Q: What are some updates on what the city council has in store to address homelessness or the lack of affordable housing in the area?
A: The city council has a number of different things that it's working through, and it's one of three or four different regional governing bodies that has some role to play in housing or homelessness. As a city we're challenged by our finances. Certainly, we are challenged by the fact that as far as the city's powers … we are fairly limited. So we try to find the areas where we can work within the opportunities that we can create here in the city. I think we've done a good job of taking on a project-by-project analysis of the problem. We haven't done a really good job of looking at the entirety of the situation. We have different boards within the city; for example, the CDBG (Community Development Block Grants) board is tasked with looking at the federal resources that come into this community that can be used to help people who are dealing with housing insecurity or homelessness. At the end of the day, I think our city council believes very strongly that people need a roof over their head. Sometimes that's in immediate shelter needs, sometimes it's in temporary housing, and oftentimes it's in long-term goals and transitional programs that can help people get to that goal. So we're doing a lot with very little, but there's obviously more we can do.
Q: Could you elaborate more on the CDBG (Community Development Block Grants) board and what it does?
A: So this is an area where we have a sub-committee of the council as a whole. It meets with local partners that include Washoe County, Sparks, and I believe the health district has a seat on that board as well. It's just a pool of money from which we as a council make choices about how we're going to prioritize how we spend those funds. Some of that has gone into rapid rehousing dollars, some of it has gone into programs to keep people from having to move from their home as they age, and there's a really great program that's part of it that allows people to have their homes renovated and at times retro-fitted in order that they can stay there. I think this is an important project because it means that people stay where they are. They shelter in place, they have a home where they can age gracefully, and yet it allows them not to become a part of either the homeless community or in a different kind of shelter situation. This last time around we provided funds through that entity to cover some of the landlord-tenant rights and seminars that have been offered by the city. Some of the money in that particular fund has gone to … housing like the Willie Wynn housing project (the Willie J. Wynn Apartments now run by the Reno Housing Authority, which broke ground in May, are named after a local preacher and will specifically be for struggling senior citizens), just off Sutro and Wells and money for that project came out of that fund.
Q: What are some updates on the HopeSprings tiny homes project?
A: That's a great project. That is really a good example of a public-private partnership because it has drawn interest from governments, Hopes- which is essentially a health resource in our community-, and then it was some land that was owned by the city. It's been a little slower getting out of the dirt than I had hoped, but it's coming on-line. I think you won't see people living there for about another six to nine months is what I understand. But in concept, gosh, it looks amazing. It looks like something that could really benefit our community and I'm hopeful that it might be a model for other kinds of projects of a similar nature. This is a project that I think hits a particular target audience but could be expanded to include lots of sub-communities, like homeless veterans, for example. I think that this project is being replicated successfully in other communities, as well. If you are paying attention to the national landscape, it appears that villages of this type and sort of the smaller housing units which have a cluster around a central meeting place and a place where people may engage with one another seem to be successful in other communities and I believe it will be successful here.
Q: For those that may be on the streets and interested in taking advantage of this opportunity with the project. How do they go about doing that?
A: Well, as I understand it, there is a waiting list for the project but I don't know what the status of it is. Of course, I’m sure that there are resources online. I know that our own Housing Authority and different entities within the city that connect people with services are excited that it would come online because that'll provide the opportunity to really push it out. The other major project that we had here locally was the village on Sage Street. It was another project where it had a very long waiting list, but then when it came time to actually have people housed there, some of those people had moved. Some were very transient in terms of lifestyle, so their phone numbers had changed or they may have had an opportunity to get into other housing arrangements. So these waiting lists are a good starting point because they're an indicator of need, but they don't necessarily tell the entire story about the depth of that need, if that makes sense.
Q: There is a project in place for a new campus for women and children without shelter. Some community members are feeling that it's coming out a little slow as well. What is your update on that center moving forward?
A: Yeah, so the movement of the women and children over to the Galletti campus (from the Record street downtown shelter) is going to be awesome and hopefully transformational for people's lives. Everything moves slower than anyone would want, and I am concerned that we're going to have winter bearing down upon us. Obviously, it's getting colder and it might not be up and running by the time that people have a need for it, so that's concerning. I will say that the campus is very large and when you look at the overall services and the comprehensive range of things that can occur on that campus, you can't help but be excited about it because in the end it really does focus on a group of people who have a considerable amount of need for services and I think it's going to be a good one once it gets there.
Q: We’ve heard the Sage Street dorm-style living is at about 50% occupancy. What is being done to try and increase the occupancy rate right there?
