City to locals: Zero dollars for housing (Opinion)

Scott Robbins
Guest column

Show me your budget, and I’ll show you your values.

The city of South Lake Tahoe is receiving $5.3 million in grant money through the federal COVID relief program. This money comes with very few spending restrictions, and the city has published its list of proposed projects, covering nearly every option imaginable, from solar powered compacting trash cans for tourists, to improving the city golf course, to renovating municipal offices.

Scott Robbins

Every option that is, except housing. The city proposes exactly zero dollars for workforce housing acquisition. Zero.

Tahoe is bleeding locals. We are over a year into the worst housing crisis in the history of the basin and action from the City Council on this issue has been entirely absent. Councilmembers may point to their many discussions or considerations or conversions about future plans, but words are not actions. The city even proposes spending $500,000 of their COVID grant money on housing studies and consultants — again, more words, no action.

Words do not matter to our local workers, the servers, nurses, teachers, and firefighters, who live in fear of a 60-day notice-to-vacate. Our locals are being evicted daily, not because they’ve ever missed a rent payment, but because their homes are being sold out from under them at wildly inflated prices. Sales-evictions are gutting our town and costing local business their workforce. Rents have skyrocketed.

The city has also failed to even consider extending California’s existing rental protections, enjoyed by yearly tenants, to the month-to-month tenants who are the bulk of our local workforce. If we’re to have a functional tourist economy, much less a viable community, we must provide stable living situations for those who support that economy. Housing instability has long been a problem in Tahoe, but the COVID-driven exodus of tech money into the basin has turned this problem into a true crisis.

The city should spend its COVID relief money where it is most urgently needed – on direct workforce housing acquisition. Workforce housing units would be owned, but not directly managed by the city; any of a number of nonprofits would be contracted to operate affordable housing on the city’s behalf, as is planned for the existing Sugar Pines project. That $5.3 million could buy 20 condo units and provide long-term stable housing for some 40 locals. Workforce housing is not free housing, tenants pay rent, and that revenue could in turn quickly be used to cover mortgages for another 10 units, providing affordable housing for a total of 60 locals. This is long-term, stable housing, at a price of $88,000 per local, all paid for with money we already have.

Market availability may push the acquired housing into a mix of condo units and single-family homes, which would be more expensive, but still a better investment than solar powered trash compactors. An ideal solution would be for the city so show some real backbone and buy out existing timeshare units, through eminent domain if needed, converting tourist accommodations back into housing and reversing the trend of the last two decades of development.

We need workforce housing for locals more than we need second homes or tourist accommodations, and we need it now, not years from now. We need five more “Sugar Pines” projects, but that project has taken the better part of a decade and has yet to break ground. Arguments that we should move slowly and wait to apply for state and other grant money, utterly fail the urgency of the problem. This is not an either-or situation, we can and should both apply for state aid, and spend our own money now.

I’d prefer a free-market solution, but that simply won’t happen. At every regulatory turn, I feel the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has killed the market for affordable housing in favor of tourism. They have exempted vacation rentals from tourist accommodation unit permits, while requiring wildly expensive residential permits for adding auxiliary dwelling units to existing homes. Even their newly proposed updated ADU regulations, with no requirements to rent only to local workers, will prioritize tourist ski leases over locals. The actions of the TRPA have made clear that they have no interest in supporting locals – their words to the contrary are irrelevant.

County and state governments have also made clear that they see Tahoe as nothing more than a wallet, with no interests beyond promoting ever more tourism. Help is not coming; the city must act within the world that actually exists.

It cannot go unnoted, that the chambers of commerce, who supposedly represent local business interests, have failed to advocate for immediate action on affordable workforce housing. Every coffee shop, restaurant, and bar in Tahoe is short staffed as locals have been forced out. Their leadership may well see a future in which most service workers are either bussed in or consist of foreign temporary workers housed in motels, as entirely favorable. This may well be to the benefit the casinos but will ultimately raise the costs of labor for small and mid-size businesses.

Independent restaurants will suffer as South Lake is permanently transformed into another Vail – a fake Disneyland-imitation of a mountain town consisting entirely of national chains and luxury brands and catering only to the wealthy and weekend tourists. Such a locals-free future is neither a healthy market, nor a healthy community.

The good news is that the city can act if they so choose. They have both the authority, and ability. What they lack are the priorities and the will. We need a city government that puts locals first.

Scott Robbins is a South Lake Tahoe resident and former city council candidate.

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