From tents to tiny houses, advocates get creative to address Nevada’s affordable housing shortage
Amid a global pandemic and an unforgiving job market that's contributing to an impending eviction crisis, and as politicians in Reno and Las Vegas grapple with ways to address homelessness in the long term, individuals and nonprofits are developing creative solutions to address an affordable housing crunch.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a person or household's income. That’s hard to come by for people in the lowest income brackets.
In Reno, there are only 41 affordable housing units for every 100 renter households earning between 31 and 50 percent of the median income. For every 100 renters making 30 percent or less of the area’s median income, there are only 27 affordable units available, according to an analysis of Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy (CHAS) data from 2010-2014.
There were also more than 7,000 people experiencing homelessness in Nevada as of January 2019 — an estimate that officials believe is an undercount.
Though organizations and officials acknowledge the need for affordable housing in cities such as Las Vegas and Reno, costs and hurdles to developers, along with negative perceptions of affordable housing, can often hinder its creation.
Despite the challenges, housing advocates and various nonprofits are working to address a need that they say cannot be ignored any longer. Their solutions range from a facility offering health care and other services to a tent drive to solve an immediate need for shelter.
Read on to hear about initiatives across the Silver State designed to help some of its most at-risk populations.
Affordable housing communities for all
Arnold Stalk, who has a doctorate in architecture and urban design with a background in urban planning, grew up in a middle-class household in Culver City, California.
He hadn't thought about homelessness in-depth until he began working at a development agency in Los Angeles focusing on Skid Row, where Stalk saw a level of poverty that he described as "not acceptable."
"Our society should never allow that," he said.
After his time in Los Angeles, Stalk took a position as the City of Las Vegas's housing division director. He said he continued to see the problem of poverty and homelessness worsen as officials failed to adequately address the need for affordable housing and the needs of a subset of the homeless population — homeless veterans.
Stalk, whose father was a World War II veteran, said he noticed how veterans who put their lives on the line to protect others' freedoms were often left without services, housing or support.
"There's two large obstacles [to building affordable housing]: one is political. And the other is the availability of money," Stalk said.
Stigma surrounding homeless individuals and a Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) mentality from voters often means that politicians shy away from affordable housing initiatives for fear of angering residents who live near planned developments, he added.
In 2010, Stalk founded Veterans Village, an organization dedicated to helping homeless veterans find affordable housing. As he spent more time working with homeless veterans, he realized that he needed to expand the program. In 2012, he merged Veterans Village with Share, a foundation he started in 1993 that provided financial support to nonprofit organizations addressing poverty.
The nonprofit housing corporation Share Village Las Vegas maintains, manages, and secures transitional and permanent rental housing for low-income individuals who might not be able to afford it otherwise. It also partners with agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Veterans Affairs and other organizations that provide residents with caseworkers and help to pay or subsidize rent.
"The government has all these catchy terms — instant housing, rapid rehousing, wraparound services," Stalk said. "None of it means anything if that one person does not have access to a skilled caseworker or medical care."
Though Share Village houses more than 500 people a night, Stalk said many more people do not have a safe place to stay.
"The poverty situation here has gotten much worse," Stalk said. "The problem has intensified ... the lack of inventory of affordable housing is scary."
Stalk has a master plan to help end homelessness in the region that calls for expanding Share Villages across Southern Nevada, fixing up old apartment complexes, finding development-friendly areas, and working on experimental affordable housing techniques such as a recent project to turn ocean shipping containers into houses.
"I want people to understand that there is a way to help people so that they don't live out on the streets," Stalk said.
The homelessness crisis stems from a lack of prioritization on the part of the government, he said.
"If we could come up with a vaccine for a killer that's killed tens of thousands of people in record time, why the hell are we not coming up with other solutions?" Stalk said.
Community dorm-style housing
In Reno, the Village on Sage Street offers modular dorm-style housing for $400 a month to low-income residents.
The village does not have a time limit on how long someone can live there and offers personal finance classes and homeownership counseling, among other services to those residing there.
"The whole idea is that someone could stay there for maybe a few months to a year and they're in a position where they're able to pay off debt, maybe they can buy a car, they can move on to get better employment," said Nick Tscheekar, the community engagement officer for the nonprofit Community Foundation of Western Nevada, which brought together the City of Reno, builders, philanthropists and Volunteers of America to create the housing project.
The project began in 2017 when the foundation started researching various solutions for the community's lack of affordable housing. When developers found housing units used in a Wyoming mining project for sale, the foundation began raising funds and setting up to build on land the City of Reno donated for the project.
Completed in July 2019, the village houses 216 individuals who earn roughly $1,320 to $2,735 a month or are on Social Security or disability payments.
Though the average age of people staying in the village is around 51, Tscheekar said that younger people also live there, including college students who otherwise might not be able to afford housing and school fees.
"We needed to make sure that this was something where it was truly affordable," Tscheekar said. "With the village right now … even if you're earning minimum wage, and you work full time, you're still only spending 30 percent of your income on rent."
The village also plays a crucial role for senior citizens on a waitlist for senior low-income housing property, Tscheekar added. Local weekly motels, which average around $225 a week and $900 a month, are often outside of the price range for fixed-income seniors.
Since the village opened, Tscheekar said that 311 people had moved in, and about 110 have moved out because they sought other housing options or found employment elsewhere.
Tscheekar said that to many people, the problem of homelessness feels insurmountable, without any concrete solutions. But, every effort helps a little, he said.
