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Commissioners favor incentives to spur affordable housing growth

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It will take another 225 years to meet the affordable housing needs at the rate affordable housing units have been built in northern Nevada since 2014 according to a presentation to Washoe County Commissioners this week during their annual strategic planning session. 

The county’s JD Klippenstein shared data with commissioners that shows only 850 subsidized affordable housing units have been added in Washoe County since 2018. The gap between inventory and actual need is much larger – a shortage of more than 32,000 affordable units. 

The number of permanent supportive housing units, which would benefit many of the area’s chronically homeless individuals, is also “severely lacking,” Klippenstein said. He calculated it would take more than 10 years at the current rate to offer appropriate housing just to the people on the county’s waiting list. 

“And there are many people on that list that do not have 10 years to wait,” he added.

County staff asked commissioners for direction on what tools to pursue to continue addressing affordable housing challenges in the county and better meet the needs of the community.

Commissioner Mike Clark said the idea of affordable housing is “absurd” if one takes into account the cost of labor, land and materials. He said what the county could address, however, was lowering the fees and streamlining the process for developers building affordable housing units. 

Clark also suggested helping people who are living homeless to find jobs. 

“We do that through our Crossroads program,” Commissioner Vaughn Hartung said.

Both Hartung and Clark zeroed in on the cost of building affordable housing as a barrier. They pointed out that the $21.9 million received by the count from the Home Means Nevada Initiative will only fund 50 permanent supportive housing units, which calculates out to $438,000 per unit. 

“For $440,000 I can take you today to Sparks and buy you a single family home,” Hartung said. 

“To my point, there is no affordable housing,” Clark responded. “You just proved it.” 

Both asked if more units could be built with that budget. 

The county’s Dana Searcy said one of the reasons the cost for the units is so high is because of the nature of the planned tenants, who need ADA accommodations and have other special needs that require durable and accessible housing.

Building codes and processes discussed

Assistant County Manager Dave Solaro said when it comes to streamlining the process of building housing for developers, it makes more sense to look at internal processes that may be obstacles rather than bypassing the public process, such as neighborhood advisory meetings. 

Commissioners Hartung and Clark agreed that forcing mandates for affordable housing on developers wasn’t a way to create more housing. 

“Incentives are much easier for me to swallow,” Hartung said. 

Commissioner Alexis Hill said she would like to see more push on the development community, but sees incentives as a better first step. 

Commissioners also agreed for county planners to consider softening certain building standards for affordable housing developments. That might look like relaxing parking standards for such developments, such as allowing carports rather than single car garages. 

County code also permits commissioners to give county land to nonprofits to build affordable housing units, which is another incentive commissioners agreed to explore. The practice, which falls into an incentive category called land banking, would allow the county to eliminate one of the largest costs associated with building housing. 

“I’m pro land banking,” Hill said. 

Commissioner Mariluz Garcia agreed.

Other incentives commissioners approved for consideration and review include speeding up the permit process for affordable housing developments, relaxing standards for accessory dwelling units and density bonuses.

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

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