A Busy Afternoon at the Housing Office
It’s a busy afternoon at the federally funded Reno Housing Authority with a packed parking lot and lobby on East Ninth Street, as local residents patiently wait in chairs to be called by seemingly overworked staff.
“There are many reasons they could be here,” explains Brent Boynton, the community outreach director. “If you are receiving housing assistance from us, it’s based on your income. So if you change jobs, you have to let us know that. If your cousin comes to live with you, we have to approve the cousin. Or it may be someone who wants to move. If you have a housing choice voucher (defined by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development as its program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market), you may be saying you're going to California and we make it possible for you to make that transition and get your voucher payments there. So people come in for many reasons, as well as the people who are here for the first time to fill out an application.”
Clearing Up Misconceptions About Its Role and Wait Lists
Boynton says there are often misconceptions as to what the Reno Housing Authority does, with some people calling to complain about a neighbor or asking about their yard. There’s often also gripes among those in need of housing, that the requirements are too stringent (no one accepted with a drug-related crime during the past three years for example) or that the waiting lists are too long or simply closed.
“We have 2,500 vouchers and that's through the housing choice voucher program and then we have 751 public housing units, units that the Housing Authority owns,” says executive director Amy Jones, when asked of a rundown of what the RHA currently handles in terms of local affordable housing. “And then the remainder of our units are scattered site properties, so condos, single family residences…. We also own a number of apartment complexes that have market rent, so there's no subsidy tied to those units.”
Jones also explains why wait lists are sometimes closed when they get too long. “When those wait lists start getting very large, they're hard to manage,” she said. “We have preferences on our wait lists. So when our wait lists are open, somebody may apply and be number ten in line, but due to those preferences, if somebody applies that has higher preferences, then they could move ahead of them. We also don't want to give a false hope to somebody that's applying that they're going to receive housing today and we have a limited staff to process those wait lists, to process the families on those wait lists. So we do close them up once they start to get large, so we can then work through them. Then, we reopen them as those numbers get lower. So we do have some of those wait lists currently open for our public housing programs,” she said.
Jones said there are currently about 3,000 families on their wait lists, including those seeking vouchers and public housing.
Boynton explained there are also certain priorities for those on the waiting list. "We're going to let a veteran move up in line," he said. "We're going to let a victim of domestic violence move up or someone with disabilities. And if that happens a little bit, you're going to find that your part of the line just doesn't move. So it seems that the best way to be fair to everyone who is standing in line is to allow it to clear a little bit. Plus, we don't want to give anyone false hope. By the time you fill out an application, you should be able to believe that you are going to have a place to live within a reasonable future."
A Declining Budget and a Rising Market
Jones did not give specifics but pointed toward a dire and hard to plan financial situation.
"All of our funding comes federally from HUD," she said, "and so that funding has been continuing to be decreased year over year, and our budget is being cut for both the voucher program and our operating subsidy, which is for our public housing. We also receive moneys to improve our public housing sites, and we're seeing those cut every year as well. So the trend is the monies are being cut and we just have to do more with less."
Another problem is that when working with landlords and amounts for vouchers, HUD works with data which is only renewed every three years and which can quickly become dated in a rapidly changing market.
"When you think about what has happened to our market in the last three years, you could have lived in an $800 a month apartment three years ago and now you're paying $1,200 a month in rent," Boynton said. "You can see where the problems come from because even if you've had cost of living increases, even if you've gotten a raise or a promotion, chances are your income has not improved enough to make up for that deficit," he said.
A Deal with Jacobs Entertainment
The Housing Authority was recently in the news for an exchange with the Colorado-based Jacobs Entertainment company, which has been buying up lots and tearing down motels in and around 4th street, for a yet to be detailed or built fountain district.
"Jacobs did purchase a parcel from us on 4th Street," Jones said when asked for an update." It was just vacant land that we had no use for. So he (Jeffrey Jacobs) did purchase that from the Housing Authority, and then he also did make a donation to the Housing Authority. He initially purchased three homes, part of the donation, that we could use to assist more families. And then the remainder of the donation did come to the Housing Authority, that we have earmarked for our development on the Sutro Street site that we own. "
More info on that senior housing project can be found here: https://www.reno.gov/home/showdocument?id=73397. Jones gave no details on the total monetary value of the Jacobs assistance.
Seeking "Creative Partnerships" but Frustrated
Amid these current realities, both Jones and Boynton say they are open to new ideas and new ways to help with the deepening affordable housing crisis.
"We are looking for creative ways to find solutions to the problem because again, you know, we're not getting as much money as we wish," Jones said. "So we look for those creative solutions, those private public partnerships. It's also asking the community to come to us with creative solutions because we're open to those ideas and what would work best for the community. We have to do more with less and that's what we continue to do and we look at, how can we partner with another agency or with the city that we can do more for the families we serve."
She also points to frustration.
"It's frustrating because we do know that there is a big need out there and if we could, we would help everyone and we are trying to help those families as much as we can by providing them the resources we have or if we don't have those resources immediately guiding them to other resources that may be able to help them in the interim with our partnering agencies or other properties that may have some type of subsidy for them. So we want to help any way we can, even if we can't immediately offer them that assistance."
No Sustainable Replacement Solutions Yet
"I think this is a time of great challenge for our community and this housing shortage is a serious challenge," Boynton said. "Anytime anyone becomes homeless, we all pay the price."
He also says the RHA has traditionally worked with dependable, continuous funding, something which can't be replaced by one off donations or help.
"Whatever solution we come up with as a community has to be sustainable," he said. "If we were to get this wonderful donation of millions of dollars to house people this year, but we didn't get the money next year, we can't just put them back on the street."
The Pains of Rapid Growth
Boynton said over a third of their clients are seniors or people with disabilities. He said he's glad to see growth, but as he explained at a recent Ward 5 Neighborhood Advisory Board meeting, more jobs, which is good news for some, also now means a housing crunch for others.
"I am thrilled that this community's economy is improving," he said. "I'm glad to see the growth. I'm glad to see that more people are working, but the very improvement in our economy is causing our shortage of housing and when you have a shortage of housing and more people moving in who have the money to pay rent, it puts more pressure on the people who can least afford to pay rent and that's frustrating. It's frustrating to see people getting crowded out and to know if you're already living in the cheapest place in town, where can you go? One of the questions that we got, I thought was rather telling, and that is with wages up or with more people employed, and unemployment down, isn't that counterintuitive that there are more people who need housing assistance?"
"This is a challenging time, but it is giving us the opportunity to think outside the box and you know, we are a partner in this community and we need to play a bigger role in assisting our community. So we are looking at creative solutions on how we can do that. We need long term solutions, viable solutions," Jones concluded.