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City council continues review of housing ordinance changes

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Affordable housing was back on the agenda at Wednesday’s Reno City Council meeting as Assistant Development Services Director Angela Fuss reviewed options for potential ordinance changes. She gathered feedback on incentives for developers, expediting projects and zoning changes for multi-family projects. 

The changes are required by a state law–passed as Assembly Bill 213 during the 2023 legislative session–that requires each county and city to create development incentives and a process for speeding the approval of affordable housing projects. 

One incentive city staff proposed would be to allow projects with units priced for those at or below 60% AMI (area median income) to go straight to the building permit phase so long as they meet building setback, height and zoning requirements. 

The city’s planning commission also recommended allowing affordable housing projects to be built two stories higher, eliminating requirements for minor and major deviations to setbacks and removing parking requirements. 

Mayor Hillary Schieve said she was against the idea of allowing projects to go straight to the permit phase.  

“The first thing that comes out of my mouth, because you know me and I’ll say it out loud, is ‘hell no,’” she said. “I can’t even imagine … I just want to cringe.”

She added that balancing what members of the public do and don’t want is challenging for the council, especially when it comes to affordable housing. 

“There are a lot of people that are struggling, really needing affordability, and there are other people out there saying ‘How dare you, how dare you,’” Schieve said. “It’s unbelievable to actually see the divide on both sides. Unless you really, really feel it, unless you’re one of those that can’t afford it, versus can afford it, it’s really, really hard to watch.” 

Schieve said she also broadly opposes allowing development by right. 

“When I see it I’m like, ‘What is that? How does that happen?’” she said. “Then on the other flip side, you guys will understand this, especially some of you that might lean a little more to the right, you know, people always say, ‘Hey we want government to get out of the way, we want less red tape,’ then when you propose it, ‘Woah! … You can’t have it both ways.” 

Council member Naomi Duerr said the city is already ahead of meeting the state law requirements for streamlining affordable housing developments. 

“We’ve already done these things,” she said. However, Duerr said she’d support more changes, including expediting the construction and building permit phases as opposed to the review portion. 

Council member Kathleen Taylor said she was in support of speeding the review phase and all other proposals involving affordable housing. She pointed out that the projects would still need to meet all requirements and codes to move forward. 

“We’re getting caught up in the fear of the unknown,” Taylor said. 

Council member Miguel Martinez said he agreed with Taylor, noting he’s hearing from constituents that more affordable housing is needed. He said many of these types of projects would be approved by right in his ward. 

Council member Devon Reese said he was in the middle but did not agree with allowing projects to go straight through the review process. He said he wants the community to be able to provide input on projects before they can move forward.

Fuss said that based on the feedback she would not move forward with the straight-to-permitting proposal. 

However, all council members agreed with the proposal to have a liaison from the city’s permitting office be assigned to affordable housing projects. The liaison would help developers work through the permitting process in a one-on-one fashion to make sure the process is streamlined. 

Community: Less sprawl, fewer apartments 

Council members also discussed proposals for increasing the city’s housing supply. Fuss said community feedback related to increasing density is to stop the “sprawl” of housing, but that the community also does not want to see more apartment buildings either. 

“So how do we increase density without apartments?” Fuss asked. “We came up with some creative ideas we thought the community could get on board with.” 

The city already allows some density bonuses for developers who are building within a specific square footage per unit. Density bonuses are incentives offered to developers allowing them to build more units than zoning code would normally allow if a certain number of those units are sized to be affordable for low- to moderate-income households.

“A four-plex is not a single-family house, and calling it one doesn’t make it one.”

The first suggestion was to increase the density bonus, which council members supported, though they disagreed on the details. Current standards allow density bonuses for units between 1,000 and 1,800 square feet. 

Duerr said a 1,800-square-foot unit is the size of a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, and should not be included. 

“I think these limits are too big … what I would recommend is reducing these through the code,” Duerr said. She suggested using categories of 800, 1,000 and 1,200 square feet. 

Fuss also suggested allowing smaller multi-family projects to be developed by right if they were less than 100 units. 

Recent development examples Fuss showed were the 40-unit Vesta Apartments, the 40-unit Orovada Apartments and the 18-unit Grand Canyon Apartments which, if a new ordinance were enacted, could have been built without seeking special permits so long as everything was up to code. 

Most council members, however, were against any building by right. 

“I have concerns on by-right for anything; I don’t think it’s the right way to go,” Duerr said. 

“This is giving staff a lot more authority,” Council member Jenny Brekhus said.

She said she would be in support of by-right development, in theory, if there were more design standards in place within city code. 

The potential expansion of duplex, triplex and fourplex developments within lower-density single-family neighborhoods was also a point of concern for council and community members. 

Many public commenters were against the proposed ordinance changes because they did not want to see higher-density developments in established neighborhoods.

“I oppose upzoning of single-family areas,” Ward 2 resident Tom Tate said. “A four-plex is not a single-family house, and calling it one doesn’t make it one.”

After lengthy discussions, the council opted against allowing any multi-plex housing within two zoning areas within the city. Apartments are still allowed.

“I am not in favor of this proposal; I believe fundamentally that I don’t want to deprive neighborhoods [the ability] to have input in these projects,” Reese said. “I don’t think that makes a measurable difference, and it will not  move the needle on affordable housing.” 

Fuss will return in June for a first reading of the proposed ordinances.

Kelsey Penrose
Kelsey Penrose
Kelsey Penrose is a proud Native Nevadan whose work in journalism and publishing can be found throughout the Sierra region. She received degrees in English Literature and Anthropology from Arizona State University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Creative Writing with the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe. She is an avid supporter of high desert agriculture and rescue dogs.

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