Las Vegas Sun

May 3, 2015

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We’re stuck, so will we bond?

As a transient bunch, Las Vegans have historically shunned social connections. But a sense of community could grow from housing bog.

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During the boom years, Las Vegas watchers loved to bandy about an eye-catching statistic: We were adding 6,000 people a month. The reality, however, was slightly different, but also more interesting: 9,000 people were moving here, and 3,000 were leaving.

There was a constant threshing and winnowing, a city churning through people. Seekers from the declining Rust Belt states, overpriced California and impoverished parts of Latin America came here for good jobs, affordable homes and the sense that anything was possible.

Despite the promised — and in many cases very real — good life to be had, many couldn’t hack it. They were too susceptible to what we politely call “the Vegas lifestyle,” or they had medical needs or children with special needs that our libertarian culture and at-times dysfunctional government refused to countenance.

For those who made it here, Las Vegas was often a place to find their fortune before going someplace else. The yearning instinct that brought them to Las Vegas also kept them from calling it home. Even within the city itself, its denizens were constantly on the move, looking for a new house to flip or a better, cheaper apartment with a better pool scene.

And so, Las Vegas has been a city of transients, a place where the “vagabond wind,” as the essayist Scott Russell Sanders calls it, blows strong. As transients, we barely knew our neighbors, let alone cared what might happen to our community in two years or 10. By many empirical indicators, we had some of the weakest civic and social bonds of any city in the country.

Now, though, 80 percent of Las Vegas homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their properties are worth. They are anchored here, whether they like it or not.

Buried in this mountain of woe may be a nugget of something salutary: Now forced to call Las Vegas home, perhaps mere residents will decide to become something more, to become active citizens, to get on their homeowner association boards and legalize basketball hoops in driveways, or fight for education reform, or sponsor a block party.

“If they can’t go anywhere, and people are settling in for the long haul, then yes, that should do something to stabilize volatility,” says Robert Lang, UNLV sociologist and director of Brookings Mountain West. “Across a lot of areas this could be good for building community.”

Sociologists call it “social capital” — the interlocking bonds among individuals and groups that can drive cooperation, innovation and progress. (On the downside, too much social capital can close off a community to outsiders, an unlikely danger for Las Vegas, sociologists say.)

Traditionally, we’ve had little social capital, except perhaps among casino executives, whose commonality extends from navigating a heavily regulated industry to operating within a few square miles of each other. But there’s even been less of that in recent decades, as many executives spend more time jet-setting, if they even live here.

Bo Bernhard, a UNLV sociologist and director of gambling research at the International Gaming Institute, is a fifth generation Las Vegan with a large and tight family and community network here. But he says they were somewhat shiftless, coming and going to greener pastures, until his grandmother became a kindergarten teacher — only then did they become rooted.

“The lesson here is that there’s a tendency to think of community as a magical thing in the ether. But it’s rooted in hard, concrete things like jobs and housing stability,” Bernhard says.

So perhaps, with the new housing stability — attained, sadly, because of the crash — we will achieve new community.

Jim Russell, a geographer, consultant and proprietor of the blog Burgh Diaspora, notes that a goal of federal policies designed to increase homeownership was to get people rooted in their communities, to have a stake in the future of their neighborhoods.

And although federal housing policies centered on homeownership may have contributed to the current mess by encouraging the bubble, the end result may indeed be a new rooted-Ness, at least in Las Vegas.

“People may ask, ‘What am I going to do to make this my kind of place?’ ” says Michael Green, a Nevada historian.

Green says it was the 1990s growth that began the dissolution of community. Nevada’s population doubled. “The size of the increase was such that there was no way to build community,” he says.

People didn’t live in neighborhoods. They lived in developments.

Old-timers say it wasn’t always thus. As Green notes, from 1946 to the 1970s, Las Vegas was a haven for casino operators who had been run out of every other city in America because of a nationwide war on gambling. Here, though, they could operate legally.

It drew them together.

“This was the place where they became legitimate and wealthy, and that gave them a commitment to the community,” he says.

Once the gaming laws were changed to allow corporations to become licensed, the city attracted a different breed. They were cleaner and less unsavory, but they also saw the city as a little more than a way to please the masters on Wall Street.

Gerald McDermott, a professor of international business at the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, says this is a “common problem in emerging markets. To modernize, you bring in outside players. But the risk is that they don’t develop socioeconomic linkages to the local economy. That is a big problem.”

Now, however, unless Las Vegans walk away from their mortgages, they’re here to stay. For those with a wandering instinct, it may feel asphyxiating, and they would be justified if angered at the man-made forces that have shoved them underwater and are keeping them there. But in “Staying Put,” Sanders, the essayist, writes that a new door has been opened to us.

“When we cease to be migrants and become inhabitants, we might begin to pay enough heed and respect to where we are. By settling in, we have a chance of making a durable home for ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our descendants.”

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  1. Some people had one foot in the water so to speak. Construction industry, retired and semi-retired people for example. Might have lived in a "weekly hotel" and never put down roots, or flipped a home when the getting was good. Students and teachers don't stick around much either.

    Some people might be living elsewhere now and retained their Nevada ID and some sort of straw residence for tax purposes, or just don't want to get a new one.

  2. This is off topic but here goes.
    I just got done playing Santa here and I had one more gift to give and that was to wish all of you a Merry Christmas to: You and your family From: me and mine I hope will continue to engage in Intellectual debates on many subjects in the future and that they will remain civil.

