Bold action needed for unprecedented housing issues (Opinion)

Scott Robbins
Guest column

Tahoe is bleeding locals.

Scott Robbins

The 60-day notice to vacate has become the constant fear of nearly every renter in town. Not because they’ve ever missed a rent payment, but because their homes are being sold out from under them at wildly inflated prices. Nurses, bartenders, waiters, and dishwashers, the people who work the jobs that support our tourism economy, are being pushed out, first by spiraling rents, and now by sales-evictions.

Employers are struggling to find staff and unable to operate at full capacity into the busy summer season. We are a full year into the worst housing crisis in the history of Tahoe, one the city government has steadfastly ignored.

This is unacceptable – we must stop the bleeding.

We need a moratorium on sales-evictions, for at least a year, until longer-term housing solutions can actually be implemented.

In a recent KRCA interview, Heidi Drum, CEO of the Tahoe Prosperity Center, noted, “Right now our businesses are struggling to find employees to fill the jobs that they have and it’s because our housing costs are so expensive in this region.”

This crisis goes even beyond service workers, in that same piece, Barton Health’s Director of Community Benefit Chris Proctor noted that “We’ve sometimes had candidates decline offers for that reason. We’ve had some challenges with retention as well.”

Tahoe’s tourism economy has always stacked the housing market against local workers. Tourists can always outspend local workers for housing, either for VHR’s or second homes. In the last year alone, the surge of remote tech money due to COVID has driven up home prices in South Lake by 35%, according to Zillow. We’re seeing an exponential rise in all-cash offers, bidding wars, and sight-unseen purchases.

Most leases in Tahoe operate month-to-month, affording little to no protection from these sales-evictions. With employment options concentrated around minimum wage retail and tipped jobs, and few opportunities for higher paying work, our locals have almost no market power. I believe a key responsibility of our local government is to ensure that market conditions enable the people who work here to be able to live here. This is a problem the city must own.

This has been a longstanding issue, long-neglected by our city. We are past the time for continued half measures, for begging developers to “do the right thing” and build housing instead of hotels, or for endless rounds of discussions about tiny houses and auxiliary dwelling units. Measures like that are needed, but won’t stop the immediate bleeding. Even starting additional affordable housing projects, like the planned Sugar Pines Project, who’s 200 units were always too few, won’t help in time.

The best way to stop the bleeding is with direct pressure – a moratorium on sales-evictions, for at least one year. To be clear, this is not a halt on all evictions, say for non-payment of rent, but a halt to evictions for renters who are paying their rent on-time, and in-full, but where their home has been sold out from under them. Rental houses could still be sold, but new owners would not be allowed to evict rent-paying tenants for the duration of the moratorium.

This is bold action that may well be with little precedent, but the crisis demands it. No such move would come without threats of litigation, but fear cannot drive continued inaction. A sales-eviction moratorium would give the city time to actually implement any number of the housing reforms that have been endlessly discussed. Rules permitting auxiliary dwelling units, building tiny homes on vacant or condemned lots, implementing a vacancy tax on second homes, or directly acquiring workforce housing.

A sales-eviction moratorium isn’t a long-term solution, this is triage. This is stopping the life-critical bleeding now, so we have a fighting chance to save our city later. We can no longer tolerate the relentless inaction by our city, the alternative is to devolve into another Vail, a mountain-themed amusement park where tourists visit, but nobody lives.

We need a city government that puts locals first.

Scott Robbins is a South Lake Tahoe resident, a former city council candidate and member of the Tahoe Neighborhoods Group.

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