A world apart
At the bottom of Kingsbury Grade, where the Sierra Nevada meets the Carson Valley, dozens of people greet each other in the morning chill, looking for their 11-mile ride to Lake Tahoe.
Some car pool. Others, like Manny Terrez of Gardnerville, will get a ride from a friend in the house where he rents a room, to the base of the grade. For several months, Terrez found rides from the bottom of the grade to get to his job as a laborer at the Marriott project.
“Sometimes I (had) to wait 30 minutes for a ride; other times, 5 minutes,” said Terrez, 32, who was told about the Lake Tahoe project by a friend.
It would seem simpler to live near where you work, but for Terrez, the cost of living in Lake Tahoe far surpasses what his $13-an-hour job could afford.
It is Stateline and South Lake Tahoe where work is plentiful, but the irony is that many who work in the basin can’t afford to live in the resort communities.
“It’s a complex issue that is not unique to this area,” said Douglas County Manager Dan Holler of the valley-to-live, Tahoe-to-work disparity. “When you have resort communities such as at the lake, what you have is a work force that oftentimes cannot afford to own homes in the towns where they work.”
Even at the casino corridor, where there are competitive wage-paying jobs that are permanent rather than seasonal, employees find it hard to own a home at the lake.
Tahoe is unique because of development restrictions on the land governed by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, Holler said.
“When there are restrictions on the number of homes built every year, what’s affordable housing to some is not affordable to others,” Holler said.
Holler’s observations are grounded in changes that are more apparent with the price of homes surging at the lake over the past decade.
It is something that he has seen and dealt with since he became the county’s manager in 1996. The pastoral Carson Valley, where most of Douglas County is located, began to take on a life of its own in the early 1990s when a demand for more housing arose.
According to the 2000 Census, Douglas County’s population grew at a rate faster than 97 percent of the other 3,141 counties in the country. Douglas County has grown from 27,637 in 1990 to 41,529 in 2000.
If growth continues at the present rate, the population would double to nearly 80,000 by 2017.
With more jobs coming into the Carson Valley, and more people finding permanent jobs in Lake Tahoe, the demand for new and affordable homes has turned the valley into a fertile ground for development, especially when potential home buyers are lured by historically low interest rates.
But a backlash at the ballot box in November could change what has been a trend in Douglas County for more than a decade.
Seeing growth moving too rapidly, voters passed a controversial measure that would cap the number of dwellings built in the valley to 280 a year. Developers and Realtors also suffered a blow when the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in December the voter initiative was legally put on the ballot. Several lawsuits are in the works, challenging the wording of the measure and whether enough studies were done prior to putting the measure on the ballot.
If the judge rules in favor of the growth cap backers and housing in the valley is capped annually, there would be a certain trickle down effect for the next generation of Tahoe employees who wish to buy a home.
What would happen is that a cap would cause an artificial inflation of home prices in the valley, said Carole Thompson, executive director of the Douglas County Building Industry Association.
“Where it is now affordable for some people at the lake, employed by, say, the casinos to buy a single-family home, a growth cap would put a nail into the coffin of many people who may have been able to afford a home,” Thompson said.
According to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Threshold Evaluation report, the median 2000 home price in the Lake Tahoe Basin was $489,294 for a single-family home and $278,349 for a condominium.
Strong growth in home prices suggests that many of the region’s workers may find it necessary to live outside the area in order to find affordable housing, according to the threshold report.
Housing, the report says, is generally considered to be affordable if no more than 30 percent of a household’s gross income is used for rent or mortgage payment.
And that’s if a person wishes to buy a home.
The rental market shows no signs of leveling off anytime soon. A study by the Tahoe Truckee Regional Economic Coalition found that Tahoe basin rental trends show a monthly average of $780 for rent.
With high rents and a tourist-resort industry where the economy fluctuates at the whim of the U.S. economy, the proof of Lake Tahoe’s economic disparity is found in the numbers.
Historically, Nevada has been considered a transient state. Data from the census backed that notion up with a report targeting Lake Tahoe. The census found that only 4.5 percent of Stateline’s 1,146 residents were born in Nevada. This figure marks Stateline as having the nation’s lowest percentage of residents living in the state where they were born. Zephyr Cove, which lies adjacent to Stateline, is the country’s second-most transient place in the country.
It used to be that people who worked at the lake, if they decided they wanted to stay and raise a family, could find a nice starter home in Gardnerville, Thompson said.
But with the Nov. 5 voter-passed initiative that would cap growth, Thompson said Douglas County would, in effect, squeeze out the middle class.
The fact is that with more jobs and less affordability for homes in the Tahoe region, people who hope to own a home — considered a foundation of the so-called American Dream — may have to look elsewhere.
Carson City and Reno and communities like Dayton and Mound House may be the next places where Tahoe employees can afford to buy homes, Holler said.
“They will be looking to Carson City and Lyon County to live and will probably commute over time until can find a job closer to home,” Holler said.
Thompson remains less than optimistic.
“I don’t see it changing and I think it’s terribly unfair,” she said. “If one segment of the population (those who can afford to own a home) controls the area, it stagnates.”
Jeff Munson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — A flash flood watch has been issued for the Lake Tahoe Basin.