A tale of two tales (about Reno housing)

Reno has a story it would like to tell you. 

Over the past two and a half years, the City of Reno approved nearly 7,000 units of housing, as a flashy new page on the city website reveals. Over a third of those are even “affordable,” meaning they’re priced low enough to be affordable to those within the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of a “low-income” family, which, in Reno, means any household making less than $62,500 per year, more or less. 

It’s a nice story. However, good storytelling has two parts — telling and showing.

The story that’s been shown to Reno’s residents for the past decade is non-stop rent and housing price increases, year after year, month after month. Speaking personally, I was renting a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment for $750 a month in 2009. My current residence, which is about the same size and has the same number of bedrooms and bathrooms, costs more than double that. I’m certainly not making double what I was making in 2009. Many people in this area, meanwhile, are making almost exactly what they were making in 2009 without adjusting for inflation. For me, this situation is concerning; for many, this situation is an utter disaster.

Economically speaking, this is the predictable product of demand exceeding supply. In 2007, at the tail end of the last housing boom, there were just shy of 225,000 jobs in the area. By 2017, the Reno-Sparks area had more than 231,000 jobs. In the two and a half years since, another 22,000 jobs were created. For those of you keeping track at home, you may notice that 22,000 is a larger number than 7,000. If you’re a sharp-eyed reader, you also noticed that Reno approved 7,000 units of housing — that doesn’t mean all 7,000 units have been built

To be fair to Reno, this isn’t a unique problem, and Nevada’s cities in general are… I won’t say they’re addressing the problem head on, but they’re at least not taking steps to make things worse. Given what’s going on in California, credit belongs where credit is due. Arguably, the dysfunctional zoning and housing approval processes of California and its municipalities are violations of the Dormant Commerce Clause. By refusing to allow the construction of new housing, California and its municipalities are infringing upon interstate commerce by making it impossible for workers from out-of-state to move to California for employment. Additionally, California’s poor housing policy choices are driving up the costs of housing in surrounding states as Californians and their employers flee their state for more affordable locations. Since our local and state politicians are now in the habit of filing lawsuits to advance various policies and political aims, perhaps they can add this to the list. 

Even though California’s housing policy cranium has been firmly implanted in its rectum for some time, our own housing crisis isn’t a new problem nor is it one that came out of nowhere. The Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN for short) had been predicting significant job growth in the area for several years, especially once Tesla came to the area. Additionally, roughly a fifth of all state employees are retiring soon, and many of them commute to Carson City from Reno. One way or another, if we’re going to have job growth, we must have housing growth. Otherwise, workers will double up in existing housing (as they do in the Bay Area) or commute from farther and farther out (as they do in the Bay Area and the rest of California). 

Unfortunately, having one city in the Truckee Meadows with a year-long permit planning process and another city in the Truckee Meadows with a month-long permit planning process is producing predictable results — namely, Sparks is getting all of the workforce housing while Reno infill projects focus on turning old houses twee or selling “dense” single family housing units for $600,000. Sparks’ planning process converted several old movie theater parking lots into thousands of comparatively affordable condos and apartments; Reno’s planning process converted an old bank parking lot into a couple dozen houses that are only affordable to the richest Californians moving over the hill. As both cities work with the same developers, Reno’s refrain that it can only approve projects that developers ask to build rings a bit hollow — there are reasons why developers are asking for one set of projects in Reno and another, much denser set in Sparks. 

The Truckee Meadows is running out of land, though. The only large lots left in the valley are creek beds that are only “economically viable” to develop because the federal government heavily subsidizes flood insurance. In anything actually resembling a free market, the value of a house that would wash away in five years, or whose construction would be liable for the flooding of their downstream neighbors, would be approximately zero. Outside of the Truckee Meadows, there’s national forest land to the west, endorheic basins with no natural drainage to the north (and only one increasingly clogged freeway between them to boot), BLM-owned foothills to the east (though Washoe County is trying to do something about that), and some of the priciest private property owned by some of the least developer-friendly folks in Northern Nevada to the south. It’s true, as a recent op-ed here at The Indy pointed out, that as land gets scarcer, rising land costs are going to increasingly become a factor. And part of the reason land is scarce here is because, unlike Las Vegas or even Boise, the Truckee Meadows is just not a particularly large valley. 

Consequently, we need to learn how to build up, not out. Unfortunately, the idea of building up remains challenging for some city leaders to grasp. City Councilman Oscar Delgado, when considering the ill-advised Daybreak project (again, it’s being proposed in a creek bed), said that he thinks “there’s way too much density for the project” — a project located directly next to a brand new major arterial boulevard. For comparison’s sake, while Councilman Delgado is worrying about whether a brand new six-lane boulevard can handle the increased traffic of some townhouses, Sparks is permitting construction of multistory condos and apartments by the hundreds next to two-lane roads originally platted over a century ago. 

The good news is that others on Reno’s City Council get it. Devon Reese, my erstwhile opponent for State Senate in 2016 and current city councilmember, recently promised big changes in Reno’s planning permit and review process. If he and his allies on the council are able to deliver on that, there’s a chance that Reno’s development won’t just be dictated by large developers that can afford to watch their projects slowly ruminate and digest through Reno’s planning process before construction. If so, that will unlock opportunities for smaller, local homeowners, (who can’t wait a year to start paying their construction loans back) to redevelop their older houses into newer, denser apartments and townhomes. That’s good, because large developers prefer to develop projects similar to projects they’ve built in the past.

Unfortunately, many of the people voting for members of Reno’s City Council have a decidedly Californian attitude regarding residential construction. When the topic of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), or “granny flats,” came up, the horrors of “additional homes being built within five feet of your property on all sides” were described in what passes for lurid detail these days in the Opinion section of Reno’s hometown paper. Faced with the option of letting private property owners decide on their own whether it made personal and economic sense to build an ADU in their backyard or the option of letting homeowners dictate to their neighbors what they can do with their property, the Reno City Council bravely voted in favor of the busybodies

If we actually want affordable housing in our cities, we have to reward our municipal governments when they get out of the way of private property owners and let them build up when and where they can, provided they can do so without building in obviously dangerous locations. That means we also have to punish municipal governments when they listen to busybodies who think they know how their neighbors should use their properties better than those neighbors do. Unfortunately, the only way to make that work is by outnumbering and outvoting the busybodies. 

There’s an election coming up. Register to vote if you haven’t already. Pay attention to who’s supporting policy that allows more housing and who’s supporting policy that creates higher rents. Vote your wallet. As a renter, I know I will.

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at david.colborne@lpnevada.org.