Lake Tahoe housing concerns: No simple solution will fix the problem
August 20, 2016
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The Tahoe Regional Young Professionals' Town Hall on affordable housing packed the conference room at the Beach Retreat and Lodge, where a panel of experts was assembled to discuss the issue of affordable housing in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
The Aug. 17 event, attended by 133 people and watched via live stream by another 188, made one thing very clear — there is no simple solution to the housing crisis Tahoe residents are facing.
Low-wage seasonal work, developmental restrictions due to environmental preservation, second-home owners and vacation rentals, low (and predominately poor quality) housing inventory, high rental and purchasing costs — all of these Basin-wide issues tie into the problem of affordable housing.
Moderator Jenna Palacio kicked off the event with a simple question — what is affordable housing?
"Affordable housing, as defined by the state, is homes that cost 30 percent of a household's income before taxes," she explained.
Palacio also showed what affordable housing is not: dilapidated trailers, overcrowded apartments, long-term motel rentals and not-up-to-code cabins.
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She pointed to data from the recently released North Tahoe-Truckee-focused 2016 Regional Housing Study that shows the median household income in the area is $30,000.
Additionally, 50 percent of the study group spends 50 percent of their income on housing; 25 percent are considered very low income; 21 percent are low income; and 42 percent live in overcrowded conditions.
Panelist Sara Schrichte of the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, the organization behind the regional housing study, said the study was the first step in moving toward solutions.
"The study that we did in Truckee-North Tahoe was really about collecting baseline data so that we can understand some of the trends that are contributing to the problem and come up with some solutions to address them," expressed Schrichte.
Panelist Heidi Hill Drum, executive director of the Tahoe Prosperity Center, pointed to the center's Measuring for Prosperity Report released last year that tracked how people in the region are faring economically.
Hill Drum noted that the $5 billion regional tourist economy results in lower wages and a low supply, but high demand for housing. Hill Drum believes that workforce attraction is key in creating higher paying jobs.
"We already are seeing some innovative entrepreneurial spirit happening in the region, and those typically bring with them high wage jobs," she said.
Panelist and South Lake Tahoe city manager Nancy Kerry noted that the city already has 455 affordable housing units, but funding is one of the issues that stands in the way of further development.
"When we talk about government affordable housing, that's subsidized by something. A developer can't come in and build housing that's affordable for low income because it's too expensive to build here, so the government has to subsidize that through grants and redevelopment," explained Kerry.
The Aspens project, 47 units of affordable housing for low- and very low-income housing, opened in 2014 and was the latest affordable housing unit built in South Lake Tahoe. There is currently a six-year waiting list to live there.
"Most of these units were built during the era of redevelopment, primarily over the last 10 years. The Aspens project was the last project that was built," continued Kerry. "We spent about $30 million in redevelopment dollars on that. That's just the city side. Of course there was money coming in from the state side through Prop. 1. That money is also gone."
"There is $1 billion that the state is looking at right now to put into the budget. We will see if the governor signs that. If that money comes out, then it does provide opportunities for solutions on the funding side, but these units are for those that make government-restricted incomes. So in El Dorado County, the median income — that's not the average, it's the middle point — is $69,400 under (Housing and Urban Development's) 2016 limits. So that means on a family of three, low income is $55,000. So you couldn't qualify for any of these if your family made more than that."
The communities at Lake Tahoe are also competing for those dollars with cities like Fresno, added Kerry.
Kerry concluded that due to the desirability of living in a scenic place like Lake Tahoe, there would always be a very limited supply and high demand for housing.
"We have an issue that is limited," she said. "We are not just going to make tracks of homes to meet that demand."
Panelists Mark Irving of Urban Housing Communities, a company that develops low-income housing in California and Hawaii with the help of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, and Susan Simon from Simon Consulting provided first-hand experience on the realities of developing affordable housing.
"There is a challenge with the permitting, and that's the area that I work on," explained Simon, who worked on the Domus Development, an affordable housing project in Kings Beach that was completed in 2012.
"However, with Domus we worked through a lot of that through code amendments to TRPA code for height and density and things like that, and I think some of that carried over and is now in the new area plans, the town center and the Tahoe Valley plans."
Panelist and TRPA long-range planning and transportation division manager Nick Haven said the housing problem is not as simple as loosening development restrictions in the Basin, which are in place to keep a balance between development and environmental degradation.
"It's a multi-faceted issue. If I had a magic wand and did away with everything TRPA, there would still be issues implementing affordable housing. So, we want to be at the table and look for some solutions," stated Haven. "We are actually going through a strategic initiative right now looking at all of our development rights."
WHAT'S THE SOLUTION?
During the Q-and-A portion of the town hall, questions from the audience leaned more toward statements, some in frustration, mingled with potential solutions.
Tiny houses, a cap on the number of vacation rentals allowed, and government-imposed rent restrictions were a few of the ideas brought forth by the residents in attendance.
El Dorado County supervisor and multi-board member Sue Novasel said she plans to assemble a task force to work through these issues brought up in the town hall.
As the meeting came to a close, a beautiful pink sunset colored the sky and waters of Lake Tahoe just outside the crowded conference room — a fitting reminder of why so many people want to call this place home.
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