Rapid population growth in Washoe County has led to a critical shortage of affordable housing and higher demands on services across the region. Alexis Hill is the Democratic candidate for the District 1 seat on the Washoe County Commission.
She spoke with KUNR's Paul Boger about how the county should respond to this issue.
BOGER: Ms. Hill, as a candidate for county commission, what do you see as the biggest issues facing Washoe County?
HILL: Well, quality of life, probably as an umbrella issue, but when you do a deep dive [into] that, it's the question of growth. How do we ensure that our growth is smart and that we aren't growing so that we are doing without our incredible open spaces, our wildlands, and we're preserving the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe, which are our biggest assets? Then, if you can't afford to live here, then you will have down-the-line issues of homelessness, so really dealing with: How are we going to grow as a community? That's an exciting thing that I really want to tackle as a county commissioner.
BOGER: All right, let's break that down a little bit. You mentioned affordability. Housing costs in Washoe County are among the fastest growing in the entire country. What can the commission do to address the affordability problem here?
HILL: Well, I think it comes with a regional approach, which is part of the reason why I’m running on a platform of regionalization, working with the cities and the state on this issue, because it's multi-pronged. There's a lot of ways that you can work on affordable housing. It isn't just like every new development, ‘Put an apartment complex and there is no affordable housing.’ That's not the way to solve that. You can work with your development partners and incentivize through making permitting easier, you know, this smart development. So, is it safe? Is it accessible to transportation? Is it reasonably priced? So, that is one way that you can do it.
Also working on, how do you ensure that people who already have housing, they're already in an unstable housing situation, how do we ensure that they can stay in their places and not eventually have to live on the street? So, working through these regional bodies that do rental assistance and then preserving the affordable housing projects that we have currently.
A lot of [affordable housing projects] are aging out of the system and they could become market rate or they're very, very old and they need rehab, so working on those projects. There are a lot of ways to look at this, and the county plays a major role as a convener and also through funding. They created the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, but they have not funded it. I think that there's a lot of opportunities to work with existing structures and relentlessly every day, [work] with these partners to solve this issue. It's not something that you're like, ‘Okay, well, we have so many affordable housing projects in our community, now we're done.’ You have to stay on this, especially because we are such a desirable place to live, even now during the pandemic.
BOGER: In that same vein, homelessness seems to be this ever-present concern. Of course, the county and cities have taken steps individually, like building new shelters, but what else can the county do to help these people?
HILL: This goes back to that regionalization. I think that many citizens are frustrated with the fact that the cities and the county seem to be working in their little areas about, ‘Well, we're addressing the men's shelter,’ or, ‘We're addressing the women and family shelter.’ They're more addressing the symptoms and not the causes of homelessness. There are many best practices that other communities are using. One of them is 'built for zero.' For example, we have 2,000 people living on the street. That's so big. What do we do? You're looking at it on a person-by-person, unique basis because these are people in our community, so they all have different issues and needs, and they all deserve to be looked at as individuals, not as one big group. So, you may have someone living on the street who has a job, and perhaps it wasn't a domestic violence situation. There are resources for that, right?
There may be someone living on the street because they have some sort of chronic addiction issue. There are resources for that. There may be someone who's living there because they have mental health issues. What you do is you work with these people, what kind of benefits do they have? Are there social safety nets that we can help them find and reach out to? I think, down the line, you're looking at families even using navigators. Say that there is someone in their family that has a mental health issue and is on the street, but maybe has a place to live most of the time. They can work through the resources through the state, the resources through the county, and the cities to find solutions. So I think that this is something that we can actually tackle, especially with chronic and veterans homelessness. There are many models out there and I'm very excited about the possibility of ending chronic and veterans homelessness in Washoe County.
BOGER: At this point we don't really know what kind of impact the COVID-19 pandemic will ultimately have on the area's economy. What steps would you recommend as a commissioner to balance the county's budget if there was a steep shortfall?
HILL: What is exciting to me is that the county has a more stable budget than the state because we do not rely on gaming revenue. The county relies mainly on property tax, so that has been quite stable, not to say that that won't change. So, I think that the biggest thing to look at is upper management receiving the highest pay cuts. I have a real problem when governmental entities look at across-the-board pay cuts, when you have lower level staff who are barely making it as it is, and then you're going to cut their very low pay, so that would be a number one, ‘All right, how do we fix this?’
Obviously, looking at the hiring freezes and some of those things that they've already done on the county and the city levels, and then looking at essential services and protecting our most vulnerable people would be number two, and preserving those budgets because, down the line, it's only a more expensive thing for the government to fix, if you have more people living on the street or more people struggling, more children who aren't able to be taken care of by their families.
And then, public safety, so looking at the fires that have been raging that, you know, it's really important that we make sure that we are maintaining our wildland fire budgets as well.
BOGER: Would you be willing to raise taxes?
HILL: Well, I'm an all-of-the-options candidate, so I want to look at all of the options and I don't want to say today to you, 'I will never increase taxes' or 'I will never do XYZ.' I just would need to know, what is it going towards? Is it going towards the affordable housing trust fund? Is it going towards a new county building? Do we need that? So, I would like to really have that sussed out.
What I found when I was a planner and working deep in the recession, and I saw that coming over my community and the City of Sparks, and how [the] government did not step up during that time to support small businesses. Everyone just cut everywhere across the board and, you have to do what's necessary, but I think we have seen that government support of particular programs can help with [the] economic vitality of your community, so through public/private partnerships, through grant opportunities, through low-cost pilot programs, there's a lot of ways to fund our community.
What's so exciting, and talking to residents and talking to business owners, is they want to step up and live in the most livable county in the country, and they want to find ways to do that.
BOGER: Over the past few months, there have been increasing calls for police reform, including changes to how communities pay for law enforcement. You know, while the commission doesn't actually have direct oversight over the Sheriff's office, it does approve the budget for the Sheriff's office and the jail. So, my question is, would you support those reform efforts?
HILL: Well, I think that we need to rethink what we are asking the police to do. So right now, we're asking a lot of our jurisdictional partners, police and the sheriff's office to deal with homelessness, to deal with drug addiction, to deal with mental health issues, so I think that we need to look at what these calls for service are and how we can support our police. I like to look at how can we support the police with additional training. They ask for it every year in their budget. I sat down with the deputy sheriffs and they told me they asked for a de-escalation training, but it's very hard to get OT for their officers to take off to do the training because that's, obviously, time that they're not spending doing patrol or working in the jail.
[I'm] really looking at supporting better recruitment and ensuring that you're recruiting diverse people in our community and that the police do feel like they are part of our community. So, I think you have to look at this in a lot of different ways, and what was exciting to me, and talking to the sheriff's office, is that they understand that this is a concern in the community and they want to address it. They want to come to the table with options and they are doing really creative things in the jail that need to be supported, so I think that looking holistically at the whole issue is really important, and how we do wrap around services with people who end up in the jail? And how we ensure that our police represent all of us in our community?
I think that these things have opened our eyes to institutional racism. It's in all facets of our world, but I think the government needs to do a better job of addressing it and ensuring that everyone feels that we are accountable and we're meeting the needs of the community. So, I think that there's a lot of opportunities to address how we do better policing in our community. At least we have leaders in this community who want to come to the table with options.
BOGER: Alexis Hill is the Democratic candidate for Washoe County Commission District 1. Ms. Hill, thank you for joining me.
HILL: Thank you, Paul.