Q: Why is there a need for the vast affordable housing information your website makes available?
David Layfield: (Because the system we have) is unnecessarily complex. The way the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher system has been constructed, it's created this complex system where every single housing authority that manages the Section 8 Voucher Program has its own timetable, its own process, its own set of software. So you have, I don't know, approximately, I think there's 2,300 housing authorities in the country … 2,300 different waiting lists and 2,300 different times those waiting lists open or close. And if I'm working 50 hours a week trying to make ends meet, I don't always have the time to pick up the newspaper every day and check for public notices or check every community bulletin board or go online and search for my local Housing Authority waiting list opening up… We have about 400,000 Americans who get an email from us a couple of times a week with a rundown on all of lists that are open right now. We're the only one that's doing it other than copycat website that just uses our data and republishes it.
Q: What about upzoning as a possible structural solution?
David Layfield: In New England, in Silicon Valley, where there is an extreme shortage of affordable housing, and there are very expensive land costs, it becomes nearly impossible to build affordable housing just because of the land costs alone. And so if when a developer decides to buy these lots and build housing, if there isn't [anything] that requires that developer to include affordable housing, they're not going to go to affordable housing. They're going to build whatever development model generates the most profit. If you have a density bonus awarded to that developer where they can build more units if they include affordable housing, that's a viable way to get housing resources in some markets that wouldn't have otherwise had it. There's other parts of the country where those metrics don't apply, where land costs aren’t exorbitant.
Q: Are there any particularities to the affordable housing crisis in West Coast cities, such as Reno, where tech companies are expanding and long term renters are being priced out?
David Layfield: I think the biggest player in all of this is the local economy. When it comes to housing opportunities, it's you know, how hot is the local economy? Let’s take Seattle for example. There is a serious affordable housing crisis in Seattle and it was almost, most of the locals will tell you that it was almost, totally created by Amazon. Some would say it's a good problem for a city to have, but if you create so many jobs, so many high paying jobs, then all of the housing resources that are currently there get absorbed by high paying individuals. And that's where gentrification comes in… If it's a place where you see high tech industry relocating or other high paying jobs coming into town, if you're not keeping pace with building your affordable housing stock, you're eventually going to have some of the same problems.
Q: Our local politicians here in Reno will often say their hands are tied in terms of their potential impact and there is only so much they can do to help with rising rents? Is that a cop out?
David Layfield: I guess I'd have to understand what they mean when they say they can't do anything. Do they mean they don't have the money? ... It would seem that there's always something that someone can do at a local level to manage the prices. If in Reno, one of the problems with creating affordable housing is the cost of land, then upzoning might actually help a little bit. I hate the idea that any municipality or any local official would just say, ‘we have no control over what's happening in our backyard… We need Big Brother to solve the problem for us.’ I hate to think that we've come to that.
Q: In Reno, the affordable housing crisis seems like a very difficult spiral, or a mountain to climb that seems to be getting harder and harder. Is there any room for optimism?
David Layfield: [Know that] it takes years to address some of these issues, once the problems present themselves. I'm a positive person that would never encourage someone to give up on their town or give up on progress. But you know patience will be required. Action will be required on the part of the local officials and others involved.
Our country has been in the midst of an affordable housing crisis for 25 years. And we have as a people, we've never really given enough attention to it. We have not invested enough in it. There are lots and lots of programs out there, but all of the programs are underfunded, underfunded every single year, whether it be at the state or at the national level.
It’s nice to see [current] presidential candidates talking about it more. Those conversations need to be happening… They also need to be happening in city halls to bring more attention to the lack of affordable housing that we have. The other part of that too is just something to think about is, if we had a living wage where a worker wouldn't need to be subsidized to afford an apartment, the problems that we're facing would be significantly less than what we are facing now. There are very few places in this country where a minimum wage worker can come close to affording a decent apartment. If we saw a higher national number, a higher minimum wage, we'd start to see some of the softening of this crisis.