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May 24, 2019

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State lawmakers weigh strategies for making housing more affordable

North Las Vegas

Ross Mantle / The New York Times

The Las Vegas skyline and homes are shown from over the ridge of a construction site for a new residential community at the edge of North Las Vegas, Aug. 11, 2018.

It’s getting more expensive to live in Nevada.

The average home value in Las Vegas is around $89,000 higher than it was 10 years ago, and Reno’s average value has increased by $129,000 in the same period, according to Zillow.

Rent can be even worse. According to Rent Jungle, the average rent in Reno in January 2011 was $692, and it is now $1,222. In the same period, Las Vegas rents went from $783 to $1,074.

Multiple bills have been introduced in the Legislature that would tackle the problem of affordable housing, with issues like impact fee subsidies and tax-based funds on the docket.

They include:

• A bill that would allow municipalities the ability to subsidize or reduce impact fees in certain developments. A conceptual amendment for this bill would allow for rent control and inclusionary zoning incentives for developers of affordable housing.

• A bill that would require local governments that perform housing need assessments as part of their master plans to make sure the information can be incorporated into the statewide low-income housing database.

• A bill that would require Clark County to create a fund to provide services and affordable housing for “homeless or indigent persons.” The fund would be filled from an annual sanitary sewer surcharge of up to $25 and a new tax on property transfers that comes out to 25 cents per $500 in value.

Here’s how the issues break down.

Rent Control

Rent control is an issue throughout the country — California, New York and New Jersey have cities with rent control enacted, along with Washington, D.C. The idea is spreading in the West but stalling amid pushes for further action.

A ballot initiative in California that would have let counties and cities enact rent control was defeated by almost 60 percent last year, and Washington state failed to repeal a statewide ban on rent control in early 2018.

Reno has discussed implementing some sort of rent control measure since 2017.

Impact fees

Impact fees are, essentially, a charge on developments for at least some of the cost of bringing public utilities to the development. It’s a way to offset the cost of rapid population growth.

However, they have been criticized by some as a tool that leads to higher housing costs, as developers offset the money they pay in the impact fees to their housing customers.

Studies have generally found some sort of link between impact fees and higher housing costs, though not always.

In a 2004 analysis, Shishur Mathur, Paul Waddell and Hilda Blanco found that housing in areas with impact fees sees about an increase in housing price of about 166 percent of the fee — which is statistically insignificant, they say, for lower-quality housing.

Jennifer Evans-Cowley and Larry Lawhon found a connection to increased housing price in a 2003 analysis. A study by Vicki Been, however, found that there was not enough evidence to link impact fees to higher housing prices.

Homeless populations

In January 2017, Nevada had 7,833 homeless people living in the state, according to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Data from a 2017 survey by Clark County’s Social Service Department found around 6,100 homeless people in the Las Vegas Valley, a number that secured $13 million in grants from the federal government.

People living on the streets with no support is expensive to the taxpayer.

A Politifact analysis found that a “chronically homeless” person can cost taxpayers $35,000 to $150,000 a year for using services such as mental health and addiction treatment, and emergency room care. Homeless individuals also can end up in jail often, which adds up costs.

Housing programs for the homeless often save taxpayers money by adding stability and decreasing emergency room and mental health care facility visits, a study by the nonprofit Rand Corp. shows.