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Opinion: City responsible for homeless shelter’s neglect, damage


By Ilya Arbatman

I think I speak for my fellow advocates as well as for any Reno resident who cares about fiscal responsibility and equitable treatment of our unhoused community when I say I am appalled and ashamed at the city’s—the manager’s, in particular—irresponsible, conspiratorial and possibly illegal mismanagement of the Community Assistance Center (CAC) buildings. 

Not only was this memorandum presented in clear violation of Open Meeting Law—the Reno City Council had the memo in their possession and were clearly discussing it even though nothing pertaining to it had (or has!) been agendized—but its contents also clearly demonstrate the city’s intentional neglect of the CAC buildings for many years. 

It seems clear they have been running these buildings into the ground and shirking obvious maintenance and repairs with one primary, although unstated, intent: to sell the CAC and abandon responsibility for any homeless services permanently. 

Despite numerous public discussions over the past few years where Mayor Hillary Schieve and other City Council members have indicated support for turning the CAC into transitional and supportive housing, City Manager Doug Thornley has clearly remained steadfast in his purpose to turn essential public facilities into another brewery district developer’s vulturous plaything. 

When confronted about their obstinance when it comes to expanding essential services for the most vulnerable, the manager and city officials recite one refrain: Title 18, Title 18, Title 18. 

That references a section of Reno’s zoning code (Title 18.03.303) that dates back to a 2002 settlement with local casinos, after which certain zoning rules were put in place that limit the number, location and type of facilities that provide homeless services. 

It’s possible there was no actual legal “conflict” between the city and the casinos; rather, a tidy and convenient opportunity arose to corral the unhoused population and put in place long-lasting, arbitrary and restrictive rules around extending services to those in need— the City could shrug its shoulders and innocently say, “It wasn’t us! The casinos made us do it!” And the casinos didn’t mind a little villainous luster. 

The fact remains that this section of our zoning code is not set in stone. There are variances, exceptions and changes to Reno’s zoning code practically every week. It is a living document, a part of the city that evolves and adapts along with the city itself. 

Don’t take it from me: The city is actually in the middle of editing Title 18 right now, and they have asked the public for input:  https://www.reno.gov/government/departments/development-services/zoning-code/zoning-code-clean-up. Take a look at one of their supposed priorities (citation from the Zoning Code Clean-Up page):

“Separate from the clean-up items, the City Council has also identified specific ordinances and regulations that need to be updated. These are larger priorities such as sign regulations, affordable housing regulations, telecommunications, sustainability and residential compatibility.”  

What could be more pertinent to affordable housing than existing facilities in downtown that were basically built to be transitional housing? Repurposing the CAC this way would not violate Title 18 rules around homeless services, but that’s only part of my point. 

We have an opening right now to accept the city’s invitation and let them know that Title 18 zoning rules around restricting services for vulnerable populations need to be changed. The city has considered changing them in the past (https://www.rgj.com/story/news/2017/11/07/reno-law-prohibits-building-second-reno-homeless-shelter/841985001/) but has grown terrified about even agendizing such a discussion in recent years. 

Why? I don’t think it has anything to do with the 2002 lawsuit. The city has long since fulfilled the obligations of that settlement, and Reno is a much different place today than it was 20 years ago. The hypothetical shelter discussed in that settlement—one for the whole city—would house a maximum of 94 people. CARES routinely houses around 700.

Here is a link to the municipal code so you can review it yourself: 


The pertinent section is 18.03.303 (2) items a – l. Items g and j are the most egregious.

Here is where we are and where we need to be headed:

  1. Council and the manager need to be held accountable for possibly violating the Open Meeting Law and discussing the CAC without agendizing it.

2. Council and the manager need to be held accountable for willfully neglecting the CAC buildings.

3. The city should not be allowed to sell or dismantle the CAC. They need to repair these buildings and agendize a discussion regarding their future use, such as for transitional, supportive housing or an additional women’s and family shelter managed by RISE.

4. Council needs to agendize a discussion regarding Title 18 rules around homeless services. 

Let’s “clean up” the intentionally harmful and needlessly restrictive rules around providing services to those in need. Why are these rules still in place? What possible justification can they have?

In the meantime, you can submit a comment on Title 18 yourself. 

Here is the link again: https://www.reno.gov/government/departments/development-services/zoning-code/zoning-code-clean-up

Scroll down to submit a public comment. I’d suggest removing restrictive language around homeless services from Title 18.03.303. 

Ilya Arbatman is a Ward 3 resident, small business owner, and community advocate. He currently sits on the Ward 3 Neighborhood Advisory Board.

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