In this Q and A with Our Town Reno reporter Robyn Feinberg, Bobzien weighs in on the council's challenges with economic change, making downtown more attractive to local residents, more inspections in motels, losing local history amid development, impacts on affordable housing and the rise in homelessness among other hot button growth related topics.
Robyn Feinberg: Why did you decide to run for City Council and what does the job entail?
David Bobzien: Before I served on the council, I represented pretty much the urban core of Reno in Assembly District 24. The last issue that I was involved with in the legislature was the Tesla Special Session; so following that session and securing the Gigafactory, it was very apparent to me that our community was going to face some tremendous opportunity as a result of that, but also some tremendous challenges when it comes to growth in particular. And what it would mean for our quality of life, and what it would mean for our community, our community character going forward. So, as it happened, a couple of months later, the 2014 election happened and Hillary Schieve was elected mayor, thus creating a vacancy on the council in the at-large position, and I was encouraged to run, and it lined up really well for me because I sort of realized ...'You know what, I feel a certain responsibility to be there, to help with the situation, having played a part in the Tesla Special Session.' The opportunity to work on these very local issues was something that was very appealing to me, so that’s why I applied and was selected by the council to serve out the rest of her [Schieve’s] term, and then I stood for election in 2016, and to this day, all of the concerns I had about what is this going to mean for our growth, what’s it going to mean for our population, and what’s it going to mean for all these pressures of this rebounding economy - a lot of that is coming true and so I feel grateful and lucky that I am able to be there to work on this stuff and try to make things a little bit better.
Robyn Feinberg: Going off of that, how do you see the future of Reno, especially in light of all of the development with companies such as Tesla coming in, and the effects it’s having on the city’s economy?
David Bobzien: I am cautiously optimistic. I don’t want to say that everything is going to be great, and everyone is going to have jobs and all of these problems are going to sort themselves out. We have real challenges, we have real issues that we have to deal with. But I still would rather have this reality than the reality I had of my constituents during the downturn/great recession, where I’ll never forget, knocking on doors during campaign season in say 2010, and where every fourth house was foreclosed, and every third or fourth conversation I would have at the door was somebody with a spouse who had been out of work for eight months. It was bad. This new energy and economic resurgence, I would much rather have this than those previous conditions. Now that said, I think we have a lot of challenges in making sure that those opportunities are available for everyone, and that as we go through this period of growth and resurgence, we’re creating long-lasting prosperity for everybody, and in such a way that we don’t lose what it means to live in a really cool city. Things are going to change, things are going to be different, we’re going to have growing pains and not everyone is going to be happy with some of the things they see, but I want this to be a community that twenty years from now, I can feel like we didn’t get everything right, but we got a lot of it right, and my children are now starting families here and they’re proud to call Reno their hometown and they’re still here.
Robyn Feinberg: I read that $1 million dollars has been spent fighting blight in Reno and cleaning it up, can you talk about that and who or what were the targets with the money spent?
David Bobzien: Yeah, it’s not complete. The theory was that we needed to allocate some money to make blight a priority and deal with vacant properties, and to deal with some of the problem properties that we had. There was a variety of things that were done, clean-ups, graffiti abatement, and one of the bigger picture items was a loan to knock down one of the boarded up hotels that had been vacant and that got turned into the Playa Art Project that we have on Virginia street. But more so, I think, the council’s activities have been more around how do we, the blight fund was one part of it for downtown, but how do we incentivize, and how do we get business investment and residents to be downtown, thereby creating more vibrancy all around for downtown. And so certainly the business improvement district that we unanimously voted to go forward with at the last council meeting is a big step in that direction. In a lot of ways we are catching up to what many other cities around the country already do, big and small, we’ll [Reno] be the first one in Nevada, which will be good, but the hope there is a new partnership for downtown residents, business owners, certainly gaming and the casinos, for everyone to kind of come together and realize that if they’re not talking to each other and not working together, people will always complain about downtown being a place that they don’t want to be. So, this is the way to get us to a downtown that more people want to be in.
