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The Reno-Tahoe area is facing a severe shortage of affordable housing, impacting everyone from families to employers to even the police force. Over the next several months, KUNR will explore the housing crunch from the perspective of tenants, landlords, homeowners, businesses, realtors and economic experts, looking at the challenges and possible solutions.

Squeezed Out, Part One: A Look Beyond The Lake In Tahoe

Courtesy Domus Development

The Reno-Tahoe area is facing a severe shortage of affordable housing, impacting everyone from families to employers to even the police force. In this first story of our series on the subject, "Squeezed Out,"  Reno Public Radio's Amy Westervelt visited a side of Tahoe most people don't see. 

"I just kicked a liquor bottle, in a park where there are unfortunately a lot of kid bikes."

That's Heidi Hill-Drum, executive director of the Tahoe Prosperity Center, showing me around one of the few affordable housing options in King's Beach: a run-down trailer park.

"Look this one has a shower curtain over the front door, probably to protect the family from the elements, but this isn't going to do much in the rain or snow."

The park sits right across the street from a new and tidy apartment building, one of five built in 2011 by Domus Development. With 77 units across five locations, it’s the only affordable housing that's been built in the basin in decades. Local policymakers point to it as an example of what can be done in Tahoe. Residents like Jillian Callender call it a lifesaver.  

"I've lived before with a baby with no heat in South Lake Tahoe. It was one of the worst winters I can remember and I was living with a one and a half year old baby girl and no heat. We ran out of firewood a lot and it was really scary, we didn't know how we were going to survive." 

But the Domus complex currently has a waitlist of close to 200 people, and it can take two or more years to secure a spot there. That's typical of any safe, clean affordable housing options in the region.  According to Amy Kelly, executive director of the North Tahoe Family Resource Center, it's especially true in King's Beach.  

"Studios start at about $750 and one bedrooms start at $1100 and there are currently none available. Not an hour goes by at the Family Resource Center that we don't have someone coming in desperate to find housing." In the absence of options, many low-income residents rent motel rooms by the week. It’s the the only way those who work at local restaurants and resorts can deal with schedules and incomes that fluctuate with the seasons.

Meea Kang, who developed the Domus project, says she met several families who were spending one-hundred percent of their income on rent, and having to barter for food and other necessities. 

“What happens is that people move to Tahoe – and this is something I heard a lot of – they move to Tahoe for work and then they get trapped. And they’re always behind and they’re always struggling and then they’re in a cycle.” 

Several local nonprofits have recently teamed up in an attempt to tackle the Tahoe housing issue. Their first step was to commission a study that reveals some stark facts: More than 70% of people are over-paying for housing. And while locals complain about a shortage of homes, 65 percent of homes in the area are vacation homes that sit vacant most of the time.  Community leaders worry that working class people, including teachers, nurses, and police officers, are being priced out of the community. If that continues, Truckee will be a dramatically different town.  

"You are always better off when the police officers that serve you live in your community – when they’re your neighbors, your coaches, shopping in your stores, etcetera, your quality of life goes up.” 

That's Truckee Police Chief Adam McGill. He says more than half of his force currently can’t afford to live in the community they police. Up until last year, the Truckee police force was holding strong at about a 50-50 split of officers who live in town and those who commute in from other areas. Now the balance has tipped and more officers live outside the town than in it. 

“You’ve probably never thought about it but just imagine if the folks policing you are coming from somewhere else. Just picture that for a minute – a force that is meant to police you and your community according to your values, is coming in from outside your community.” 

Next month the Truckee Tahoe Community Foundation will be releasing its official workforce housing study. Then the organization plans to begin working with policy makers on solutions. Proposed ideas range from building more tiny houses in the region to designing funding mechanisms for affordable homes to incentives for second-home owners to rent their properties out long-term. 

This is the first story in our series "Squeezed Out," focused on housing shortages in Reno and Tahoe. Stay tuned for more stories throughout the month.     

Amy Westervelt is a former contributor at KUNR Public Radio.
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