As an end of June deadline looms for residents to vacate cheap rentals on the block in between Center/Lake streets and 6th and 7th streets in downtown Reno, the group Acting in Community Together in Organizing Northern Nevada (ACTIONN), held an onsite meeting last night to discuss their options. In addition to the forced displacement, dotted trees will be cut down, an alley will disappear and old large homes will also be demolished to give way for an out-of-state developer to build high-end university student housing.
“Our Town Reno” caught up on the phone today with ACTIONN executive director Michael Thornton to find out more. The Reno-based ACTIONN group, a member of the PICO National Network, tagline: “unlocking the power of people”, deals with immigration, poverty, education, economic and social equity issues facing the poor, displaced and politically marginalized. Thornton has an extensive background as a community organizer, a radio newsman, and a manager in mental health and substance abuse programs.
What happened last night?
We have been canvassing the neighborhood for quite some time talking with residents, working with residents to arrange the meeting which took place last night on Lake street. We gathered all the residents to ask them what they wanted to do. One of the things that’s really important for people to understand is that while ACTIONN wants to win the social equity issues because they’re important, we have as a co-equal value developing grassroots community leadership. We’re not coming in there to do things to the residents or do things for the residents or ride in on our white horse as saviors. We are there to work with the residents so they can be leaders in their own struggle for justice in this situation.
Does the situation look bleak or is there any hope for these residents?
I think it’s an uphill struggle. I don’t think anybody looking at it would be able to say anything other than that. It’s really important to point out that we have residents who are now organizing. We actually had representatives from Washoe Legal Services and Legal Services of Nevada out there last night to look at what some potential legal strategies may be. In many ways, the most important thing is for the people of Reno and our decision makers to really understand what’s going on. Reno city council members have been told ‘oh, these people they’re being displaced but they’re getting assistance and they’re getting help’ and that’s not really the case. I don’t know the exact numbers. There are a few who have case managers and they are getting some help. But a lot of the folks are not getting assistance.
What are some of the short term challenges and goals for these soon to be displaced residents?
Some who are being told they are being helped are being given a stack of papers printed out from Craiglist showing them some places that you might be able to rent. But when you think about it to rent a place nowadays, you often have to have first month’s and last month’s security deposit, pet deposit, credit check, that all adds up... A lot of these folks just simply don’t have the ability to do that. They are being cast out and left to fend for themselves and so organizing and working with ACTIONN and working with Legal Services, we hope to do what we can to at least get them an opportunity to struggle for some justice and some relocation assistance.
Since this wave of gentrification seems to be coming later to Reno than elsewhere, do you think the Biggest Little City will avoid mistakes made elsewhere?
We’ve seen the incredibly negative effects of gentrification in many cities across the country. But what is also well documented is that communities are engaging in smart planning and while people do wind up being displaced there are also lots of components being looked into, so there is affordable housing and appropriate services within development plans. I know there are developers, local developers. who are really paying attention to this and they want to work to revitalize some of the areas in Reno, which desperately need that. There’s no doubt it is needed. But they have to be cognizant of what can and what would likely happen if these areas are just redeveloped without thought of the people who live there now. It’s important to point out many of these people are working class, working families. They are also our most vulnerable friends, neighbors and residents. If we are not going to pay attention to their needs, I just think that’s a huge mistake, or it’s a mistake that unfortunately has been repeated in many areas of our country. Hopefully, it won’t be repeated here.
Is the current battle for social justice for residents on the Center / Lake block important in the big picture of Reno's future?
It’s not just what’s happening to them. There is a wave of development and redevelopment hitting Reno and the general area. There are lots and lots of folks who are living in similar situations who could be facing displacement as well. If we don’t focus on these issues now, we can wind up seeing this happen to thousands of people with nowhere to go. It’s bad planning. We shouldn’t be allowing that to happen. We should be looking at how to prevent this before we displace people.
Note: Some of the questions and answers were trimmed and edited for this report.