Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2019

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Las Vegas’ affordable housing shortage at crisis level, advocates say

real estate / photo illustration

Ten years after the burst of the U.S. housing bubble sent Las Vegas into economic crisis, real estate has made a comeback in the Valley. Residents don’t have to look far to find luxury homes popping up, and some developers are even building homes that cater to an anticipated influx of SoCal transplants. But when it comes to supplying homes for the region’s neediest locals, the Valley has fallen short, leading some housing advocates to worry that another crisis has arrived: an affordable housing crisis.

No state is worse than Nevada when it comes to the availability of affordable homes for extremely low-income people, according to a report released last month by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which advocates for affordable housing. In 2018, there were only 15 affordable homes available for rent statewide per 100 extremely low-income renter households—those who are either at or below the federal poverty level or earning 30 percent or less than the area median income, as the report defines the term.

Las Vegas fared even worse than Nevada as a whole in 2018, as the metropolitan area had just 10 affordable homes available per 100 extremely low-income renter households. The only metropolitan area that ranked lower was Orlando, Florida, according to the annual report, The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Rental Homes.

This isn’t the first time that the NLIHC and other advocacy groups made note of Las Vegas’ limited supply of affordable housing. In 2016, the city ranked last in the annual “Gap” report; at that time, the NLIHC identified that the metropolitan area had only 12 affordable units available for every 100 households.

Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority executive director Chad Williams said that his agency has the capacity to serve about 54,000 needy individuals and families, while about 47,000 additional individuals and families sit on the agency’s waiting list at any given time, some for upward of 10 years.

Even more people in the region, he estimates, need affordable housing but have not asked the agency for help.

“You can probably look at around 150,000 people who really need affordable housing in Southern Nevada,” Williams said.

Low-income people and those on fixed incomes who have not been able to access the region’s limited supply of public and affordable housing are often extremely rent-burdened, spending 80 percent or more of their total income on housing alone, said Emily Paulsen, executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance.

“What this means is that one emergency can catapult a family into homelessness,” Paulsen explained.

Advocates for affordable housing and elected officials have different opinions about how to increase affordable housing in the region, but most agree that the Valley needs more federal, state and local funding, and more tools for developing permanent affordable housing. And some are hopeful that the affordable housing landscape in Clark County could improve depending on the outcome of the current state legislative session.

For Williams, giving municipalities the opportunity to develop inclusionary zoning policies could be key to addressing the shortage. Inclusionary zoning is an increasingly popular tool nationwide whereby communities can require developers to set aside a percentage of housing units at a designated below-market rate.

At this time, no municipalities or counties in Nevada can legally require private developers to build affordable units. Senate Bill 398, proposed by State Sen. Julia Ratti, D-Sparks, would authorize municipalities to pass inclusionary zoning or even rent control.

While inclusionary zoning isn’t always popular, especially among private developers, these types of policies acknowledge that the private housing sector must do its part to produce affordable housing, Williams said.

“The jurisdiction says, ‘If you want to build here, you have to participate and address our affordable housing crisis,’ ” he added.

Other advocates for affordable housing have prioritized different aspects of the crisis, such as evictions and the rights of tenants who are currently housed. For example, the nonprofit Make the Road Nevada hopes to see the state pass Senate Bill 151, which would give tenants more time to make their rent payments.

In the Silver State, landlords can evict tenants if they are more than four days late on their scheduled rent payment. Put forth by Ratti and Democratic Sens. Yvanna Cancela, Pat Spearman and David Parks, SB151 would give tenants a 10-day grace period if they fall behind on their rent.

“It’s really inhumane, the level of liberties that our landlords have to kick out a family when they miss paying the rent,” said LaLo Montoya, the political director for Make the Road Nevada.

The nonprofit, which advocates for workers and immigrants, was pushing for the passage of Assembly Bill 73. Proposed by the City of Las Vegas, this bill originally would have authorized cities to increase the sewer surcharge fee and real property transfer tax, and use those extra funds to address affordable housing and homelessness.

But the bill was recently amended to instead help communities across the state form regional task forces that would brainstorm solutions to affordable housing and homelessness issues.

“AB73 was the one bill in the state Legislature that would actually create revenue to address the crisis,” Montoya said. “However, now that it’s been amended, it strips away the funding and completely creates a new bill.”

Kathi Thomas-Gibson, director of community services for the city of Las Vegas, explained that the city agreed to modify its original proposal in recognition of the fact that affordable housing affects the entire region, not just those in the city limits.

“The intention is always that we work on this regional issue,” Thomas-Gibson said.

However, she acknowledged that regional coordination already exists, and that the details of the affordable housing task force have not been laid out yet.

In the meantime, the city and the SNRHA are working on building more affordable units, even if these efforts can’t keep pace with demand.

In December, the SNRHA opened a 120-unit complex for seniors in North Las Vegas. The agency is also building a 100-unit complex in Henderson, which will be completed by the end of the year, and is exploring partnerships with private developers and Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada to come up with creative ways to fund stable, affordable housing.

In addition, the agency is partnering with the city and the county to redevelop the closed Moulin Rouge into a mixed-income, mixed-use housing development and community center.

Nonetheless, Montoya and Williams predict that Southern Nevada’s affordable housing crisis will persist, as wages stagnate and the permanent population in this historically transient community continues to grow.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Williams said.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.