A: Well, I have not spoken to the VOA folks who are on site in a couple of months, so I'm not sure if that occupancy number is true today. If it is, that is somewhat discouraging because I do think it is a good opportunity. But it's just a matter of telling people what's available. It's about connecting people with services where they're needed. Ultimately, I think that they have been making some choices about income levels that perhaps are not reflective of the community that is the target need. I know that there's some thoughts about adjusting those downward so that more people can be eligible for housing there. I think too that some people are very interested in living there, but it's difficult at times to put together that first and last month's rent because when people are living paycheck to paycheck or without a paycheck, that can be very difficult. My understanding is that some funds have been made available through our rapid re-housing fund in the city to help people secure down payment assistance.
When you think about a place like the village on Sage Street, and the need that people have to get in to that type of housing, it can be very difficult if you are facing an emergency situation or if your resources are very limited and you're choosing between food and shelter, or food and medicine and shelter. Those funds that are available through the city as a resource, while they're limited in some ways, at least they exist. Hopefully we share the positive word about those funds and it will help people see that as a viable option. The other thing is, I think fundamentally people just have to get used to the concept of a different type of living arrangement. Most people don't necessarily think of dormitory style living when they think about their ideal circumstances. But once you visit the campus and see what's going on there, I can't help but think that it's very inviting, very warm, and very friendly. There's a community on-site resource that is essentially a store where they can buy grab-and-go foods and there are classes that are available, too. There's laundry facilities, internet cafes, game rooms, and living areas outside of the dorm. They're small, don't get me wrong, but they're safe. For anybody who is looking for a home, I can't help but believe it would be a good opportunity.
Q: There are some activists and community members who are disappointed that the community meals are being moved away from the main shelter on Record Street. Why are those meals being moved and what's your reaction to that response? What would you say to them?
A: Well, I guess the first thing is to acknowledge the concern and frustration of those people who are out there doing the good work of feeding people. Undoubtedly people's hearts are in the right place and any time that one human being wants to help feed another human being, we should be finding out ways for that to happen. Of course, there are things that get in the way of that like health rules and concerns about the safety of people who are seeking that food resource. The Record Street campus is just stretched thin in terms of its physical space and also the provision of services there. When you have people lining up several hours before and staying several hours after, it creates lots of opportunities for unsafe conditions. The city has been working very hard and at least one community partner stepped up as a place where those meals could be served. The city attorney's office drafted as I understand, a release of liability and that really wasn't vetted well with the members of the community who were the ones actually doing the work and serving. So I'm not entirely sure if that has been resolved. I think it can be resolved, but I haven't been involved in it intimately. I just know that feeding people should be a priority for all of us and certainly it's a priority for me. I think that whatever the concerns are for folks who are in that community of providing food, we can work through those issues, whatever they are.
Q: Last weekend, the group Quality of Life-Reno made a motion to conduct citizens arrests on homeless staying in Pickett Park. The city police came in and notified the people that were staying there and now they are no longer there. The community responded by having a donation drive at the park. Are you familiar with what happened and what is your reaction to the whole thing?
A: Yeah, I'm broadly familiar with it. I wasn't able to attend the outpouring of love that was shown on Saturday so I don't know what happened on the ground other than what I read on social media. What I saw was a community coming together in love, strength, and support for our most vulnerable people. The group mentioned is one I'm vaguely familiar with, too. I think they're shady operators. They're not good people. I don't think that they have a heart for the citizens of this community. At times these fringe groups create a lot of commotion and a lot of stir, but with very little desire to really help. The response from the city of Reno was somewhat hands-off because it was not in a position to do much either way. I understand a Reno police officer was involved in trying to defuse the situation, but I don't believe he was there on city time. He was there as a concerned citizen and really just wanted to make sure that everyone was safe and that this fake event did not get out of hand. In the end, the Quality of Life folks wanted to take credit for what happened. Of course, no one believes that that was accurate or fair.
Q: The US Supreme Court might eventually look at Boise vs. Martin, in which they may review the overall legality of sleeping in public spaces. There was an amicus brief that was written by a Reno attorney at one point in support of the case. What are your thoughts on all of this? ( Boise has formally asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider its appeal in the case, called by some the “camping lawsuit.” It came about due to a city ordinance banning people who are homeless from sleeping in public places.)
A: Well, no amicus brief was filed on behalf of the city of Reno. I think there was a discussion a few months back about whether or not Reno should support such an amicus brief and our council declined to participate. The reality is the Boise vs. Martin case is an important one. I don't know whether it will ultimately be heard by the Supreme Court. Either way, we have a fundamental problem that we have to fix and the courts aren't going to fix things for us. We have to fix things ourselves. So what we have to do is focus on ways in which we can provide adequate shelter resources. We have to focus on programs that help people to reintegrate into both everyday life and living things like hygiene, health, housing, jobs, and job-retraining at times. At the end of the day, cities, especially our city with limited resources and limited powers, are perhaps not the best problem-solvers. Nonetheless, we find ourselves in the position of trying to promote the health, safety, and well-being of the people who live here. So there are a complicated series of things that one has to ask when we decide whether we are being appropriate, loving, and compassionate towards those who find themselves without a home. At the end of the day, I don't believe that Boise vs. Martin decision is going to be heard by the Supreme Court. If it is, I don't think it will fix what we have going on here. So we ought to get busy with the process of fixing what we can on the ground now on our own.
