A place to live | SierraSun.com

A place to live

Julie Brown
Sierra Sun

Photo illustration by Amy Edgett, Sierra Sun

Coni Bier and her one-year-old son, Tanner Mott, started to make memories in their new apartment at Truckee’s Henness Flats the first day they moved in when the toddler took his first steps across the living room.

A week later, Tanner, dressed in red pajamas, runs around boxes that are halfway unpacked.

Bier, a dietary clerk at Tahoe Forest Hospital, part-time student at the University of Nevada Reno and single mom, pays $667 a month for her two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment that came with a furnished kitchen, spacious living room and balcony.

It’s not cheap, she said. But it’s manageable.

“[Affordable housing] makes it so I can live up here, work at the hospital … but I still have time to spend with my son,” Bier said.

Meanwhile, over the hill and thirty minutes away, Blanca Barron cuddled up to her two-year-old son, Emanuel, on their new, plump couch in their new home in Kings Beach.

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While Sesame Street played on the TV in the background, Blanca spoke in rapid Spanish to show off her new home that her five-person family moved into earlier this month ” a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment with a full-sized kitchen, living room and a fenced backyard.

Compared to the Barron’s former residence, a one-bedroom corner studio located above the Los Panchitas restaurant in downtown Kings Beach, their new home is a mansion.

The Barrons upgraded from a kitchenette with a sink, two drawers, a lone cupboard and a hot-plate to a fully-stocked kitchen with enough room for a six-person dining room table.

There was hardly enough space in the Barron’s former bedroom ” where the entire five-person family slept ” to squeeze past a makeshift set of cramped bunkbeds to the queen-sized bed where the couple slept with their youngest son, Blanca said.

Blanca and her husband now have their own room, and the children’s room is large enough for a standard set of bunkbeds.

She laughs when she thinks about their former sleeping arrangements now. But before, Blanca said she used to cry.

“It’s the first time that I can feel that I live in a place with dignity for my kids,” Blanca said through a translator.

Finding a decent home for a reasonable price in Kings Beach is rare, Blanca said. And affordable housing in Truckee was not an option she considered because it wasn’t accessible to work and school in Kings Beach.

When she found out about their new place, Blanca said she pursued the landlord for two months until he said she could move in.

The Barron’s used to pay $560 a month, plus electricity, for their studio. They now pay $1,100 a month, utilities included, for their two-bedroom home. With Blanca teaching group-therapy parenting classes at the Kings Beach Family Resource Center and her husband a working full-time construction job that pays $18 an hour with no benefits, the Barrons can afford their new place. But they don’t have any salary left over for savings.

Blanca thanks God for providing for her family, but it takes courage and hard work with long hours to seek out a good life in Tahoe, she said.

“It’s across the board. Everybody needs it. Everybody needs a clean, affordable place to live,” said Tom Ballou, the housing services director for the Workforce Housing Association of Truckee Tahoe, or WHATT.

The WHATT office ” stacked full of files each representing an applicant hoping to fill a spot in one of Truckee’s affordable housing complexes ” receives between 750 to 800 phone calls and walk-ins a month from people inquiring about housing opportunities, said Executive Director Rachelle Pellissier.

“It’s kind of eye-opening how many people and how many phone calls we get through the door every month,” Pellissier said. “I don’t think people really understand that. Finally, there’s a place and an organization where they can come and get information, and leave their information so that when anything does become available, we can immediately get a hold of them, and get them into housing.”

Single moms, 20-somethings, large families, couples, Latinos and Caucasians, young and old ” they all make up the diverse range of applicants affordable housing developments receive, WHATT officials said.

“If they can just see the faces of the families that come through our doors and are just dying to get into something,” Pellissier said. “See everything they go through and are touched by ” these are our friends and family who work in town.”

There will be 350 families living in rental affordable-housing units in Truckee once Henness Flats ” formerly known as Gray’s Crossing ” and Frishman Hollow are completed and full, said Ballou.

But there are no affordable-housing developments ” not for-purchase, nor for-rent ” in Truckee’s neighboring communities along the North Shore of Lake Tahoe.

Traditionally, Kings Beach has been the most affordable community on the North Shore. But it’s not affordable any longer, and hasn’t been so for quite awhile, residents say.

“I don’t know if anything will be affordable, ever, for someone who truly makes minimum wage,” said Sarah Coolidge, acting director for the North Tahoe Family Resource Center.

In the lowest rungs of the ladder, people are living in trailers, hotels or motels. And they’re sharing living space in overcrowded conditions.

“People are living in these things that don’t have kitchens, and don’t have adequate insulation, and don’t have bedrooms,” Coolidge said.

“Not all the housing in Kings Beach is like that,” she added. “But the new stuff that gets built, nobody can afford to buy it who lives here.”

North Tahoe’s one proposed affordable housing development, Vista Village, met an onslaught of public criticism when it went before the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in the spring. The project has since gone back to the drawing board to address and evaluate public comments. Project developers have said they remain committed to providing affordable housing on the Tahoe Vista parcel.

Success, however, requires the community to come forward and actively express the need and desire for affordable housing on Tahoe’s north shore, said Alex Mourelatos, Vista Village property owner.

