Issue won’t compromise clarity of lake |

Issue won’t compromise clarity of lake

Robert Stern

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is one of the strictest environmental organizations in the country, which makes construction of any project difficult.

Available land is a major impediment for affordable housing projects in most western ski resort communities, but each faces its own specific challenges. The Tahoe Basin is surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land, national and state park land, which prohibits construction of housing.

Even if land is available inside an urban boundary, it must be zoned for multiple family housing and restrictions such as land coverage, density (the number of units allowed per acre), height restrictions and mitigation fees, act as deterrents to potential developers.

But the bottom line is money. Between the costs of land acquisition, clearing the property, acquiring the proper permits and mitigation fees, affordable housing projects cost about $100,000 to $125,000 per unit. And when the rent a developer can charge is restricted, most developers tend to shy away from affordable housing projects and instead choose to build market rate apartments, which gives them the freedom to charge whatever they want.

Despite the extreme costs, it is not impossible to build deed restricted affordable housing. The city of South Lake Tahoe has built several projects using state and federal funding from the Housing and Urban Development Department. Developers receive grants, contingent on a deed restricted project, to help pay for the cost of acquiring property and getting it ready for construction. Developers of these projects are also eligible to receive tax credits, which they can either use or sell, adding an extra incentive.

But this is a long process and securing grant funding can take up to three years, said Patrick Conway housing and economic coordinator.

As a result the TRPA, is looking at incentives for developers who choose to build affordable housing projects.

Many officials are hoping property owners will convert rundown motels along U.S. Highway 50 into affordable housing. But for developers to remodel and then deed restrict their property is not always financially appealing.

Allocations – or the right to build – are needed for each residential unit and are expensive and limited. Many times a developer has to wait to even have the opportunity to purchase an allocation, which can take up to five years, and many are needed to build a multifamily housing project, so the TRPA is looking at ways to appeal to the developer’s wallet.

Developers need one allocation, which is expensive and limited, for every market-rate apartment unit, but the TRPA has 1,200 bonus units, which are free, and can be used for affordable housing.

The agency is looking for ways to get developers to take advantage of these units before the plan expires in five years. Only 200 bonus units have been used since 1987, when the TRPA plan was enacted and the one thing officials agree on is the shortage of affordable housing in the Tahoe Basin.

“Something in our code has been an impediment to affordable housing,” said Hal Cole, chair of the TRPA affordable housing committee.

The reason, however, for these environmental restrictions is to protect the clarity of the lake, and environmentalists are adamant about protecting the clarity of Lake Tahoe, which scientists say is decreasing by 1 foot per year. The lake, which was once clear for a depth of 100 feet is down to 66.

The TRPA was established to help control erosion and sediment loading in the lake, which decreases its clarity.

“In general we do not believe in loosening environmental standards for any reason no matter how good the cause, because protecting the environment is a basic responsibility,” said Rochelle Nason, executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe.”

Nason said any proposal to reduce environmental protection is a red flag, and that she is a strong supporter of rehabilitating existing housing.

“There are a lot of people out to make us the villain, because we are not willing to ease environmental regulations to deal with the issue,” Nason said.

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