Dorm-Style Housing Being Built For Reno's Working Poor

Jul 2, 2018

Among the people hit hardest by Reno's affordable housing crunch are the city's lowest income residents. Rising rents are often pushing people out of apartments or motels and onto to the street. But now, in downtown Reno, there's a project to create a new safety net.  

Right off Sage Street, tucked in between railroad tracks and the highway, is a long strip of land. It's rocky, and industrial. Bushes grow here and there, and there are a few signs that say "warning: petroleum pipeline."

But in the next couple of months, Jim Pfrommer says that's all going to change.

"There'll be two fifty-unit buildings right here, and then about 20 yards in front of us will probably be the communal area, a pet area," Pfrommer says. "We're going to have a fire pit, kind of a communal space."

Pfrommer chairs the Community Foundation of Western Nevada. Working with the city and a number of local groups and companies, the Foundation is spearheading a unique kind of affordable housing project: dorms. By August, they will be placing prefabricated units shipped in from Wyoming on land formerly owned by the city.

Credit Community Foundation of Western Nevada

"This will not be like living in Southwest Reno. This'll be $400 a month, though a place that is safe, warm and dry, and you have to take it for what it is," Pfrommer says.

The dorms will be small but are meant to provide the working poor an alternative to homelessness or spiking downtown rents.

"Nobody should be living on the streets," says Pat Cashell, Regional Director of Volunteers of America, the organization managing the project. "Nobody should be sleeping on the rivers. Nobody should be sleeping in alleyways; I don't care who you are. You need a place to call home; you need a place to wake up in the morning, to brush your teeth."

Cashell says he doesn't expect that $400 rent to go up any time soon, a rarity in a state with no rent controls. Bundled with that rent will be a number of planned services meant to help people move into permanent housing.

"And if we can get these people through, get them on their feet, get them the counseling they need, the doctors, the housing specialists, employment specialists, get 'em a bank account, then that's a success," Cashell says.

These dorms will serve largely one group: the extremely low income. These are people who are employed but are making minimum wage or working multiple part-time jobs. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are just 15 affordable units for every 100 extremely low income renters in Nevada, the worst ratio in the nation. The next-worst state, California, has 22 per 100.

J.D. Klippenstein is the executive director of ACTIONN, a local social justice advocacy group. He says many low income or fixed income renters are forced to turn to weekly motels, which don't require a deposit. But even there, rents are still pricey, sometimes near $1,000 per month.

"You kind of get trapped," Klippenstein says. "You're never able to build up or save up enough to get out. Even though a lot of the folks we work with, a lot of the people, part of their story is, 'One day, I'm gonna get myself out of here,' but many of them have been there for years, and the number has kept growing with our housing crisis."

Klippenstein says renters will often double up with each other, sometimes spending all of their paychecks up front, leaving no discretionary income for the rest of the month. And their living conditions range from perfectly fine to unhealthy to sometimes even dangerous. But getting out is easier said than done.

"To be honest, the waiting list on affordable housing or subsidized housing in our community is off the charts, so even if someone were to get on a list to try to get into affordable housing that's subsidized, that's standardized, they'd have to wait quite some time," Klippenstein says.

A sign outside the Sage Street site.
Credit Jacob Solis

But not everyone thinks the dorm project is the right fix. Speaking at a KUNR affordable housing forum, Eric Novak of the Praxis Consulting Group criticized similar proposals to the dorms, including tiny homes and a project that would use shipping containers as housing.

"I see projects like this and it's almost like giving up, that it's not housing; it's an emergency situation," Novak says. "Some of these are barely humane."

Klippenstein says he can see the reservations some people might have about a shared living space, but he also says desperate times call for creative solutions.

"I think they would act as a good safety net," Klippenstein says. "I should preface that with: we have almost no safety net as is, so anything is better than nothing."

He says the dorms are a good first step, though more will need to be done at the regional level if Reno expects the housing crisis to end anytime soon. For now, the project appears to have the momentum it needs to get off the ground. Fundraising will continue through next month, and units are expected to start arriving in August.