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Reno officials are preparing initiatives to address the city’s affordable housing crisis, including potentially spending their entire allotment of federal pandemic recovery funds on housing, according to a city council member speaking at a recent forum organized by ProPublica.
Council member Devon Reese declined to provide details on plans that he described as “not fully baked” yet, but said conversations have included remodeling existing hotels or motels into housing, taxing property owners who hold vacant land and reopening a recently closed shelter to alleviate overcrowding at a new campus for the unhoused. He said about $50 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding could be brought to bear on the crisis.
“How do we spend those dollars?” he asked, adding that the ProPublica forum had provided a venue to gather public input on that question. “My absolute belief is that a large portion of that — maybe all of it — will be spent on addressing housing needs.”
He expects the city will announce its plans next month.
The forum followed an investigation by ProPublica that documented how one developer, Jeffrey Jacobs, bought and demolished more than a dozen weekly motels in downtown Reno, displacing hundreds of individuals who relied on the motels for affordable housing. While Jacobs Entertainment paid to relocate many of the people who lived in those units, ProPublica found that not everyone ended up in better conditions.
Unlike some cities, Reno has no policies to deter demolition of affordable housing or to provide direct aid to those who lose their homes to redevelopment. Nor does the city have a detailed plan to address the housing crisis despite the council listing it as one of its six top priorities.
Reese acknowledged that the city has primarily focused on increasing homeless shelter capacity. But earlier this year, Reno worked with the neighboring city of Sparks and Washoe County to replace its shelter with a regional shelter. It will be operated by Washoe County, which state law tasks with providing social services. That transfer of responsibility has freed up city resources to devote to housing, Reese said.
“Now, having moved away from the sheltering piece, the city’s laser-like focus, I hope, will be on housing,” he said.
The forum, which was co-sponsored by the Reno Gazette Journal and Nevada Humanities, drew a standing-room only crowd to the Downtown Reno Library. It featured a panel discussion that, in addition to Reese, included an affordable housing developer, an outreach worker who lived outside for 10 years, a housing justice activist, a housing policy advisor and a lawyer for Jacobs Entertainment. It provided a rare opportunity for activists and policymakers to share a stage, while also offering a forum for those most affected by the crisis to speak directly to those in positions to address it.
One woman in the audience said her rent had recently doubled from $800 to $1,600 in one month.
“We all are going to be out,” she said, questioning why the city hadn’t implemented protections for tenants against rent gouging. “I’ve worked my whole life, and I’m worried about it.”
Reese said the city is exploring whether it can use anti-gouging laws to address such situations, but noted that the Nevada Legislature hasn’t given cities the authority to pass any form of rent control.
“I wish it were as simple as saying, ‘Hey, we are just going to do rent control.’ We don’t have that power at the city of Reno even if we wanted it,” Reese said.
The panelists’ diverse views led to tense exchanges. Asked to name the biggest barrier to affordable housing in Reno, Lilith Baran, a policy associate with the ACLU, said “greed.” Addressing Jacobs’ lawyer Garrett Gordon, Baran decried a system where businesses profit from people who are struggling to support themselves. “People should not be making money on taking other people’s wages and calling it rent,” Baran said.
“People are not willing to sacrifice what needs to be sacrificed to solve the problem,” she said. “We have poor people helping poorer people and then people at the top telling us how to do it effectively who have never helped any of these people.”
Gordon responded by noting his deep ties to the Reno community and expressing his desire to help.
“My clients have written very, very big checks to help different causes — that may not be your causes and we should probably talk about that — but different causes in this community,” he said to Baran. Jacobs, for instance, has donated $1.5 million to the Reno Housing Authority in addition to the relocation assistance he provided some of his tenants.
“I think part of the problem here, and the barrier, may be this confusion and dysfunction of we are all in our little worlds and different bubbles, and finally today all of our bubbles are starting to come together.”
Gordon said more conversations among individuals like those on the panel should take place to figure out how to fix the problem.
Many in the audience came prepared to hold both the city and Jacobs Entertainment accountable for the crisis, speak out against recent city sweeps of camps for the unsheltered and demand Jacobs build more affordable housing as part of his proposed $1.8 billion Neon Line District.
Jacobs has been working with the city to win regulatory relief and subsidies for the project, so far earning more than $6 million in fee credits. But he is planning a much larger request for up to $20 million in direct tax increment financing. Gordon said the company will have a detailed affordable housing proposal when it returns to the City Council to ask for the tax subsidy. “The next time we come forward with a vision,” he said, it “absolutely” will include “how we will make workforce housing and affordable housing pencil. It’s at the top of our list.”
Panelist Wendy Wiglesworth spent 10 years living outside before finding housing in a Reno motel four years ago. She’s struggled to get into subsidized housing, battling waitlists and income requirements. She now works as an outreach coordinator for a nonprofit that runs a shelter for women and families. She sees daily how difficult it is to find housing for her clients. But she said she’s optimistic the crisis can be addressed, because even those with vastly different perspectives all want to find a solution.
“To put it straight, I think we need to all leave our social statuses, our political beliefs, our religion and our assumptions about everybody we’re talking about at the door when we come in and have these meetings,” she said. “We are all in on the same goal. We just have to swallow that pride pill because it’s bullshit. Put that away, take that big coat off and then everybody is just like humans, all on the same page, realizing all these other humans who don’t have homes are still family, still humans just like us.”