  3. Dennis, do you live here? The typical underwater homeowner is underwater because the value of the house declined from when it was bought. Also, incomes declined in the major industries. Las Vegas had two major industries: construction and gaming. Construction has virtually disappeared. In gaming, staffing has been thinned out on hours and even on positions. Bonuses, benefits and incentive pay have diminished for most managements, too. People's homes didn't start off taking more than 30% of their incomes -- for most, their incomes shrank but their mortgages didn't.

  4. What a mess. Don't think they will get rid of the itemized deduction for mortgage interest for at least a couple of years. It would be devastating to the still weak economy. In 2007 the home mortgage interest itemized deduction equalled 524.7 billion, 38.25% of the total dollar amount of itemized deductions, making it the largest, followed by the deduction for taxes. I can't imagine what it must be like to be looking at paying a mortgage on a home for the next 20-30 years that is worth 50-60% of it's loan amount, with little hope if any of it recovering it's pre-crash value. Then, Nevada being a recourse state, they can come after you for a deficiency judgment if you walk away and they foreclose. This is a real mine field, because depending on what kind of loan and/or loans you have you could be looking at Bankruptcy to get out from under it. Then if you don't fit into one of the IRS exceptions concerning forgiveness of indebtedness, you may have to pay taxes on the debt forgiven. Stuck, that pretty much describes it.

  5. Maybe those old enough to remember when buying a property or house meant buying a home versus making an investment or using it as income can mentor others on building neighborhoods. If one is invested in his neighborhood, they will by extension be invested in their community and those activities that demand good governance, law and order, community planning and the benefits of permanent residence.

    In this regard, Las Vegas is ripe for great growth. For those invested in their neighborhoods and community; or with a dog in the hunt as is said, the benefits can be substantial.

  6. People got off on their home going up in value. They thought they were wealthier than the really were. So they spent. Potential money, if they sold their home, was not real money. Now 80% are underwater.

    Ripe for growth? Growth of bankruptcy attorneys and rental truck agencies.?? There is enough inventory to last 6 to 10 years. Same with hotel rooms. The apple is rotting and failing off the tree.

    People don't invest in their neighborhood here, they move to a new one. and now their moving out of state. Get real, we have heard enough puffery from the real estate crowd.

  7. mred,

    The growth I referred to is not necessarily monetary growth, and I am not in real estate. Your third paragraph illustrates my point exactly. When folks think of their neighborhood and their house as their home, have a dog in the hunt as they say, for the long haul, they tend to care more about what happens and be more active. We don't need to have our homes built 6" apart, next to a cement plant, etc. Reasonable zoning laws, codes can be enforced without restricting owners freedoms. We don't have to allow the developers to run ruff shod.

    I have lived where neighbors know and care about each other, where neighborhoods are very safe and the benefits of a long term relationship guide the way. Your pessimism is noted but not a necessary forecast for the future. Some lead by example, others detract by example.

  8. Chunky says:

    Well done Mr. Coolican! Another excellent and well written article delivered to our desktops! Hats off to Chris Morris for the clean illustration as well!

    Like it or not we're all in this together whether you're stuck or sticking it out!

    Its nice to see the Sun, it's editors and writers being allowed the time to develop and write such thoughtful stories. This kind of journalism is also an integral fabric of community! Bravo!

    That's what Chunky thinks!

  9. Nice piece, Patrick. It riffs nicely off this, which you may have seen:

    I still believe people need to embrace Vegas, rather than waste effort trying to change it, before they can actually be a part of it.

  10. The housing mess is far from over in Las Vegas.

    This new right-wing plot to rob the middle class of their only real income tax deduction, (mortgage) would just exacerbate the situation. Another awful idea with disaster written all over it.

  11. The home buyers credit would have helped more than cutting taxes for the wealthy. The high end home market in the southwest is saturated: AZ NV NM etc.

    The new TV show "Defenders" has tanked and won't be renewed. People are tired of the Vegas crap. They come to have a good time and are hassled and nickle and dimed at every turn. The police shootings are also hurting tourism. People don't want to live in a police state.

    THese cops want more and more money, but they are hurting the tax base at every turn.

  12. Las Vegas has a long way to go before it can lay claim to the whole "community" thing. I'm a native and have never come to know a neighbor unless I introduced myself first and then continued to make a concerted effort to develop a relationship. We are a melting pot of diverse city and nationality cultures. No one reaches out - unless you reach out first. Be the one. And then watch your community come to life.

  13. Marla Turner, you claim you are "a native and have never come to know a neighbor unless I introduced myself first and then continued to make a concerted effort to develop a relationship."

    Not enough information. When were you born? What part of town do you live in? We had plenty of community prior to the most recent boom - just as the article states. And we still do, just not in the gated suburbs.

  14. Flat tax or no tax. Time for another Boston tea party.

  15. I have been here more than 50 years. I went to school here, UNLV here, and my children grew up here. I bought my first home in 1980. I remember when Tropicana didn't exist and when nothing was further west of Decatur. I went to Clark High School, and have lived in the west, northwest, and southeast parts of town. I have never lived in a gated community. And I have always been the first one to introduce myself. Always. I'm the one who takes the casserole to the newly moved-in neighbor, who gives out cookies at Christmas time. I've walked their dogs, took in the mail, and mowed their yards when they were out of town. Watched the kids when mom or dad had to rush out in an emergency. And I have found that I am the exception rather than the rule. Very sad to say.