"The village really allows people to move on to that path of self-sufficiency,” Tscheekar said. “You don't have to worry about the expensive housing costs, that you can focus on your personal and professional development."
Tents for immediate sheltering needs
Erika Minaberry, a guest services advocate for the Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality (RISE) and the co-chair of Northern Nevada Democratic Socialists of America (NNDSA), is organizing a tent drive to help secure shelter for unsheltered populations.
Minaberry, who had to relinquish custody of her children about 15 years ago because she could not afford housing, explained that many people are one tragedy or one sick day away from being unsheltered.
Having a tent can mean the difference between life or death, especially when the local shelters lack space and there's not enough affordable housing in the region, she said.
"The most important thing is, first of all, meeting people where they're at," Minaberry said.
Through her position at RISE, Minaberry said she sees many donations that people cannot use, such as stained tank tops or expired food, but what people need immediately is a place to stay warm.
"When I was working at RISE just a couple of weeks ago, there weren't enough beds [at the women's shelter],” Minaberry said. “And so people were being turned away, and there weren't any other services to provide for these women that now are out in the street with nowhere to go.”
Winter's freezing temperatures pose a threat to all individuals, especially those living outdoors, she added.
"The first night that it was super freezing, I had trouble putting my key into the door, because it was so cold. My hands were shaking, and everything in my mind was just like, 'Oh, my God, get inside'... and this is me being outside for 15 minutes," Minaberry said. "What would the narrative be if there was no inside to get into?"
NNDSA's project aims to collect at least 100 tents and care packages with necessities such as flashlights and sleeping bags during the holiday season.
"As this holiday is coming up, and we're all buying things for our loved ones, I am encouraging everyone to buy a tent, in the name of your loved one, because that is what this community needs," Minaberry said. "We need to uplift everyone in the community."
Transitional housing with support services
One of the newest projects addressing the affordable housing crisis and homelessness in Northern Nevada is a bridge housing community or transitional housing program offering access to medical and wellness support services, individualized care plans, and job training through Northern Nevada HOPES, a community health center.
The project, called Hope Springs, is a transitional, rehabilitation program that will allow individuals to stay in tiny homes for four to six months and build the foundation needed to move into more permanent housing, according to Mandi Fleiner, the director of philanthropy and communications at HOPES. It is set to open in January.
Fleiner described the project as part of a larger housing continuum stretching from an immediate emergency shelter to a permanent living situation.
"Housing is health care. We know that in order to be able to help give services to a person we need to think about that whole person and that starts with … a roof over their head, that food security, the safety in that," Fleiner said.
The 30-person facility created as a partnership between the City of Reno and various nonprofits and foundations is open to referrals from doctors, case managers and other individuals. Those hoping to go through the program will take a readiness assessment that will consider factors such as socioeconomic status and mental health and wellness.
Once selected, residents will have access to behavioral and mental health services along with classes on budgeting, cooking and other skills. When they "graduate" from the program, Fleiner said, their goal is to have money for first and last month's rent and be on their way to a more permanent housing situation.
Reno's growth in recent years is a blessing and a curse, Fleiner said, emphasizing that the cost of housing poses barriers and faulting someone for being homeless does not consider the complete picture.
"These people are just like you and me. Some of these people are college educated, some of these people have just fallen on hard times," Fleiner said. "We really need to help them understand that the community is behind them.”
Fleiner grew up in Reno and has family members who HOPES helped. She said that though the new program is small and just starting, it could be an example for other projects.
"We're going to service maybe 60 individuals a year. We know the problem is much bigger than that so ... we're looking at this as a pilot program," Fleiner said. "I'm excited to share our best practices, our learnings ... Let's replicate this, let's think about a way to help serve many more community members."
Buy a home, build a home
Blair Gordon will never forget the week before Christmas when he and his wife and two children had to leave home and move into a friend's basement.
"It was the worst feeling in the world," Gordon said.
The experience of losing his home after getting laid off from work made him realize the precariousness of the line between "homed" and homeless.
Despite the situation, Gordon said he was lucky — he lived in his friend's basement and eventually moved to Las Vegas and started Right Bilt Homes two years ago. The company builds tiny houses starting at around $35,000.
"I was given the opportunity. I was given a place to live, and I want to give other people that — basic as it is, that start back to wherever they are, no matter how long, whether they've been homeless for a week or 10 years," Gordon said.
To give back, Gordon said he plans to address a gap in affordable housing by taking part of the proceeds from sales of his tiny homes to build free tiny homes for organizations working to address homelessness.
"I knew I couldn't do one-for-one like TOMS shoes or Bombas socks or anything, I knew I couldn't build a house for a house. But I knew I could do something where a portion of the proceeds went into a fund that we use to build something that I could then give away to nonprofits," Gordon said,
Though he has not partnered with any nonprofits in Nevada, Gordon said he is working on some housing for nonprofit organizations in California.
"I don't think homelessness is as much of a choice as people assume it is," Gordon said. "The idea for me is to provide them ... with the stepping stones to get back to where they should be."
The solution to homelessness doesn't lie solely with housing, Gordon said. Still, he hopes the nonprofits he partners with can help provide the services necessary to ending homelessness, and his housing can help with that effort.
He hopes other businesses will start to give back too.
"The resources for [homeless populations], no matter where they go, is so limited that after a while they get frustrated and they're waiting. And they're on waitlist and they just give up, and then they're just forgotten about," Gordon said. "We shouldn't be the only [housing company] that can do this, it should be like any house builder, the biggest house builder down to the smallest tiny house building company, can do this."