“There’s just a lot of apathy on the part of the business community and local employees,” Mourelatos said. “They all talk about wanting to have housing, but they don’t participate in the approval process. They don’t get out there and fight the NIMBY’s [Not In My Back Yard].”

The range of benefits that affordable housing brings to a community are limitless, advocates say. Encouraging employees to live in close proximity to their work discourages commuting and reduces pollutants. From an employer’s standpoint, workforce housing boosts morale because employees live and work in the same community. Stable and feasible housing options also increases employee retention.

And the benefits don’t end at the workplace, Mourelatos said. Affordable housing enriches communities, both economically and emotionally, because local residents tend to invest themselves into their immediate neighborhood.

“It’s pretty common sense,” he said. “But it’s what drives me because I’ve lost so many workers. My family has lost so many workers over the years, especially the better ones because there are no [housing] options.”

Yet, affordable housing seems to be an issue that attracts controversy. Truckee has also had its naysayers, but North Tahoe, Mourelatos said, suffers acutely from public criticism.

Vista Village critics say the project is too large and doesn’t account for infrastructure development ” concerns that are reflected in many of North Tahoe’s larger developments.

Another affordable housing developer based out of the Bay Area is looking at different strategy to provide housing in Kings Beach. Instead of building one large complex, the sites are scattered throughout the Grid. The developer will release more information about the project at a workshop next week.

“We have to convince the TRPA and Placer County that the community supports these projects,” said Mourelatos, who also serves on WHATT’s board of directors. “At the end of the day, technically we can meet the requirements for an environmental impact report or an environmental study, but the decision is still an emotional one.”

The effects of land costs and government regulations are also seen more acutely in the Tahoe Basin. Where Truckee has large plots of land and a government whose sole concentration is the local vicinity, North Tahoe is largely developed, unincorporated and in the midst of one of the most environmentally regulated areas in the nation.

“It’s all about, I think, political will. Truckee is focused on solving that problem in that community,” Mourelatos said.

Truckee has passed an inclusionary housing ordinance that requires 15 percent of all new residential developments to be “affordable” by town standards, WHATT officials said.

Placer County has a similar housing ordinance, but it only applies to redevelopment project areas such as Kings Beach and Tahoe City and not the West Shore or Carnelian Bay, said Joanne Auerbach, the county’s housing program coordinator.

Placer County also has an employee housing requirement that stipulates that any new resort development must provide housing for 50 percent of the employees they will generate. Northstar’s Sawmill Heights complex fulfilled that requirement.

Teachers, law enforcement officers, clerks, ski-lift operators, waiters, construction workers and public employees make up an integral part of a community’s fabric. And when the supply of decent and feasible housing options does not meet the demand, the general workforce is discouraged from settling down locally ” essentially hollowing out the respective community, housing advocates say.

North Tahoe is already realizing the effects of a hollowed-out community with many key community figures living in Reno, Carson City or even Truckee, where housing prices are more reasonable, residents say. Newcomers are even less encouraged to settle down locally.

Coolidge said she’s seen people move away and gradually become more involved in their neighborhood, and less involved in Tahoe.

“If you’re in that income level, and you can’t afford to buy a house and raise a family, you’ll move away,” she said. “Who will run the ski resorts? Who will clean the hotel rooms? Who will serve the food? There are other communities who have dealt with this effectively, and I would like to see that we do too.”

With major redevelopment projects, such as the Kings Beach Commercial Core Improvement Project, looming in the near future, Kings Beach’s dwindling local workforce becomes even more pronounced, said Mourelatos, who also serves as vice president on the North Tahoe Business Association’s board.

“Where is the workforce going to come from that is going to support that economic base?” Mourelatos questioned.

Since Truckee Pines was established in 1996, Truckee has made a significant investment in affordable housing. And as families move and stay in the community, the fruits of that investment are starting to show.

Truckee’s next step will be towards for-purchase units, Ballou said. Half a dozen developments with for-purchase affordable opportunities will break ground in the next couple of years.

But North Tahoe is twelve years behind their neighbor on the time scale for affordable housing.

“[Truckee] isn’t going to become the affordable housing stop for the North Shore,” Mourelatos said. “I don’t think we should be expecting them to solve the affordable housing problem on the North Shore just because they have had some success in building. I think this community on the North Shore has to pull it’s own.”

Applying to an affordable housing complex is all about following the money trail, said Housing Services Director Tom Ballou of the Workforce Housing Association of Truckee Tahoe, or WHATT.

“The assumption is if you have money available to you, you would pursue it,” Ballou said.

Applicants must document every possible source of income available to them, including, but not limited to, the G.I. Bill, trust funds, child support, overtime, bonus payments, real estate, money market accounts, life insurance and student financial aid.

WHATT officials spend hours trying to determine an applicant’s income down to the penny.

And beyond the mountains of paperwork, the applicant must go through a screening process that reviews credit history and criminal records.

“You’ll probably go through more scrutiny renting one of these places than you would buying a house,” Ballou said.

When all is said and done, the total household income can not exceed 60 percent of the county’s median wages. In Nevada County, the median annual income for four people is $65,100.