Q: In relation to affordable housing prices, what are some strategies that the council is implementing to address this issue?
A: Affordable housing is often lumped into the conversations about homelessness. In terms of affordable housing and some of the things that we've done, our mayor has helped us to focus on the “A Thousand Doors in 120 Days” initiative. This is one in which the city of Reno can defer sewer hookups and connection fees to developers who are willing to develop within a particular geographic area called “Opportunity Zones” so that the developers are incentivized to build in an area where we need development. So we're not giving the money to [the developers], we're saying we'll take the money later in the project when you get a certificate of occupancy.
A second example is under the newest legislative cycle they passed, SB 103. There is a way for cities to use their judgment to actually waive those [development] fees if in fact we're getting a more affordable component to a project. This is something that we have to, as a city undertake, and in the coming months figure out how to plug that in.
There are also ways to use the land that the city of Reno owns. Where we own the underlying land, earlier this year we conditioned the sale of a particular parcel on the agreement that would reduce the fair market value of that [parcel] if the developer builds a certain number of units. In this case, it ended up being 12 to 15 units of affordable or market rate housing in that project. Since we own the land we were able to discount the land in order to get affordable housing as a component. We're using those CDBG funds to incentivize and sometimes bridge the gap between what financiers have in their pocket, what they get from a bank, and what they can get from the city. So we actually place money towards those housing components.
Q: Early on in your term as the Councilman At-Large, you seemed to be pretty active on social media. Do you intend to continue to do that?
A: Yeah, I try to be engaged on social media in some small way all of the time. I have tended to always post about upcoming meetings. I try to give a summary of those meetings and when the meeting is concluded, I try to respond and say what we accomplished in the meeting. I think it is probably a double-edged sword. Some people think social media is the area where you go to complain, bash on people, and attack people's views. In my social and online presence, I have to believe that it's a place for us to communicate directly with citizens and to engage in the deliberative process of a democratic institution, so I'm on social media a lot. I don't know if I'm up and down in terms of usage, but I think if you look at my social media, I have tended to be very open and vocal in support of the projects and communities that I'm working with.
Q: You are currently running for election for this position. What are some new ideas for the homeless and affordable housing issues that you will run on, or are you running on a continuation of things that have been tried before?
Answer: My ideas are informed by necessity. I don't think that we are unique among communities in this country who are grappling with housing, affordable housing, and homelessness issues. I wouldn't say that I am doing anything other than what is necessary. I do think there are things that we have to do better. The truth is, when people are hurting and suffering, we have a moral obligation to act and respond. I go about each day trying to think about how I can improve this community. It's a community that's given me a lot and at the end of the day, if we are to move forward together into the future, we have to do that with all of us benefiting from it. If only the folks on the upper end of the spectrum economically benefit, and the middle-class continues to shrink and the people in that tail end of the spectrum economically, are just frozen out of social life and that's not right. That is not consistent with my values. I prioritize people over things. In the next legislative cycle, I would like to see us taking a more proactive and aggressive stance on taking an opportunity to fix some of these issues. [During] this last legislative cycle, our city's priorities were pretty small and I would like to see them expanded.
I’d like to see us get as aggressive as we can with seeking to find resources and opportunities to expand the program. We're going to continue to support housing across a broad spectrum of housing types. I believe that housing of all types, whether it's dormitory style housing, student housing, tiny villages, or apartments on all sorts of spectrum, and even entry-level housing and upper-level housing frees up housing stock for everybody. It's one of those things where economists and people who really study housing markets are very pointedly and adamantly in favor of developing more housing stock. So wherever that housing stock lies, it benefits people at different ranges in the spectrum. We should be doing that.
Q: In closing, what message would you like to share to the city's homeless and those who are struggling on the streets?
A: Well, I don't want to be emotional in my approach to it, but I want to tell people that there's always hope. Love is the thing that will unite us as a community, as you saw … at Pickett Park. Everyone deserves the dignity and grace that comes with being a human being. People are not illegal by their circumstances in terms of being homeless. I want us to take a compassionate approach to people's wellbeing. At the end of the day, our priorities and our values will dictate our policy choices and that for me has always been people-first. If we come to accept that there are some fundamental inequalities in our society at-large and then we think about how that implicates our positionality here in Reno, I think we can come to a better understanding of the types of solutions that are necessary to make sure that people are safe, well, and have access to resources like food, medicine, and hygiene. All of those things are just part of the inherent dignity that people have. I hope people understand that that is who I am and I hope that's reflected in my policy choices.