Curtis Thomas is the first person to pick a unit in a newly renovated apartment complex on Mill Street. The complex used to be a blighted weekly motel. But after 100 days of renovation, it turned into an affordable housing complex for homeless veterans.
"This was uninhabitable," said Dr. Murray Rosenthal, managing member of Mountain Group Property Development, who is responsible for the renovation. "My wife described it as a 'crime scene' when she first saw it."
Rosenthal privately funded the renovation project at the tune of $1.5 million, he said. Rosenthal's team completed the project by working seven days a week and using discounted materials and appliances from the north Carson City Home Depot and Sears stores.
Twenty, 320 square-foot units come fully furnished and are meant for single occupancy with preference toward homeless veterans living temporarily or indefinitely. Each unit features new appliances, furnishings, floors, heaters and on-site laundry.
Mountain Group Property Development stripped the motel down to bare walls — just enough to avoid asbestos abatement — and rebuilt the interiors of each apartment. The exterior balcony and walls also required work.
Rosenthal also converted one of the studio apartments into a community center so veterans can meet with case managers from the Veterans Administration Sierra Nevada Healthcare System. When not meeting with case managers, the community room will serve as a social gathering place for residents.
Rosenthal said building community helps build confidence.
"When you're homeless, it destroys your sense of self," he said.
Thomas and other veterans will be able to move in using the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development VA Supportive Housing voucher (HUD-VASH) program. The program provides employment training, housing placement, health care and mental health services.
Thomas said he served in the U.S. Air Force between 1979 and 1982, was honorably discharged and now suffers post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he spent time in jail and fought drug and alcohol abuse. He said he's been sober for four years and moved from Las Vegas, where he lived 27 years, to Reno this year.
"God has been good to me in Reno," he said. "I haven't had a problem at all."
In July, his VA case worker, Teresa French, who also moved to Reno this year, helped connect Thomas with the new apartments.
Since 2010, veteran homelessness declined by nearly 50 percent, according to an Aug. 1 HUD report. Nonetheless, veteran homelessness is still a subset of Washoe County's overall homelessness, according to the point in time count conducted in January.
“The situation (veteran homelessness) has gotten much better because resources available to veterans have improved, such as the HUD-VASH program, but we still face a shortage of affordable housing in Washoe County, especially with rent and housing prices on the rise,” Matt Kerr, supervisor of the HUD-VASH program for the VA said in a press release. “Murray couldn’t have stepped up at a better time with this development."
Rosenthal is a retired doctor who spent a lot of time giving back to the community, he said. He owns several other apartment buildings and said this one is not going to make him much money. He did the renovation privately instead of seeking government assistance because he said he wanted it to be done faster.
"It's easy to do, you just have to have the guts to do this," said Rick Sullivan, development consultant to Mountain Group Property Development.
Rosenthal said the housing is only one piece of the larger puzzle and hopes other services, in addition to the VA, can help provide job training and rehabilitation for his tenants. The local VA serves 20 counties in the region. Part of their programs include job training. The Volunteers of America of Northern Nevada also do some job training for clients of the homeless shelter.
But Kerr said, there could always be more programs in every community.
Tony Ramirez, HUD field officer in Reno, previously said affordable housing projects often require joint ventures with private and government cooperating. Current HUD money has been renewed or redirected to voucher programs and no new money is available for large-scale development like this, he said. Nonetheless, HUD has committed hundreds of millions of dollars in Nevada to end veteran homelessness.
Rosenthal said this project is probably not a template for others since most people don't have the upfront cash to immediately convert something into affordable housing. But if they work with the VA, HUD, the city of Reno or other government agencies, it's possible to make more success stories like this.
"The Lord said this is where I want you to live," Thomas said. "I'm ready!"