Planning commission to locals: ’We want hotels, not homes’ (Opinion)

Scott Robbins
Guest column

The needs of the locals, or the wants of the tourists. This question was before the South Lake Tahoe Planning Commission on May 13 when they voted 3-2 to build an Airbnb-style hotel in the middle of the Al Tahoe neighborhood after the developer argued that “a boutique hotel motel” would make money faster than building homes.

Scott Robbins

Again, and again, and again, our city government puts tourists and developers first, and locals last.

This is the worst housing crisis Tahoe has ever known, and without action it will only get worse. A long term problem, long ignored by our city and brought now to a crisis by a sudden influx of high-income Bay Area remote workers due to COVID.

Locals are being priced out of their rentals as homes are sold for 30-50% more than what they were worth only a year ago. The “notice to vacate” has become a constant background fear for those who are lucky enough to have anywhere to rent at all.

This project’s peculiarities evaded Measure T and gave the planning commission the discretion to accept or reject the project based on its merits for the community. This was a judgement call, and the face of this crisis, the commission decided that tourist accommodations are more important than local housing, and that the overwhelming objections of the neighborhood residents are worth less than the short-term profits of its developers.

It’s worth examining some of the absurd reasoning the planning commissioners gave to support their decision, if only to understand just how disconnected our city’s officials are from the needs of our locals.

Commissioner Doug Williams explained that, were these homes, instead of hotels, they would “probably rent out for maybe tops $1,500 a month,” and that wouldn’t net the developers enough profit fast enough. Where to begin with this?

The developer had already testified that, as homes, these units would be configured as small two to three bedroom units; anyone who’s actually looked for housing recently knows that $1,500 for a two or three bedroom home, even a small one, is absurdly below market prices. But beyond this abject disconnect from reality — why is maximizing the short-term profits of resort investors the city’s priority? Who is our government representing here?

Commissioner Kili Rahbeck (a real estate agent at Chase International) opined that “if the Sugar Pines [a planned affordable housing project] was up and running and all 200-plus units were there, what would be the need for local housing?”

As if we’re short only 200 units of affordable housing. Doubling down she opined “I don’t think it’s right to put all the housing needs on this one fourplex.” This argument is equally absurd – no one project will ever solve this crisis – we solve it by consistently prioritizing the needs of the locals over the wants of developers, one decision at a time, over and over, not by throwing our hands in the air and making it worse.

Commissioner Mason Hibbard (another real estate agent) perhaps best summarized the commission’s dismissal of the needs of our locals for the benefit of the real-estate lobby, explaining: “I welcome development, whether it be conforming or not, to be honest, in this neighborhood.”

This issue will go to the city council for final adjudication on June 15. To approve this project would be a betrayal of the needs of the locals, for the benefit of resort investors. No councilmember who votes for tourist developers to build hotels, in the middle of our neighborhoods, over housing for locals, should get the vote of any resident, for any office, ever again.

Hotels and McMansions will always be more profitable than building for, or renting to locals. But that privatized profit comes at a cost to us all — turning our city into another Vail, a resort town for the super-rich, where people visit, but where nobody lives.

We must build all the income-capped affordable housing we can – but no such projects will ever be sufficient. We must push on all levers, all the time, in favor of housing. No single action will solve this problem but that’s no excuse for our city to actively make it worse.

We need homes, not hotels.

Scott Robbins is a South Lake Tahoe resident and part of the Tahoe Neighborhoods Group.

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