By MAYUMI ELEGADO and AMY WESTERVELT | Moonshine Ink
Will our community survive if its police officers, teachers, business owners, and those who have lived here all their lives can’t find housing? The answer is knocking on the front door, like it or not.
When Moonshine Ink launched its Housing Crisis series in February of this year, our staff hit the streets gathering 20 stories of full-time residents of North Tahoe and Truckee for the inaugural article Out of Reach. It painted a picture of the dire local housing situation, but even then we realized a key demographic was largely missing from the piece — the middle class. It wasn’t for lack of trying on our part, but rather hesitancy amongst middle class folks to share their stories. Most felt they didn’t want to admit publicly that they were in need and couldn’t find housing.
As the months ticked by, the situation has only worsened, and now everyone is talking about it. Long-time local families have had to pull up roots and move to Reno as a last resort, business owners can’t keep employees because there’s nowhere for them to live, teachers and policemen are being priced out of the communities they serve. As more and more landlords convert their properties to lucrative short-term vacation rentals, and developers continue to push for new neighborhoods filled with second homes, locals are struggling to stay in the community.
The following pages feature eight stories, showing the range of middle class households impacted by the local housing crisis. These are people who are making decent salaries, but still are priced out in this staggeringly high market.
There are some challenging realities at play: As a second-homeowner economy, our region is heavily influenced by the Bay Area, where prices have skyrocketed. Thus we face a reality where a moderate-income (as defined by federal standards)Placer County family of four, which earns $91,300 annually, could comfortably afford a $346,423 home, but nowhere near the median-priced $538,000 home currently being sold in Tahoe/Truckee.
According to a recent study spearheaded by the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation (more info at right), there’s an unmet need for about 12,100 workforce housing units in Truckee and North Lake Tahoe, but only room to build an estimated 7,400 new housing units. The stories on the following pages are a cry for the remaining housing stock to be reserved for those of us who live here, at prices locals can afford. Think about what it starts to look like when none of the policemen who protect your town live within city limits, or when the teachers at your kid’s school are having to live in RVs or cars because they can’t find housing. What answer can we as a community give?
~ Moonshine Ink is proud to partner with Reno Public Radio KUNR on this project. Amy Westervelt of KUNR recorded the interviews for this story — listen to them at moonshineink.com. The radio station also will broadcast news stories based on these housing tales and produce longer podcast episodes set to be aired in December. You’ll find links to all of those pieces on our website and at kunr.org.
Elvia Lopez Esparza
Office manager, Family Resource Center
Elvia is at risk of losing her hometown of 36 years. Three months ago, she and her family bought a house and moved to Reno. Both parents continue to work in Truckee and the three kids still attend Truckee schools.
The household is adjusting to the change. Elvia expresses concern about how they will manage work, sports, and school with the constant commute, but she wants to keep Truckee as their hub. “I want them to stay here in Truckee because this is where I was born and raised. I want them to continue to love and be a part of Truckee,” she said. “That’s just going to be a struggle, but I guess we’ll manage.”
In her job as office manager at the Truckee Family Resource Center, she’s seeing the housing crisis starkly play out for clients as well. “It’s definitely getting worse. We get housing calls all the time — probably four or five a day,” Elvia said. The calls concern evictions, need for rental assistance, and even many finding themselves homeless. “A lot of people are living in cars,” she said.
Before pulling the trigger on the Reno move, the family qualified for the Martis Fund housing fund program, which would have helped with 10 percent of a home purchase price, up to $40,000. At that point, they sold their 1,250 square foot Coachland mobile home, where they had lived for five years but had outgrown. “But of course we didn’t find a house for under $400,000,” she said. Looking at the calculations, they realized they were paying just $100 less for space rent and mortgage in Coachland than their current mortgage for a 4-bedroom 1,700 square foot place in Reno. “We kind of [were] throwing our money in the trash [when living in Coachland],” she said.
