Experts say housing crunch, economic growth are gentrifying the rural West
The affordable housing crisis is usually understood as a problem in the Mountain West’s cities and resort towns. But it’s also happening in rural areas with booming economies.
Winnemucca, Nevada, lies in the Great Basin an hour south of the Oregon border. High-desert peaks rise sharply on all sides and a sea of sagebrush stretches to the horizon.
Leslie Reed is exactly the kind of person you’d expect to meet out here. She’s self-sufficient, stubborn and doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. Reed lives in an RV park near the golf course with five rescue dogs, one cat and two Russian tortoises. But she’d rather be out in the country.
“I don’t live in neighborhoods, OK? I have the animals. I like my privacy,” she said. “My illness has forced me to move to town.”
Reed is 63 years old and suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Back in July, she says, her health took a turn for the worse.
“I was having bad heart things and sitting on the floor at work, vomiting, because I was overworking,” she said.
Reed lost her job at a local laundromat, which put her in a real jam. In Winnemucca – where the population is just 8,431 – rents are climbing fast.
Affordable housing shortages in Mountain West cities and resort towns are well-documented. But low-income residents in rural areas are finding it harder to stay housed, too, as waves of gentrification move inland from the coast. Nevada ranks last in the nation in terms of available units per 100 extremely low-income households, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Alaine Nye directs the Winnemucca nonprofit Frontier Community Action Agency. She says there aren’t many options for people in Reed’s position.
“Affordable housing is few and far between,” she said.
Nye and her staff were able to get Reed on the waitlist for a federal rent subsidy and they’re helping her navigate the process of getting disability benefits. While Reed waits, her landlord is letting her keep the spot where she parks her fifth wheel. But many of her neighbors haven’t been so lucky.
Nye says the agency’s caseload began to grow after COVID hit, as unemployment rates and real estate values soared nationwide. Today, some of its clients are staying in temporary lodging, because there aren’t any emergency shelters in the area.
“There’s 71 living in motels right now,” she said. “That’s the highest number that we’ve ever had.”
The Nevada Rural Housing Authority is also trying to get a handle on the crisis. It recently bought two apartment complexes in Winnemucca intended for seniors and very low-income households – for example, a family of four making less than $42,000 a year.
One of those buildings is the Mountain View apartment complex. During a site visit a few months ago, half the units still had the original faded blue siding. Across the parking lot, the rest had been cut open to show reflective sheets of new insulation.
Beth Dunning works for the housing authority and gave a guided tour of the units as they were being remodeled.
“We’ve removed all of the flooring, all of the cabinets, all of the appliances,” she said. “We’re replacing any damaged doors. We’re replacing all of the plumbing fixtures, faucets, toilets, sinks. All of that gets replaced.”
Housing authority staff estimate the apartments should open up next winter. But it could have been a lot sooner if they didn’t have to bring supplies and contractors in from Reno and Las Vegas.
On top of that, they’re dealing with COVID-related delays.
“Mechanical equipment has taken us longer to obtain than we would like,” Dunning said. “Furnaces, fan coil units, condenser units, windows. We’re at, like, a 16-week procurement period.”
Meanwhile, the housing shortage isn’t just bad for people like Leslie Reed. Local officials say it’s a big problem for employers, too. Jan Morrison runs economic development for Humboldt County, which includes Winnemucca.
“You can’t have employees if they don’t have a place to go home to at night,” she said.
County Assessor Andy Heiser says the crunch has his office struggling to fill open positions. Job seekers who can’t find a place to live are deciding to look somewhere else.
“After looking at our current housing market, they decided to pull their application,” he said.
Morrison says the local economy is on track to add around 2,000 jobs over the next five years – and since she published her most recent report in February, projections have continued to grow. But there aren’t enough locals to fill them, so they’ll need to bring in more workers.
She says nearby gold and silver mines are helping drive up prices, too, because they pay much more than most other industries. On average, Nevada miners make more than $120,000 each year.
“They can afford a higher price,” she said. “If we don’t have the product for them to move into, they’re going to move into what they can get.”
And what they can get is often the housing that lower-income residents used to depend on.
According to Ryanne Pilgeram, the influx of well-paid workers – like Humboldt County’s miners or remote employees who left big cities during the pandemic – is pushing working-class residents out.
“Rural communities are every bit as inundated with global economic forces and laws as the Bay Area,” she said.
Pilgeram is an associate professor at the University of Idaho who studies rural gentrification and literally wrote the book on the subject. Pushed Out: Contested Development and Rural Gentrification in the U.S. West, published last year, takes a close look at how high-end development is changing the small community of Dover, Idaho.
Pilgeram says these economic changes are a wake-up call for Idaho, Nevada and other Western states.
“We can look at what’s happened in California and think, ‘Do we want this to be our fate?’ ”
Pilgeram says it will take political will to confront the crisis. But just like affordable housing, she says, that can be hard to develop.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.