Robyn Feinberg: Would you say that this is the end-goal for the council, getting people to want to be in downtown and live there and Reno in general?
David Bobzien: Absolutely. And to be proud of downtown. I think that for a long time, I’ve lived, it will be 21 years in May, but I’ve been in Reno, and when I got here the joke was 'Oh, nobody goes downtown, that’s for tourists and people who want to gamble, but the rest of us don’t go downtown.' In that period of time there’s been a slow, steady progress of moving our downtown to more of a livable environment for everybody. And we have restaurants and people that have residents, we’ve got markets now, maybe we’ll have a grocery store sometime soon. So, our downtown is a place that people will no longer turn their backs on. I think for the longest time, this community kind of turned its back on downtown.
Robyn Feinberg: Moving into a very recent conversation, can you talk about the Motel Inspection Program that city council is involved in. What are your thoughts on it, and motels in Reno in general?
David Bobzien: Well it’s been a very robust and hopefully very productive conversation between our city staff and code enforcement, and the motel owners themselves. I have met with motel owners and heard their concerns about the program, and they make a very important argument that you may not like them, but the fact of the matter is, these are living options for people, and I have some sympathy for that perspective. They [the motel owners] realize that they have been under the microscope, so they understand they have to engage in this conversation and try to find some ways to make their rooms and their offerings better. They’re nervous about being mandated to make major investments in cleaning up their offerings, just because they would argue that they would then have to pass that on to their tenants who may not be able to afford them. So, it’s a tricky balance, but I think it’s a good conversation and hopefully we’ll see a good sort of middle-ground there so that we can have a better sense that the conditions by which some of these motels offer their residents. It’s seniors, it’s veterans, it’s children, I mean the number of kids enrolled at say, Mt. Rose Elementary School, that live in weekly motels would probably shock most people. These are transient living conditions for a lot of families, hopefully we can find ways to improve those situations without automatically pricing people out and getting them out on the streets. Now, aside from that, there are other development efforts underway, different people looking for different strategies, about repurposing, for instance, previously used temporary camps from say industrial projects, bringing like almost dorm quality living options and placing them someplace downtown so that there are alternatives to those weekly motels. (Note: There were developments on this front after our interview took place .... https://www.rgj.com/story/news/2018/04/25/reno-council-approves-community-land-trust-create-affordable-housing-complex-reno/548224002/)
Robyn Feinberg: So would you say that this [the housing crisis] is a difficult question for the council to answer?
David Bobzien: Well it’s a difficult one, but it’s an important one. I think that across the council, and the mayor included, we may all have our different opinions when it comes down to what it is we are actually going to do with this program, but the fact that everybody on the council understands that this is a super important conversation to have I think is good. I mean housing affordability across the spectrum, whether we’re talking about workforce housing, whether we’re talking about truly low income affordability, it’s the number one thing that we’re focused on. We know we don’t have all the answers, we know it’s a complex set of issues to work through, but everybody knows that you can’t just throw your hands up and say 'oh it’s too complex we’re not going to touch it.' We’re all trying to find ways to address this.
Robyn Feinberg: What’s the effort like on the council’s part in re-locating motel tenants whose homes were demolished, or in general for those looking for affordable housing or shelter?
David Bobzien: The efforts are somewhat ad-hoc, which is not a bad thing. I mean people are out there looking for different solutions and investigating different ideas and possibilities, but as for the council, we just had a meeting about community development block grants. I’m on the subcommittee for how we allocate those federal funds, as a for instance, right off the top, $500,00 of our allocation every year goes right to the community assistance center, so we’re up to [about] $800,000 that is the city’s portion on the community assistance center. But then we have other money, there’s almost $400,000 out there right now for trying to find some housing assistance program solutions. So, you know, there’s assistance options for people, whether it’s rent assistance, whether it’s placement, whether it’s assistance to seniors, it’s out there, it’s just difficult to scale it really, to meet the need, and we [the council] would acknowledge that. There’s a whole variety of things we’re trying to do, but there’s never enough money to deal with all of the problems.