Elvia fondly remembers growing up on East River Street with her sister and four brothers. Her sister moved to Reno a while ago, and has plans to stay there, despite still working in Truckee. Her brothers still live in Truckee, along with her mother, cousins, nieces, and nephews. One brother works for the police department, two work for Al Pombo (where Elvia’s husband also works), and the fourth is a supervisor for the sanitation district.
“We’re pretty active in our community,” Elvia said. “That’s one of the things we’re sad about … I used to volunteer at the police department. With my kids and having to move to Reno, I had to step back from that. I like to volunteer, but I feel like I’ve had to push that back, because I don’t have as much time, because I’m commuting.”
The family hopes to find a way to move back to Truckee but says they need to save up enough money and hopefully find a home they can afford.
“It will take us a while to come back,” she said.
Co-founder, COO of Elevate Blue
When Tim decided to move to Incline Village from Los Angeles two years ago to help run startup studio Elevate Blue, there were plenty of housing options. “People were sending me links to great stuff every day for a few months,” he said. That’s part of what convinced him to move, and to think his business could thrive in Tahoe.
As a tech incubator, the company provides mentorship and services to startups, connects them with potential investors, and runs a code school to train local talent to take local tech jobs. In the winter of 2015, it seemed totally feasible that employees and startups would potentially relocate to Incline.
“Then six months later I got here and there was nothing,” Tim said.
That was the summer of 2015. “I basically looked for a place full-time for three months when I got here. All day, every day,” Tim said. “I’m a single guy, no dog, I don’t care how many bedrooms … I honestly don’t even care how much rent is, so I’m like the perfect tenant and I was going into property management offices, and nothing.”
The first thing he found was a three-month lease. “I don’t think 12-month leases even exist anymore,” he said. Then he found an eight-month lease. “And then I was back out on the street in the middle of summer and that’s the worst position to be in in Incline. No one rents through the summer, finding a long-term lease then is impossible.”
So he bounced around a month at a time. “In the last 12 months I’ve moved five times,” he said. “There’s just so much demand and no supply. People are bidding each other out on rentals. I’ve never seen that before in any place I’ve lived, including New York.”
It’s an issue for Tim’s business as well, which hopes to attract tech talent to the area. “It’s our number-one issue,” he said. “You know, people will say ‘hey, you’re starting a tech incubator in the woods, how’s that gonna work?’ But we can find talent no problem, it’s the housing that’s the problem.”
He and his business partners are looking into buying a multi-unit building where they might be able to offer housing to employees. And Tim, who is currently living in a tiny studio apartment over a garage in the woods near Tahoe Vista, is looking to buy a place himself, too, ideally a multi-unit property where he can live in one unit and rent out the rest. But despite his own struggle, he likely won’t be providing long-term rentals. “I would probably Airbnb the other units,” he said. “Why make $2,000 a month when I can make $2,000 a week? I’m not gonna leave money on the table.”
Financial advisor, Cunningham Investment Management
Ryan was born the same week his parents opened the Christy Hill Restaurant in Olympic Valley. He’s a Tahoe kid through and through, but he came really close to leaving earlier this year when the landlord he and his wife had been renting from for five years in Incline Village decided to double their rent.
“We started looking on Craigslist for another place in Incline and I was just shocked at how little there was and how expensive it was, so we went from saying, ‘Let’s find another place in Incline,’ to looking at Tahoe City, Kings Beach, Squaw, Truckee, and beyond,” he said. “You’d look across the entire region and there would be literally only five places available under $2,000 a month. And that’s a lot to pay in rent each month. For a lot of people up here that’s a sizable chunk of their monthly income.”
Ryan has worked for Cunningham Investment Management for the past 15 years and his wife Biby Xantus owns a successful house cleaning business. “We’re doing well and through that we kind of have a chance to make things work up here, although the odds are still really stacked against us.”
