Worlds apart | SierraSun.com

Worlds apart

David Bunker
Sierra Sun
Photo by Josh Miller/Sierra SunThe Lopez family has lived in Truckee for 12 years. The last four they've spent in a trailer.
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In a region where million-dollar homes are springing up alongside world-class golf courses, Esteban and Leticia Lopez and their three boys live in a $6,000 pull-behind trailer the size of two Chevy Suburbans.

During cold snaps, when their two small electric heaters can’t keep up with the bitter weather, the trailer’s windows freeze over on the inside.

At the back of the trailer, Esteban explains his family’s housing dilemma. His hands, clasped on his lap, rarely move. With a calm cadence he voices the conclusion he has come to in the 12 years since he moved to Truckee from an agricultural town in Oaxaca, Mexico.

“This area,” he says, “is for rich people.”

There is no anger or bitterness in his voice; it’s a flat, matter-of-factness.

The Lopez family has lived in town a dozen years ” the last four in the tiny travel trailer that sits at the entrance to Donner Creek Mobile Home Park. Their situation, however, is not unique to Truckee. In fact, it is a growing problem fueled by an economy top heavy with service jobs and a housing market shooting skyward from out-of-the-area demand.

And nowhere are the effects more severe than in Truckee’s Latino community.

While Truckee’s housing crisis can be painted in terms of pure economics, it’s almost exclusively Latinos that live in the worst conditions in town. Donner Creek Mobile Home Park and the trailers behind Sunset Inn ” the bottom rung of housing in Truckee ” are inhabited almost entirely by Hispanics.

Many of these residents are not newcomers. Some have lived in town for over a decade. They are the year-round workers that build houses, landscape yards, staff restaurants and plow snow. Along with the other segments of Truckee, they represent the bedrock of the community.

Ruth Hall, director of Sierra Nevada Children’s Services for eastern Nevada County, was so concerned about how the housing shortage affects Latinos that she organized a meeting on housing late last year.

Hall says Truckee is in danger of losing its workers. And if Truckee loses its workers, the town will lose its soul.

“Because of the housing situation in Truckee, families are dispersing,” says Hall. “Families are being forced out of a place that they have lived for a long time.”

Many Latinos that attended the housing meeting said they are hoping for more affordable options in town. If those options don’t materialize, the only way improve living conditions is to leave Truckee.

“It seems like we are making some families make unsupportable choices,” Hall says.

Ana Lucia Medina, who lives in a mobile home behind the Sunset Inn, says the housing problem hurts Latinos, but if it remains unsolved she says it will also damage the town.

“I don’t think it is good for Truckee if everyone moves away,” she says. “What will they do when they have no workers?”

In a phenomenon that mountain towns are grappling with across the West, retirees, second homeowners and metropolitan residents are moving into Truckee in large numbers. This increased housing demand drives up Truckee’s home prices, excluding almost all residents who draw their wages in town from purchasing a home. And as for-sale houses climb in price, rental rates climb along with them.

This migration of city money to the mountains is a double-edged sword. While driving up the cost of living, it also drives down wages as service jobs in boutique shops, restaurants and recreation facilities spring up. While these businesses bring work, little money trickles down to employees.

In a 2004 annual review of Nevada County, the Sierra Economic Development District found that the county’s average wages equal only 72 percent of the state’s average. Nevada County’s wages also lagged behind neighboring Placer County and El Dorado County. Nevada County workers are paid an average of 18 percent less than Placer County. And the wages are falling in comparison with state and Placer County incomes.

At the bottom of the county’s wage scale are industries that thrive in Truckee. Leisure and hospitality workers make $13,440 per year on average. Retail and trade workers earn $24,801, according to the latest statistics. Service employees earn $26,834.

According to Truckee’s new housing element, which guides long-term housing decisions, “more than 75 percent of Truckee’s local employment base in 2000 was in retail, service and government employment sectors.”

In between skyrocketing housing prices and these base-level wages a gaping hole is widening in the fabric of Truckee’s community. Many of the workers who cook the meals eaten by tourists, or build the houses inhabited by vacationers are leaving town for a more hospitable housing market. And those that stick it out are often forced to subsist in the most meager of ways.

“It feels to me like Truckee is sending away people,” says Stephanie Castleman, who heads up the pre-kindergarten program Head Start at Truckee Pine Apartments.

At Truckee Pines, officials say that 20 households leave the apartments each year ” most to Reno or another town.

Back in Esteban Lopez’s trailer, his wife, Leticia, is cooking milk and rice on the stove. Suriel and Abimael ” the two youngest boys ” play with Matchbox cars on a countertop. Their brother, Oziel, helps himself to a bowl of rice and some bread. Between them and the four walls of the trailer there is barely an inch to spare.

Leticia Lopez has eyed two- and three-bedroom apartments at Truckee Pines, affordable housing apartments in town, but the prices are out of reach.

“We wouldn’t make it,” she says. “We need it but we can’t pay all that money.”

Even if they could afford the rent-restricted housing, the chance that they would actually get into an apartment anytime this year is slim.

The demand for affordable rentals is so high that anyone wanting an apartment at Truckee Pines usually waits between six months and year, said Mary Ellen Lopez, the apartment’s assistant manager. Other affordable housing apartments in town have waiting lists that are two years long or more.

At the divergent ends of Truckee’s social spectrum, a similar phenomenon is taking place ” the area’s social classes are boxing themselves in.

Enclaves like Old Greenwood and Lahontan sit like islands in the community, making profits off of golf-front mansions and a market for private exclusion. Meanwhile Donner Creek and Sunset Inn mobile home parks are their own enclaves, excluded from the rest of the community by simple economics.

In a form of economic apartheid, it’s the haves and the have-nots.

“What kind of community is this when you have Latinos living in one place and Anglos living in another?” asked Hall.

A partial solution, says Truckee Community Development Director Tony Lashbrook, is found in two policies in the new housing portion of the town’s general plan.

One policy will promote second units on single family lots, and the other will require a percentage of affordable housing in each large housing project. These policies will ensure that affordable units and market rate housing sit side by side.

“I think one of the things about the inclusionary housing and granny flat policies is you integrate rather than segregate,” Lashbrook says.

The town’s approach is a change of course from previous efforts that, although successful, did little to breakup the segregation of Truckee economic strata.

A look at Truckee Pines, Riverview Homes and the Truckee Senior Apartments, all of which have been successful affordable housing projects, shows a cluster of affordable housing standing alone along the Truckee River. The only market-rate housing truly close by is Riverview Townhomes.

And while the town government is working hard on the problem, they are not an affordable housing development firm, says Lashbrook. There is only so much government can do.

“If we do everything in our power we might be able to solve 30 percent of the problem,” Lashbrook says.

Truckee Councilman Josh Susman says a new vision is needed to solve the problem. Apart from reform, the entire community needs to come together to work on housing, he says.

“We need fundamental housing reform,” Susman says. “It’s a community problem that needs a community solution.”