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City staff mixes code clean-up with affordable housing initiatives, drawing complaints and confusion

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At Wednesday’s Reno City Council workshop, community members took issue with the City of Reno’s code clean-up effort, which they said was more extensive than the city had described. 

City Council members participated in a workshop featuring presentations on affordable housing and were then set to provide direction to staff on “Title 18 Zoning Code Clean-Up.” The clean-up was limited to clarifying regulations, removing inconsistencies, and fixing grammatical and typographical errors, according to the city’s website. Changes to affordable housing regulations were noted as separate from the clean-up items.  

What was presented during the discussion of the code clean-up, however, was primarily a set of measures that would remove the public review of some affordable housing projects, increase density bonuses for affordable housing, and allow for a greater mix of housing types.  

Former City Planning Commission member Mark Johnson said items that were truly code clean-up—about 400 redlined items in the city’s Title 18—had been reviewed extensively and should be approved quickly. The housing initiatives, however, needed broader consideration. He said they should be removed from the clean-up discussion.

“Please be honest with the citizens.”

Multiple people also providing public comment agreed and complained about what they said was the city’s lack of transparency on the topic. Resident Leah Sanders said the “clean up” of zoning codes seemed “normal” based on the city’s description of the work, but it is much more than that.

“Please be honest with the citizens,” Sanders said. “This is not just a clean-up of the code, but new items. I believe that interaction with the public can create consensus rather than the animosity of having things put on them.”

Resident Donna Keats agreed and warned council members that combining code clean-up with text amendments would backfire on the city. 

“You’ve now got a thing in front of you where staff has already gone so far with what they’ve been doing,” Keats said. “They’ve already tied it into the ‘code [clean up]’ when it’s actually an initiative about housing that belongs as a text amendment. There’s a better way to approach the public, and a better way to do this instead of wrapping it into a code amendment that makes it appear that you’re doing a backdoor route to housing densification.” 

Many items presented to council members for discussion and direction during the code clean-up portion of the meeting were pulled from recommendations provided by planning expert Shane Phillips and his report on strategies to improve housing affordability in the city. 

The city’s Assistant Development Director Angela Fuss said Phillips had a lot of really big ideas for housing initiatives that could be part of a more extensive discussion. 

“To answer your question, how come some of the things we’re proposing … are part of the code clean-up?” she said. “The items that Shane proposes were not clean-up items.… Those are big initiatives. What we’re looking at is smaller, incremental pieces. If we don’t like them, we don’t have to approve them.” 

Despite this, the presentation for the code clean-up agenda item was titled “Shane Phillips Housing Recommendations.” 

The bulk of the presentation included ideas for city initiatives that would promote infill and affordable housing development. There was no review of the clean-up items that had been redlined through months of planning commission and public review.

During comments following Fuss’ presentation, Council member Devon Reese said residents were demonizing developers. He also dismissed residents’ concerns about city transparency and public inclusion.

“I think your presentation pointed out that many of these things have been thought about, discussed, chewed on for 20 years,” he said. “I would go as far as to venture to guess we’ve been discussing them forever.” 

Council member Jenny Brekhus expressed confusion when trying to understand the agenda item description and how Fuss’ presentation fit with code clean-up.

“You’re bringing up a lot of things that don’t live in Title 18 [city zoning codes],” she said.  “The most valuable thing here is staff’s time and focus on doing one thing after the other. 

Reno City Council member Naomi Duerr. Image: City of Reno.
Reno City Council member Naomi Duerr.

“The 400 you have, I suppose, of redline you’re out talking to the public about, they’re clean-up … I think that should get done,” she added. “Now, if there are things in there that are policy-setting as related to housing, I don’t think it would be fair to have this conversation here and also be parallel moving those. I do think you need to get those over the finish line.” 

Council member Naomi Duerr agreed, asking for actual code clean-up to be separated from code updates related to housing initiatives.

“Blending the two has created a lot of consternation and unneeded tension,” she said.

What was included in the code clean-up presentation?

Infrastructure and capacity was one area where Fuss said the city is working to improve. She said one idea was to look at desired areas for infill development and, when planning the replacement of sewer lines, place larger lines to accommodate future additional density in the area. 

Other proposals, she said, would not drastically change development but would speed up the process for builders. 

Affordable housing projects, for example, would no longer need to go through a conditional use permit process, which includes public review—they would be able to build according to existing zoning codes by right, going straight to the building permit. Multi-family developments with 100 or fewer units would also skip the public hearing process. 

The addition of duplex, triplex and fourplex housing types was also proposed for some zoning districts to increase the availability of “missing middle” housing that’s more affordable for those earning close to the area median income. 

City staff also proposed increasing density bonuses up to 80%, meaning that a developer planning for 10 units could get up to 18 units instead if they meet the requirements for the density bonus. 

Reno City Council member Jenny Brekhus.
Reno City Council member Jenny Brekhus.

“We did just put in some density bonuses,” Brekhus said, confirming that they’d been added to the zoning code two years ago. “Evaluative feedback loop—if we haven’t had anyone use those, then why are we upping them? Especially when you tell me a priority of mine, a short-term rental ordinance, is three years out.” 

“I really want the data,” she added.

Echoing comments made by Donna Keats during public comment, Brekhus said getting feedback and data from city staff on the results of past changes to the code would help to determine if new proposals are worth time and effort or if they’re “just paper changes.” 

Council members said they favored most of the housing initiatives presented and wanted to have more discussion about them, separate from the code clean-up. Brekhus said the council must also address rent stabilization, which was not among the housing initiatives presented by Fuss.

The council also approved 5-1 a motion for city staff to begin researching and crafting an ordinance for accessory dwelling units, also called “granny flats,” using neighborhood input. Brekhus voted against the motion, despite favoring ADUs, because she said she disagreed with the process and stipulations within the motion. Schieve left the meeting before the vote.

Correction: The vote on ADUs has been updated to reflect that Mayor Schieve was not present.

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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