Ultimately, Ryan and Biby were able to figure out a solution — build their own home. “We started looking for a house to buy and were really disappointed at what was out there in our price range,” Ryan said. “We were disheartened and considered throwing in the towel and maybe moving down to Reno.”
Right at what Ryan called “that moment of weakness” the opportunity to purchase a lot and build presented itself, but Ryan was quick to point out that they had the good fortune to have an extensive local network, savings in the bank, and two successful businesses to leverage. “We’ve been incredibly lucky,” he said.
But he’s still very concerned about the housing crisis facing his friends and the broader community. “Housing has been a problem here for a really long time, but we’re at a tipping point now where we’re running out of time to solve it,” Ryan said. “We’ve seen what happened to Tahoe City, and now it’s happening in Truckee, where people are getting pushed out. And there’s nowhere else for them to go. We’re gonna lose those people, and just have people who are around two weeks a year. Second homeowners are fine, but we need to find a way for them to be here without ruining our community.”
Police officer, Town of Truckee
One afternoon, when Noel was off-duty at his Truckee home, a neighbor came frantically to his door, saying her husband had collapsed. Noel rushed over, performed CPR, and was able to get back a heartbeat. Though the man, who had suffered a heart attack, ended up passing from complications, Noel knows he greatly increased the chance of his neighbor surviving.
“Though we have pretty fast response times in Truckee, when it comes to heart attacks and that type of thing, every second matters,” Noel said.
“None of us feel that once we take off our uniform, that our job is done. All of us are ready to go to work at any given notice.”
Today, though, Noel would likely have been en route to his current home in Reno during the crisis. A few months ago, after separation from his wife and the transition to two households, he found he couldn’t afford to live in Truckee alone, so he moved to northwest Reno. His ex-wife was able to stay in Truckee and the two children still attend schools here. On days when Noel has his kids, he drives them to school hours before his work shift starts, making for a long day — almost 16 hours from the time he leaves home to when he returns.
He continues to hope to move back to the area. “Every day I’m on [the Zillow app] looking for housing in Truckee,” he said. “Most of the time, there’s only one or two listings for rent on there and the rate is anywhere from $2,800 to $3,300 a month. That comparable house in Reno … is $1,400. So you pay double here. Even factoring in mileage, you’re still not making up the difference.”
The housing situation affects others in his department, he said. Recognizing their “house-poor” situation, officers have moved out of the area, while some went to work for other cities. Noel has no plans to relocate.
“Honestly, I would probably rather live in a tent in Truckee and work here, than to work in [Reno],” Noel said. “Right now, relocating jobs is not even a thought in my mind.”
The reason being that he still remembers why he moved to Truckee: “I want to raise my children in an environment that gives them the opportunity to know what it’s like to be a kid,” he said. “To go play in the forest, to go walk across the street to their buddy’s house and not be freaked out that someone’s going to grab them from their front yard.”
Noel shared his story because he wants awareness to grow. “These types of stories need to get out,” he said. “I’d be willing to sit in a dunk tank and have balls thrown at me if that would mean the housing situation would get better.”
It’s day two in their new home in Kings Beach, but Lauren and her boyfriend Nick aren’t settling in just yet. “I’m still worried about the rug being pulled out from under us. For the first 24 hours I was pretty shaky,” Lauren said.
They can take some measure of comfort in the 24-foot RV parked in the driveway. Nicknamed the Mobile Mansion, it was home to Lauren, a preschool teacher in Incline, and Nick, the race director at Sugar Bowl, from May to October. Back in March, the two found out that their landlord of three years planned to sell his house.
They figured they would find another rental no problem, just as they had a few times over the past six years. And initially, they lucked out and found the perfect house near Squaw. “We were one of 35 applicants that saw it in three hours, but the couple seemed to really like us. We met their kids, the mom even talked to me about babysitting for them,” Lauren said. They signed a lease and told their landlord they’d be moving out. Then 48 hours before they were due to move in, the Squaw couple called and told them they had changed their mind and decided to sell the house instead. “There was no ‘we’ll work with you guys to figure something out, maybe you can move in for a month or two while you find another place,’ no concern at all for the fact that we were going to be homeless. The fact that someone in this community would do that really cut us deep,” Lauren said.
