Affordable housing a burden on everyone |

Affordable housing a burden on everyone

Dan Thrift/Tahoe TribuneFinding an affordable house is usually more of a challenge than landing a job at South Lake Tahoe.

Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series.

Most in South Lake Tahoe believe cities and businesses should chip in to provide housing for their residents — but how to go about it is hard to nail down.

With rising property values, stagnant wages, diminishing building allocations and limited federal housing subsidies, the need becomes greater while resources drift away.

The Blu Zu Hostel once provided cheap housing for ski-area employees but closed last year because it couldn’t make ends meet. Now, to make their ends meet, ski-area staffers will play house in some cases with up to 10 people in a home.

The ski industry, being one of the largest on the South Shore, struggles with the quandary every winter.

Booth Creek Resorts, the parent company of Sierra-at-Tahoe and Northstar-at-Tahoe, has implemented a rental rewards program that gives free lift tickets or a season pass to homeowners who rent a room or rental unit to its employees. Homeowners may receive 10 lift tickets, valid Sunday through Friday, at each address in which they house the employees.

Like many resort towns, South Lake Tahoe lacks adequate employee housing — much less affordable units. This leaves the work force scrambling to find places as limited as motel rooms or to move out of the area.

More than 60 percent of South Lake Tahoe Police Department’s employees live in the Carson Valley.

Half of Barton Memorial Hospital’s staff now lives off the hill.

That’s why the South Lake Tahoe hospital is interested in a $4 million housing complex of 26 units South Lake Tahoe plans to build on 2.6 acres off Melba Drive, located near the health care facility. It’s estimated to be completed in two years, assuming the city qualifies for the federal funding. The line of interested parties is expected to be long.

The problem spans the West, with Vail leading the way in grappling with the issue. Swift Newspapers, the parent company of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, is considering buying property here to house its employees — whether on a permanent or temporary basis — much like it does in Colorado.

The city defines affordable housing as that which consumes 30 percent of the average wages of renters and 35 percent for homeowners. Current studies have indicated homeowners are paying as much as 50 percent to have a piece of the pie.

While preparing a housing study, the city has five affordable housing complexes in town, one of which encompasses the Tahoe Senior Plaza on Third Street. Others include the Bijou Woods and Tahoe Pines apartment complexes on Spruce Avenue; Sierra Garden Apartments on Lake Tahoe Boulevard; and Tahoe Valley Townhomes on Tata Lane.

For those who need to relocate from substandard housing, the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce established a fund last year to help families in that situation. Workforce Housing, a committee under the leadership of Lew Feldman, is examining the possibilities of converting motels into employee units.

To sustain a work force that lives here, City Manager Dave Jinkens suggested three primary duties cities and supporting governments and agencies must perform.

First, he stressed building the strength of the local economy.

“We can’t just have reliance on one or two industries,” he said.

Second, Jinkens advocates relaxing regulations to help businesses to expand. Therefore, companies thrive and employees prosper.

Third, the city wants to implement grant programs that will help its low-income citizens get in on the ground floor of their first home.

The city runs a first-time homebuyer program which has grown immensely in popularity.

In 1999 and 2000, the program loaned $815,000. That money was quickly swallowed up by residents. Last July, the city received notice from the state it would be awarded the next round of Community Development Block Grant funding for $453,000. More than 60 people have expressed interest in the second round of funding — so the demand continues.

Aside from the city’s ongoing efforts, Jinkens said the small government can’t shoulder the burden on its own.

“What we’re finding here in South Lake Tahoe is those who work here can’t afford to live here, and I think that’s a shame. As a region, everybody has to play a part,” he said.

In town, the problem of building affordable housing complexes revolves around space.

“We don’t have a lot of open space, but Nevada does,” he said.

But there lies the harsh reality of having limited building allocations.

“It’s worse with the lower allocations. I think laying that at the feet of the governing entities is unconscionable,” said Kathy Farrell, Tahoe Douglas Chamber of Commerce executive director.

Farrell was referring to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency cutting in half the number of buildable development projects. The agency typically releases 300 allocations of development and splits the allocations between the counties and the city each year. On average, 225 are used. Last month, TRPA approved 150 for 2003, with the pledge of an annual review.

“We’ve just got to start telling the truth. Everybody believes in affordable housing. It’s what are we going to do about it,” Farrell said. “And it’s like that on both sides of the state line.”

She advocates implementing a free transportation network from the Carson Valley to the lake, given the inevitable exodus to the high desert area.

— Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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