Jenny Brekhus is running for re-election for the Ward 1 seat on Reno’s city council (with a looming primary on June 14). Brekhus believes that as city centers become attractive again, we need to “start envisioning the next generation of housing”, while also “reimagining urban investment” and effectively helping retailers with a rapidly changing landscape.
As this development boom began later in Reno than elsewhere, Brekhus says the city is in a good position to make sure affordable options still exist for the less affluent among us, including those barely making ends meet and for the city’s creative, artistic class. She also views this situation in the bigger context of stagnating incomes.
Brekhus recently wrote an opinion article about how “urban vibrancy doesn’t happen by accident.” She’s viewed by some anti-gentrification activists as the lone progressive voice on council. Our Town Reno wanted to find out more.
Big developments are being talked about around Reno, and there are many concerns about affordability issues going forward. What is your sense on the current specifics?
This being Nevada, boom and bust is in our DNA. We’re back on a familiar trajectory. But this development cycle is different for a number of reasons. One in particular is all the energy and interest across cities is currently more urban. There are demographic trends going on in terms of aging baby boomers, more millennials, which is promoting different housing and service needs. Post-recession, it’s almost like Reno’s axis has somewhat tilted toward the northern California economy and that’s exciting too.
This so-called Tesla effect brings in the growth we are seeing, and also challenges and opportunities. The challenges are how to stem the tide of suburban sprawl development and maintaining your housing affordability edge which is really why we are seeing investment come from northern California.
The opportunity is that it’s a once in a lifetime generational chance to diversify our economy once and for all, so we’re resilient, people don’t have to leave our community in the next downturn, and kids who graduate from our universities have opportunities for jobs here.
What about the old motels, cheaper residential units and old homes which seem to be on the cutting block and which do offer more accessible housing options for many?
Housing affordability at all levels is a huge concern. Lots of people look at downtown housing and they think well that’s affordable housing. Those motels were a part of our dominant economy when it was about motorists coming to and through Reno. But as higher level towers and resorts got built those transitioned into housing. They are just a form of affordable housing that you see in our urban neighborhoods.
You’ll also see a lot of older houses that have been sliced into three or four boarding house units or back alley units. It’s a diverse and important housing stock which has created affordability to many working people.
It is a concern if we lose that because then you get issues of displacement, where are your lower income individuals, whether it’s service sector workers or people on Social Security, where are they going to live with their income levels? What is going to be replacing that? That is a real tough question I think we are really starting to ask and wonder about.
Does the affordability issue go beyond city power?
I think the conversation about housing affordability is two-fold. It certainly is housing supply, displacement, gentrification, but I think also there’s this larger context that cities aren't necessarily a big part of, but they are trying to help with as well, and that is wage stagnation and income stagnation.
Large percentages of the workforce, and retired folks, when you drill down to those monthly incomes, don’t really have enough for housing costs, and there’s just not the right product for them. Is it a housing cost issue or is it an income issue?
Cities are at the forefront of the minimum wage movement, and are trying to address that, but it’s also a bigger conversation and I think that is something that can be better handled at other government levels.
Are you still optimistic for the future and can Reno avoid some of the pitfalls we’ve seen elsewhere during the current development boom?
I’m spending quite a bit of time thinking of that and thinking about how maybe our wide open western mountain spaces could provide us to be a template for urban living that you just haven’t seen in other environments.
Even a place like Austin, Texas, where there’s a sense there’s a lot of creativity there, they’ve done a disastrous job in their transportation planning and they’ve made a tangled mess of things.
I think the opportunity of booming later and getting hot later is that we can really be in charge of our own destiny. We are thankful about it, and know where we need to be, and we can take best examples from other places, and that’s the progression I’d like to move on in the next term.
Note: Questions have been rearranged and answers trimmed for clarity. The interview took place in person on May 25, 2016.