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Caught in the middle

David Bunker
Sierra Sun
Photo by Josh Miller/Sierra SunAna Lucia Medina holds her youngest son, Jesus, in their Sunset Inn mobile home. Medina and her family have been trying to find a newer, more affordable home in Truckee.
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Cradled in Ana Lucia Medina’s arms is the reason she almost left town after 16 years of living in Truckee. Jesus, the youngest of her three boys, tugs on the rubber mouth of his milk bottle and leans close to his mother.

“I just want to do it for my kids,” Medina says of her dream of owning a home.

In November, her dream almost came true ” in Reno.

Sixteen years after moving to Truckee, Ana Lucia Medina and her husband, Jesus, have found themselves caught in the middle of a housing market that caters to the wealthy, offers some chances to the poor, but largely leaves the middle class stuck in the middle.

By Truckee standards, the Medinas have good jobs. She works at the pre-kindergarten program Head Start in the Truckee Pines Apartments. He is an experienced carpenter.

In many other communities they would have a shot at owning a home or living in a nice rental. In Truckee their home is a trailer that sits in a row of mobile homes off of Donner Pass Road. Tucked behind Sunset Inn, the mobile home park is a hodgepodge of differing trailer sizes, styles and conditions. Many of the trailers are small enough that they could be hitched to a pickup truck and driven away. Some are motor homes, blocked in and serving as makeshift housing.

After three years on a waiting list to move in to the affordable Riverview Homes, only to come up just over the income qualifications, the Medinas found they made too much money to land a rent-restricted house or apartment and too little to afford almost anything else.

“I just want something that we can afford,” Ana Lucia Medina says. “I don’t want anything free.”

In the next three years, Truckee is expected to churn out more than 1,500 residences that are affordable to households making the most in town ” $55,037 per year and higher. That figure is based on 120 percent of the Nevada County median income, which is approximately $46,000 a year.

However, many of the homes will sell at the going rate in Truckee ” more than half a million dollars. According to Chase International realty, the median price for a home in town in 2004 was $539,000.

For all the other income groups combined ” households earning $55,037 per year and less ” Truckee is lined up to create less than 400 residential units, although that number may rise if additional affordable projects come forward.

The majority of these homes ” those for very-low and low-income earners ” will be available only to those whose incomes are small enough to qualify for the rental. That means only a small sliver of affordable units will be available to moderate income earners ” those caught between low-income housing and market rate homes.

In the inventory of affordable housing, Truckee has a missing link ” a gap that strips families of a chance to improve their housing situation, said Ruth Hall, director of the eastern Nevada County wing of Sierra Nevada Children’s Services.

“They are trapped in their circumstances and there are no stepping stones,” Hall says.

The Medinas were attracted to a rental in Riverview Homes because they would be allowed to nearly double their income after they qualify and still keep their spot. That flexibility allows families to save toward buying a house or otherwise improve their housing situation.

“The thing that we are trying to do here is rent at a reasonable rate so [families] can save money to buy a house,” says Jane Carson, manager of Riverview Homes.

But that cluster of 39 single-family homes near the Truckee River has a waiting list of 125 families. In the year and a half that Carson has managed the homes, she has seen only six families leave, giving little hope to those near the end of the list of ever having an opportunity to move in.

For those who aren’t lucky or qualified enough to make it into an affordable home, the choices are few: Pay the rising Truckee rents or settle in a mobile home.

“Across the board there are no homes for the families that are trying to come up,” says Stephanie Castleman, site supervisor for Head Start.

Truckee is hemorrhaging workers to Reno and other more affordable towns partly because of rising rents, but also because workers of a certain income level are shooting for home ownership. And if Truckee cannot offer the opportunity to buy a home, the allure of an affordable home in outlying towns becomes hard to resist ” even for longtime Truckee residents.

“More people have gone straight from the mobile home park to Reno,” says Carson, who, as manager of Riverview Homes, has worked closely with families trying to move out of the mobile home parks. “If they don’t qualify to live here they move to Reno.”

For the Medinas, an opportunity to exchange their mobile home for their own home in Reno almost had them packing to leave last November. But after weighing the commute to Truckee, switching schools for their kids, and the extra time they would be away from home each day, they decided against the move.

“The work is here for me,” Ana Lucia Medina said. “I’m afraid to be in Reno.”

So the Medinas stay in town, for now, still looking for a housing opportunity that will convince them to stay permanently.

Truckee’s community development department has a tough job. While they have been commended for their work on getting affordable housing built in Truckee by the Nevada County grand jury, Truckee Community Development Director Tony Lashbrook said he realizes they are not exactly winning the affordable housing battle.

Lashbrook estimates that by doing everything possible, the town government may be able to account for 30 percent of the housing crisis.

The housing pressures in town seem to come from every angle, he says: seasonal workers, year-round workers, senior citizens and the disabled.

Through the combined efforts of the town and affordable housing developers, Truckee has seen hundreds of affordable homes built in town ” successful projects like Riverview Homes, Truckee Pines and Sierra Village apartments.

Recently, the town was also awarded the largest affordable housing grant in its history, $3.6 million. These funds will go into affordable rental housing in Gray’s Crossing ” 92 rent-restricted units that will expand the town’s worker housing.

But perhaps the most intriguing and creative opportunity lies in a 9-acre parcel donated by East West Partners to the town as part of Gray’s Crossing, a housing, golf and village project. The town council will decide Thursday whether to apply for $1.5 million in state funding that could finance construction of roads and the extension of utilities to the parcel.

With free land and free utilities, the vision of building a creative affordable housing development with a mixture of rental and ownership units would be well on its way to becoming a reality, Lashbrook says.

For Ana Lucia Medina, and for many others in town, a home for sale at a price within reach would be a dream come true.

“I’m still waiting for something to happen here in Truckee,” Ana Lucia Medina says. “I know something is going to come someday.”


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