Reno housing crisis: Rent control, tiny houses, anti-vagrancy laws up for consideration
The rising cost of housing in the last few years is making home ownership a tough proposition for Reno home buyers. We look at what’s fueling the Biggest Little City’s housing crisis and potential options for people looking for a new place to call home Jason Hidalgo/RGJ
A scattered Reno City Council continued to struggle with how to address the city's burgeoning affordable housing crisis Wednesday, jumping from idea to idea even as city staff pleaded with them to provide a focused game plan.
In a wide-ranging debate before a crowded chamber, council members ruminated on ideas they've been discussing for more than three years, threw out new suggestions and lamented the lack of progress on one of the most pressing issues facing a community in the throes of an economic rebound.
Councilman Paul McKenzie demanded a legal opinion on whether the council can implement rent controls, as well as an analysis of what is standing in the way of affordable housing construction.
Councilwoman Neoma Jardon urged city staff to build a tiny-house village for homeless individuals ineligible for the shelter because they have pets, a spouse or post-traumatic stress disorder. She recently visited Seattle and came back with a strategy for completing such a project in 90 days.
Councilwoman Naomi Duerr said the Reno Housing Authority could help senior citizens with large home find roommates.
Meanwhile, Assistant City Manager Bill Thomas begged the council to set a definable focus with achievable goals.
"If we pick a piece of this problem to focus on, we will have more success than if we try to do everything at once," Thomas said.
That focus, however, eluded the council on Wednesday.
"I think we really are all over the place still," Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus said before asking City Manager Sabra Newby to make some sense of the debate and return to council with a more structured game plan.
As Newby works on that plan, council also directed staff to continue work on initiatives that have been under consideration for more than a year. They include:
- Writing specific codes that allow for "accessory dwelling units," such as granny flats and backyard tiny houses-- an project that is awaiting the completion of the city's master plan.
- Passing anti-vagrancy laws designed to make downtown more "livable" such as prohibiting sitting or sleeping on the downtown train trench plaza, climbing on public structures and soliciting from road medians.
- Creating a motel inspection program to improve the horrendous conditions many low-income individuals are subjected to in weekly motels because they can't afford the city's escalating rents.
- Coming up with "bridge housing" that can help homeless or under housed individuals find a permanent place to live. Jardon's tiny-house village could serve this purpose, council said.
- Using land already owned by the city as an incentive for private developers to build affordable housing. City staff have presented council several ideas on this topic over the past year, all of which have been rejected so far.
As the debate waged for two hours, McKenzie erupted in frustration that the housing crisis has been a top priority for three years with little progress made.
"We've come up with a whole lot of ideas and staff has spent a lot of hours on this and we've made no decisions," McKenzie said. "We've done nothing but talk about how important an issue this is."
She also fired back that council members needed to stop standing in the way of housing projects, arguing that they need to treat developers as partners and calling for less scrutiny.
"Now more than ever we have to be good partners with them, instead of continuing to scrutinize and thinking they are the bad guy in the room," Schieve said. "It is up to us to say, 'how do we help you get there'."
Indeed the council did not discuss the continuing complaints from developers that the city's planning and permitting process has been delaying housing starts in the region. The shortage of new housing units has helped to drive the region's median home price to $360,000 and average rent to $1,100 a month. Vacancy rates are at a minuscule 2.23 percent.
Instead, Thomas touted in his presentation the 2,402 units under construction and the 6,800 units in the planning process.