Tahoe's Missing Middle

Dec 1, 2016

 

Tahoe communities have been grappling with a worsening housing crisis for several months. Although housing has always been an issue in the region, the situation has reached something of a tipping point in recent months, affecting both low-income communities and,increasingly, working class and middle class residents as well.

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 stories show the range of middle class Tahoe households impacted by the housing crisis. These are people who are making decent salaries, but still are priced out as costs swell. There are some challenging realities at play: As a second-homeowner economy, Tahoe is heavily influenced by the Bay Area, where prices have skyrocketed. Increasingly, Bay Area buyers are snapping up homes that seem affordable compared to San Francisco prices, driving costs up.

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, 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. Locals are pushing for the remaining housing stock to be permanent residences, at prices Tahoe residents can afford. 

Reno Public Radio is proud to partner with Moonshine Ink on this project. This story first appeared in print in Moonshine Ink. 

Elvia Lopez Esparza Office manager, Family Resource Center

Elvia Esparza 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. Esparza 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 says. “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,” Esparza says. The calls concern evictions, need for rental assistance, and even many finding themselves homeless. “A lot of people are living in cars,” she says.

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 says.

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 says.

Esparza 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 Esparza's husband also works), and the fourth is a supervisor for the sanitation district.

“We’re pretty active in our community,” Esparza says. “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 says.

 

Tim Olesnavage, co-founder Elevate Blue, Code Tahoe

When Tim Olesnavage 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 says.

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,” Olesnavage says.

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,” he says. “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 says. 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 says. “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 Olesnavage’s business as well, which hopes to attract tech talent to the area.

“It’s our number-one issue,” he says. “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 Olesnavage, 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 says. “Why make $2,000 a month when I can make $2,000 a week? I’m not gonna leave money on the table.”

 

Ryan Adams Financial advisor, Cunningham Investment Management

Ryan Adams 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 says. “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.”

Adams 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, the couple was able to figure out a solution — building their own home. “We started looking for a house to buy and were really disappointed at what was out there in our price range,” Adams says. “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 is 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 says. 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,” Adams says. “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.” 

 

Noel Borden, 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,” Borden says. “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 there. On days when Borden 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 says. “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 says. 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. “Right now, relocating jobs is not even a thought in my mind,” he says.

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 says. “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.”

Borden says he shared his story because he wants awareness to grow. “These types of stories need to get out,” he says. “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.”

 

Kathleen & Greg Jensen School administrator and Contractor

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,” says 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,” says 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 says. “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 says. “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 says. “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 says. “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 says. “We’re ready— we got firewood.”

 

Jared Fournier, 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 says. “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 says 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 Fournier says 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 says.

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 plotting his next move.

“I just keep looking on Craigslist, but there’s nothing — and then you see so many vacation rentals around everywhere,” he says. “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 says. “But it’s really hard to find something I can afford on my own.”