Home and rental prices continue to soar in Northern Nevada and Northeastern California, leaving more working families and individuals on the brink. Seniors, college students, single parents, immigrants, and the working poor are particularly vulnerable. Some must choose to pay rent over buying food or securing healthcare. The lack of affordable housing in urban and rural areas alike is changing the identity of this region. In response, the KUNR newsroom is examining housing through many lenses, including the economic, political, and public health impacts.You can also subscribe to the Priced Out Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.
What's The Role of Motels in Northern Nevada's Housing Crunch?
There are more than 100 motels in Reno alone. For some, they’re links to the city’s unique past as a gaming mecca. Others see them as hotbeds of criminal activity that bring down the surrounding area’s economic potential. But as Reno Public Radio’s Paul Boger reports, the motels are increasingly becoming a key player in Northern Nevada’s housing crunch.
The curtains are drawn, and it’s dark as Greg H. shows me around his home.
"As you can see I have a Nuwave oven and I have my own microwave... and that little chest I have there. The armoire, that's something that I love," says Greg H.
He has a small computing station near the front door next to his full-sized refrigerator. A makeshift kitchen is stationed along the wall. It’s cramped, to say the least.
"What would you say the square footage is?" I ask.
"Here I can tell you real quick," he says. "It's very easy to do; It's not complicated."
Greg busts out a small tape measure.
"If I don't have it you don't need it," he says.
He holds it against the wall, quietly calculating.
So, 150 [feet] plus going into the bathroom... that makes it 200 square feet is what we're looking at maximum. It's probably not even that. It's probably 178 [feet] or something."
Greg has lived in this motel for more than three years. Before that he was homeless. KUNR has chosen not to release his full name or the motel because he could be evicted if he angers the motel’s management.
"They rule with an iron fist here and they know that they can't really afford to move. So if they bitch or complain, you know, they basically tell them 'too bad, you don't like it get the hell out.' Because they know these people are in a tough situation."
Greg says the conditions in the motel are deplorable. Crime is rampant, the motel management routinely extorts residents who have nowhere else to go and the roach and bed bug infestations have posed serious health threats in the past.
"There was a couple that lived out in the back, they were in their 80's," Greg explains. "They became infested with bedbugs for four months they went to the office and complained and said we need help, we have an infestation. So eventually these people started living in their car. This is in the middle of winter."
According to the Reno Alliance for the Homeless, there are thousands of people living in motels in Reno. However, that number has declined over the past 12 months. Not because more residents have found affordable housing options, but because there are fewer beds.
Speaking to a crowd during the 2018 State of the City Address last January, Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve touted the city’s decision to knock down motels as part of an effort to boost economic development as part of a massive revitalization plan for downtown.
"Last May, we saw the blight buster initiative in full effect beginning with several demolitions of properties that were dilapidated and uninhabitable on West 4th Street," Schieve said. "The Carriage Inn, Stardust Lodge and other blighted properties have been taken down, bringing new life to the area."
It’s an effort that some like ACTIONN’s community social justice organizer Aria Overli call misguided.
"I think that just shows some serious problems with priorities. It's not always the city's fault, but they have a lot of work to do in determining their priorities and I think they very much want to see motels shut down and I wouldn't disagree. I want to see motels shut down too, but I want alternatives to exist first."
But Reno's Ward 2 City Councilwoman Naomi Duerr says the demolition of motels has not been entirely at the city's discretion.
"There are about 100 motels in our Reno region and about 65 of them are downtown. The city council decided that two of them were in such bad shape. These particular motels had drug paraphernalia there. People had broken into them repeatedly. The city decided we had to do something about it. It was controversial, but we did it and we made the best of it."
In the vein to improve safety and health in the motels the city recently started working with motel owners through the Motel Improvement Team - a division within the Reno Police Department. Sergeant Wade Clark is a spokesperson for the department.
"This is the health code standard, looking at crime prevention through environmental design. You have your washed windows, clean picked-up parking lot, the color of the doors and all the colors match. We really focus on trimming up the trees, making it the broken window effect. Making it very presentable is going to be less inviting to those people that want to do a lot of criminal activity," said Clark.
That will likely take time, and for folks like Greg, who have to live in the motels, time is of the essence.