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How we fix Nevada’s housing crisis

Rebecca Davis
Rebecca Davis
Opinion
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Nevada is in an affordable housing crisis, and our government is responsible. How so? A lack of available land, draconian zoning laws, and unnecessary burdens on developers are all government-initiated factors that are responsible for high housing prices.

This is a problem that every Nevadan has experienced, renters and owners alike. While you’ll hear talking heads and lazy politicians suggest rent controls and government mandated restrictions on property owners, you won’t hear much (if any) discussion about real solutions that address the root cause of the issue. 

The facts:

  • Nevada ranks No. 43 in the U.S. for housing affordability.
  • Nevada has seen massive population growth, amongst the highest in the nation.
  • Nevada’s unemployment rate is above the national average.
  • 80 percent of the land in Nevada is owned by government entities (both federal and state). 
  • Because so much land is off-limits to private housing development, reduced supply inevitably has driven up prices over time — not, as some politicians would lead you to believe, the “greed” of property owners and corporations. If there was more supply, prices would have to fall as owners are pressured to become more competitive in the market.

Zoning

It’s time for Nevada to abolish a variety of stringent zoning laws if we are to build more affordable, vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Inflexible zoning laws create arbitrary restrictions, cripple growth, and are a major contributing factor to Nevada’s affordable housing crisis.

Zoning heavily restricts the amount of housing that may be built in any given neighborhood, what type of housing is permitted to be built, and the size of the housing unit(s). Zoning restrictions severely limit new housing development and cause median housing prices to outpace median incomes. A lack of supply and competition creates wildly inflated prices, in turn forcing Nevadans to struggle to afford rising rent prices or to purchase a home.

Nolan Gray from the Mercatus Center at GMU said it best; “Tucked away behind a veil of ‘protecting community character,’ zoning has been used to determine who gets to live where since its inception. In practice, this has been used toward the end of rigid economic segregation, which in the American context often means racial segregation. In virtually every suburb in America, zoning maintains a kind of technocratic apartheid, preserving those areas most suitable for housing for the wealthy while locking less privileged Americans into neglected areas far from good jobs and quality public services.”

All over the U.S., one can easily find cities that allow for strategies to affordable housing such as “building up” and other friendly forms of urban growth. Think apartments above businesses, corner groceries in neighborhoods, garages or older buildings converted into new living spaces, and more. Las Vegas is void of any of these innovations because existing zoning laws do not allow it.

We must reform or outright abolish many city and county zoning laws if we are to make Nevada more affordable and livable for everyone. Removing restrictions like apartment bans, minimum lot size restrictions, parking requirements, and barriers to multi-use properties is key. We must begin to build “up” instead of building “out”. We must transition from NIMBYism to YIMBYism.

According to available data, there were 543,036 single family homes in Clark County as of 2020. If merely 1 percent of these homes were legally able to be split into 2 units, such an allowance would generate nearly 5,500 new units. That alone would dramatically put more competition in the market, causing prices to decrease. Not to mention, we could house citizens at diverse points. That’s it, just 1 percent! Such a small number has the power to change lives. 

Elected officials know this; we just need them to take a stand for Nevadans.

Barriers to development

Real estate and property developers are key players in fixing our housing crisis. They have the desire to create more inventory, but they often face outsized barriers and challenges from local and state governments that limit them from doing their jobs. Zoning, plan approval and permit processes, and development regulations discourage developers from building new and affordable properties. 

It can take sometimes as long as five years for a developer to get from start to finish on a large housing development because of unnecessary bureaucratic red tape that does little to nothing to improve safety, mitigate environmental factors, or serve potential dwellers.

And, while developers are often vilified by politicians as greedy corporatists, such a caricature is self-serving. In fact, Par Tolles, CEO for Tolles Development Company in Reno, has been quoted, “Removing and reducing regulatory barriers at all levels will allow more affordable housing to be built by reducing the cost of building for developers.” 

He’s not wrong.

The bottom line is that Nevada must make it easier for developers to operate, build, and innovate in our state. We can do so without compromising safety and environmental impacts. We simply need our elected officials to put in the work to remove these barriers and restrictions before it’s too late.

Conclusion

Sadly, our current governor, legislators and local elected officials are showing zero interest in addressing the root causes of our affordable housing crisis. Instead, they are throwing money at the problem (just like they have done to our failing public education system — another ineffective tactic) merely for photo ops and PR stunts. But the illusion of doing “good” is more detrimental than the act of doing nothing. To know the issue, to be aware of the steps to fix it, and to choose not to take those steps is incomprehensible.

Rebecca Davis is a businesswoman, educator, and writer in Southern Nevada. She owns an academic consultancy, Cultivate Academics. The views expressed are those of the author, not Cultivate Academics, or any political party.

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