Their previous landlord let them stay as long as possible, but eventually they had to move out. “We saw this RV listed in Lemmon Valley and decided to buy it, with all of our savings,” Lauren said. “We just didn’t want to be reliant on people for housing — this way, at least we know we always have a place.” They put their stuff in storage in Reno and parked the RV at the Truckee River RV Park for several months, opting to pay the weekly $300 rate because no monthly ($600) spots were available.
Now they’ve got a one-year lease on the house in Kings Beach, where they’ll need to have roommates to afford it. “We thought about moving back into the RV in the summer to save money, but then we realized we need to hold on to this lease,” Lauren said.
Marlena John & Luke Bill
Restaurant owners, Old Town Tap
Like many Tahoe locals, Marlena and Luke are professional 30-somethings who have to live with roommates in order to be here. But unlike most, they actually dig it.
The pair arrived in Truckee Dec. 1, 2015 expecting to, as Luke put it, “spend a couple of years on Tahoe time” working resort jobs and skiing. They were surprised to find that all the winter jobs had been filled already. “We spent a few weeks skiing and hoping we’d be able to find something,” Luke said. Then, two days after Christmas, they found out a Brickelltown pizza restaurant was for sale.
The two met while working at a restaurant in Marin County and had talked often about owning their own place — craft cocktails and a great beer and wine list for him, amazing pizza for her. They decided to pool all of their savings and go for it, and opened Old Town Tap in mid-May this year. They had been living with friends and planning to buy a house before the restaurant came along, “but one at a time, please!” Luke said. “So we asked if we could stay with them a little longer until we find an apartment or something, and we just haven’t had time to breathe, so we’re still there, but it’s working.”
“It works for us to live there — they’re some of my best friends,” Marlena said. “It’s a very communal feel, we cook dinner for each other every night, we walk the dogs for each other, we kind of share responsibilities, so in that way, it’s a really good situation.”
So good in fact that the roommates have even talked about buying a larger house together. “Our same situation but with just a little more room,” Luke said. “Because one, we love each other and it works and we can coexist very well. And then it just brings a kind of vibrancy to life. When you come home, it’s not just an empty house. There’s always something going on, and you step into someone else’s life. We enjoy that.”
But there’s one way in which the housing crunch has been a real problem for the couple: its effect on their employees. “Let’s just start with our chef,” Luke said. “We hired a chef from Craigslist who seemed to be our ideal fit. But he spent about an hour and a half [driving] to and from the restaurant to South Lake every day. In the beginning it was really important to find him a spot here, and he could not find anything. I feel like we basically lost him because he couldn’t find a place to live and that commute just broke him. We lost our chef in mid-July because he just couldn’t take it anymore.”
They managed to find a great local chef to replace him, but said that housing is an even tougher issue for lower-level staff. “No one in town can find a dishwasher,” Marlena said. “It’s so hard for people to find affordable housing here and those are the people who make this place thrive. It’s so hard to keep a steady staff in a restaurant here.”
Kathleen & Greg Jensen
School administrator and Contractor
(Editors Note: Their son Jeremy Jensen is Moonshine Ink’s staff photographer.)
Kathleen and Greg have three grown kids who are moved out of the family’s Glenshire house. As many in this stage of life, the Jensens would like to “downsize a bit, save money, and do more fun things in life,” said Greg, a contractor. However, the same market forces that give them equity in their home make it hard to stay in their community of 30 years.
“It’s a double-edged sword that things are so high in the housing market,” said Kathleen, who is the administrative secretary at Glenshire Elementary. “We will get a pretty good price for our house, but to turn around and find something a little bit smaller is also expensive.”
