. This is a very common and well-tested means of raising funds and promoting public transportation, and while the money wouldn’t be required to be used for housing, it would improve the city’s fiscal condition and give us more flexibility for future housing solutions.  It would also jump-start use of public transportation, which will help improve the infrastructure. This will be critical when it comes to developing car-free housing solutions.

I realize these ideas aren’t going to raise close to enough money to solve our housing shortage. And as a private citizen without access to government legal advice, I’m not even sure they are things we can do. But I do think it’s important to look at targeted ways of raising funds that require people to mitigate their external costs, are effective at discouraging the behavior that incurs these costs, and are easy to implement. And I encourage you to spend some time thinking about how to improve these ideas or to come up with some ideas of your own. I’d love to hear some feedback.

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