Region gathers to talk affordable housing | SierraSun.com

Region gathers to talk affordable housing

David Bunker
Sierra Sun

With a couple of graphs and a few statistics, Placer County Redevelopment Director Richard Colwell brought the region’s affordable housing situation into sharp focus: A North Tahoe firefighter looking to purchase a home near his workplace would need a pay raise of $148,200 per year, he said. A retail clerk would need an extra $180,400 annually.

Some of the statistics were staggering, and many of the stories told at the Workforce Housing Association of Truckee Tahoe’s regional affordable housing symposium were inspiring. But the meeting, at which Colwell was speaking, was not just about trumpeting the extremes of a growing affordable housing crisis in Truckee and Lake Tahoe; it was also about putting heads together to chip away at a solution.

And the Workforce Housing Association of Truckee Tahoe (WHATT) plans to figure large in the regional housing fix.

The meeting marks the beginning of a more active role for WHATT, which began in 2001 as a housing advocacy group. With two new ideas, the non-profit would transform from an advocacy group to a organization working with partners to create affordable housing.

Soon, WHATT plans to extend its role to include a community land trust arm and a community housing development organization wing, said the non-profit’s executive director, Rachelle Pellissier.

The community land trust would purchase land and offer homes for purchase and for lease on property owned by the land trust. The homes, minus the land costs, would be much more affordable to residents. This model has showed success in New Mexico, Alaska and across the East Coast, said Pellissier.

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“These are models we are looking at going toward because government entities can’t do, and shouldn’t do all of this,” said Pellissier.

The Community Housing Development Organization side of WHATT would go after state funding and loans to subsidize affordable housing projects. With the housing development organization contributing funding to a housing developer, the two would work in tandem to get affordable units on the ground.

“We can see ourselves going in this direction, but we need community support,” Pellissier said.

More than 20 speakers participated in the meeting. Some were housing experts. Others, like Peter Holzmeister, general manager of the Truckee Donner Public Utility District, were there to show how a lack of affordable housing affects every facet of the community.

“What we are seeing is a slow but steady degradation in service levels,” said Holzmeister, whose public agency provides water and electricity to Truckee’s residents. According to Holzmeister, 25 percent of the district’s employees live outside of Truckee, primarily in the Reno area.

As that percentage stays steady or increases, he said, customers will pay the price when the district needs employees to respond to an emergency, and the employees are stuck in traffic on their way up from Reno.

Workforce housing association president Breeze Cross said the meeting was a way for people to focus on the critical issue.

“We found that if the initiative was not undertaken by someone then no focus would be brought to the issue at all,” said Cross.

For Alex Mourelatos, board member of WHATT, tackling the affordable housing issue is not only the right thing to do, it has an economic reward. Workers, who are often the year-round residents in the region, will be injecting their earnings back into the local economy if they can afford to live in the region, he said.

“There is a considerable economic benefit to our community by bringing in the workforce, and having the workforce live where they work,” Mourelatos said.

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