Don Rogers: Building a full community | SierraSun.com

Don Rogers: Building a full community

The lake's housing woes — not enough, too expensive — certainly are shared across the West.

This means a lot of great minds are focused on the problem. But short of AI, which is coming fast, humans may not be able to fix this, at least not entirely.

Still, good ideas will blunt the worst. Inevitably, some will be wacky, always my favorite.

I heard one I really liked on the North Tahoe Event Center's patio next to the lake on a perfect day just before the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association and Chamber's annual luncheon.

Houses, houses everywhere … not a one where a local can live.

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A developer who lives in Incline was ticking through how building around the lake isn't penciling out. Land costs, government approval costs, finding skilled labor, also costly.

Then there's the sheer number of people who can afford to buy, more than can fill the basin, Martis Valley, Tahoe Donner, Squaw, Northstar, everywhere. There's no lack of demand for the high end.

And if you own a home here, you're not selling for less than you can get. This is a law strong as gravity.

So what to do?

Way too expensive housing won't be legislated away, though surely municipal governments and the state can winnow their thickets of fees, regulations and approval conditions. But that's an old saw, especially among developers. There could be no strings whatsoever and they'd still complain about too many.

We got talking about perhaps the most curious quality of the problem here: all the second homes that sit empty nearly every day of the year. Whole streets dark at night, full-time residents only lightly freckling neighborhoods. Houses, houses everywhere … not a one where a local can live.

But might a pool of people, patient investors who give a fig about the local community, buy up empty homes or build and rent some out at affordable rates? Not the greatest return, sure, and no doubt there would be wear and tear costs.

Still, there'd be something coming in while these places appreciated over the longer term. Maybe local government incentives could help. Meantime, neighborhoods would be a little brighter and livelier, more like, you know, a community.

The developer said he is seriously considering the idea, though it at least borders on wacky. Could it pencil out? Could he find enough like-minded investors to make it work?

I love the elegance of this idea: Use the problem to help solve the problem. For a developer, this is downright Rumi.

The luncheon's keynote speaker, George Ruther, provided evidence government really can be here to help. Go figure.

If the developer has a novel, even poetic idea, Ruther and the town of Vail are working a more pragmatic path for the most part: Focus resources, such as creating a Housing Department with Ruther as the head — a great choice, by the way. Re-zone for affordable housing. Ease up on the regulatory process, maybe even find ways to say yes, a most unbureaucratic instinct. Master plan and plain ol' plan, plan, plan. And OK, write dreadful if earnest vision statements and "shoot for the moon AND stars" goals if you must.

Way more crucially, though, carry out those plans promptly. Enough is enough pretty quickly with committees and meetings and reports. Get busy with action. Step lively.

And here's the really interesting idea that Ruther and Vail have put into play: Treat deed restrictions as the goods they really are. Buy 'em up when you can. Homeowners will sell them for all sorts of reasons. Let them. Don't make it complicated.

Vail's In Deed program is so simple, too: No caps on how much a property's value may grow, and no income limits to participate. The restriction on the deed is the home must be occupied full time by someone who works at least 30 hours a week in the area. That's it. Wacky as government gets.

This reminds me a lot of conservation easements ranchers sell as a means of preserving open space. It was brilliant, and so is this idea. Other ski towns, most notably Aspen, have deed-restriction programs, but nothing like this.

Of course, the truth is Vail has always and will still have an affordable housing problem. So will the North Lake and Truckee.

But put these ideas into action with real focus, well, we'll have that much better rounded communities, too.

Nothing wacky about that.

Don Rogers is the publisher of The Union, Lake Wildwood Independent and Sierra Sun. He can be reached at drogers@theunion.com or 530-477-4299.