Their house is currently on the market, but they are finding that buyers who seek out Glenshire don’t tend to have the money to purchase their larger 2,400 square foot house. In comparison, more expensive properties in vacation-home markets like Tahoe Donner seem to be selling quickly.
“I’m watching listings religiously every day,” Kathleen said. “We are seeing houses selling that are way smaller than ours, way older than ours, and going for the same price what we’re asking because it’s in Tahoe Donner, because it’s a vacation destination.”
“It’s put us in a tough spot,” Greg said. “We need a destination buyer, who wants to move [to Glenshire], who can afford to move up here now — with kids. It put us in a very small market trying to sell our house.”
Ideally, they would like a 2-bedroom home — small, but with room for guests — and looked at building one, since Greg’s construction experience would give them an edge. The couple drafted up plans and went through a few revisions, but the cost of building forced them to keep shaving away at the design and lot prices stacked on top of permitting fees made it cost-prohibitive.
“In Truckee, just to get out of the ground with all the permits costs you about $50,000, which is really high compared to most areas,” Greg said. “And then you get your plans drawn and engineering, and a bid and whatever, you’re up to 400-something-thousand dollars unless you can do a LOT of it yourself.”
Kathleen adds, “That’s something we were really considering because we thought we could build the perfect house, exactly what we want, and he could put in a lot of the sweat equity, but a lot of those fees were just astounding.”
The cost of raising three kids in Truckee and helping put them through college didn’t allow for much savings. The Jensens need to sell before they can consider buying or building, though they hope to take advantage of the market’s current low interest rates.
“It has to be worth our while,” Kathleen said. “Or there’s no point in leaving the house that we have. So it’s just hard to decide what to do. Even the entry-level houses, they are close to half a million dollars.”
They also see the effects on co-workers. Kathleen noted that several school district employees were either forced out of their homes or are leveraged to the hilt, to the point that “they don’t really go anywhere or do anything because their house payment is really high.”
Greg affirms, “I’d say the majority of our labor force comes from a different area, because they can’t afford to live up here,” he said. They come here “just for the jobs but really have no hope in trying to buy in up here, because of the prices.”
The Jensen kids have proposed a unique solution. “All of my children have talked about ‘hey, what if we just build a compound; smaller houses on a big lot, and we could all live together,’” Kathleen said. “And I thought that’d be kind of cool … maybe.”
Meanwhile, the Jensens feel they are lucky that they can wait and see. “We’ll just see what happens, go through another winter,” Greg said. “We’re ready— we got firewood.”
Sunnyside boat mechanic
Earlier this year, Jared was living in a rundown A-frame on Timberland Lane, around the corner from where he works in Sunnyside. “The pipes were leaky, the deck was so rotted out one of my roommates fell through it — it was your typical rundown Tahoe house,” he said. “What they called the fourth bedroom was actually a tiny loft — the only person who could live there was a girl we know who’s five-foot-two.”
Still, he said it was a good deal by Tahoe standards, at $1,850 a month. It was a one-year lease that had been renewed once, but then Jared said the owners decided to let the lease run out and convert the home to an Airbnb vacation rental.
“It took them a year and a half to fix the giant hole in the deck where my roommate fell through, but now they’ve done it up real nice,” Jared said.
A search on Airbnb reveals that the house now rents for $250 a night, which means the owners can now make in about a week what Fournier used to pay them each month. He’s now subletting a room from a friend who’s on vacation, and has until the first week in November to plot his next move. “I just keep looking on Craigslist, but there’s nothing — and then you see so many vacation rentals around everywhere,” he said. “A lot of them sit empty a lot and you’d think they would want to get guaranteed money every month, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
At 35, Jared would like to move past living with roommates, but that’s been tough to do. “I have two good jobs, here at Sunnyside in the summer and at Alpine and Squaw in the winter,“ he said. “But it’s really hard to find something I can afford on my own.”