Robyn Feinberg: Is there this worry on the council that homelessness in Reno is correlated to development and prices going up, with companies coming in and wanting to “revamp” downtown?
David Bobzien: Yes, absolutely. There’s no doubt about it that the numbers and the statistics, the data is pretty stark, that housing affordability, generally across the spectrum, is an issue for our region. Rents are going up, housing prices are going up, it just stands to reason that those pressures are real and will result in more and more people having to make difficult choices about their budget and what they’re going to do, and how their day-to-day lives are going to go.
Robyn Feinberg: Are you worried that Reno will be losing some of its history with all of this development, such as the vintage motel signs and old buildings that are now gone? I know that this particular topic is important for historians in the area.
David Bobzien: No, I mean we are clearly shifting into a new chapter of Reno and I think that’s certainly a worry, that, you know, the past is, if we’re not careful, will slip away pretty quickly. But, I’m confident, based on how I’ve watched other cities over the years go through these sorts of changes. Boise, Idaho, is a good one that comes to mind, you know there are plenty of models out there of cities that have transitioned into new economic chapters that have done a good job of rehabilitating historic properties and not losing all vestiges of what came before... I had some friends come in from out-of-town (recently), and so we went out to dinner to The Depot, and that was a perfect example of a building that sat vacant and empty with no sort of economic use for so long, and thankfully somebody had a vision, came in, made the investment, and they have a thriving business downtown with a historic building. Again, can you scale that to what degree is that going to apply to your entire cityscape, it’s as of yet unknown, but there’s certainly hope off of that happening that’s encouraging.
Robyn Feinberg: A particular focus of mine for this project is that Reno is facing a “moral dilemma.” On one hand you have the revitalization of beautiful, old buildings for casual dining such as The Depot, but does that come at the price of people who are already living here and are now being priced out through these gentrification efforts. Do you feel that dilemma, is there that moral dilemma?
David Bobzien: Absolutely, and I, again, for me it returns to ... I would rather have these problems than the problems we had during the Great Recession with high unemployment rates, across all the neighborhoods, people were in difficult times. With this economic resurgence, people are generally doing better, there’s more prosperity in our community, but that is not a reason to turn and look away, and understand that it’s putting a really acute pressure on a select segment of our community that are definitely feeling the pinch. You’re right, there’s people that have been living in some of these situations for a long, long time under the previous chapter of Reno and now that’s changing, and where does that go. I think that weighs on everybody on the council, the mayor as well.
Robyn Feinberg: To wrap things up, from your perspective, what can you say about the council’s efforts and the part you are playing in this overall conversation? I know there’s a lot of conversation going on with different points of view on where Reno is headed and the council’s part in it.
David Bobzien: I think in this political time in particular, it’s disappointing that where we are as a society is that folks are super quick to label and judge, assign roles and simple perspectives and opinions on someone they may have a disagreement with. That ultimately doesn’t help the real conversation that we need to have as a community about what the future looks like. I’ve always said this, that in Nevada, compared to many other places, California being a perfect example, our elected officials are amazingly accessible. Sometimes it takes a little bit to get on their calendars, but for the most part, you can stop your city council member, or your state legislator, in the grocery store. Last night I was out, my two nine year-old sons were at a Cub Scout event at a trampoline place, and I had a mom come sit down next to me because her kid was also jumping around, and we had this 30 minutes conversation about housing options for people on fixed income. Those opportunities abound and so I always encourage people to not go into anything with a preconceived perception of what someone else believes or feels or values. And if you just have those conversations with people, you’ll be amazed at how much ground you can cover and the impact you can have. We get tons of emails, tons of phone calls, we get tons of public comment all the time, but that’s our job and it is our job to get stopped in the community, and stopped in the grocery store, and hear people's perspectives and opinions on different issues.
Note: Parts of the interview were trimmed and some questions and comments were edited for clarity with no change to the original content or meaning.