Carson City guts LV’s request to fund homeless services, affordable housing

By: - April 15, 2019 4:00 am
legislature building homeless vigil

People gathered in Carson City March 25 for a vigil recognizing Nevadans who have died while homeless. (Photo courtesy ACTIONN)

Homeless and affordable housing advocates were blindsided last week after proposed legislation to use taxes and fees to fund homeless services and affordable housing was neutered.

Assembly Bill 73, as originally backed by the City of Las Vegas, would have authorized the city to use a sewer surcharge fee and a real property transfer tax to fund homeless services and affordable housing. Democratic assemblywoman Dina Neal introduced a conceptual amendment during the bill’s hearing April 11 that stripped all the original language and now requires cities and counties to form a task force to study solutions for alternative funding for homeless services and affordable housing.

“I am disappointed by the amendment,” said Emily Paulsen, the executive director for the Nevada Homeless Alliance. “This was a huge missed opportunity. We have a crisis. We know what solutions we need. The problem is there isn’t enough resources to meet the demand.”

Neal said the intent of the new language is for municipalities to work together to identify new revenue streams to deal with shared crisis. “Counties and cities should work together in a shared and cooperative way around funding strategies because the problem is not isolated to a single city or unincorporated area,” she said. “I strongly believe we’re not going to make a dent in reducing homelessness without working together to solve this problem.”

The City of Las Vegas had been rallying behind the sewer charge and real property transfer tax.

In a presentation before the city council in October, city officials said the intent was to increase the sewer surcharge, which is currently about an estimated $255 per household with a pool each year, by about 8.6 percent — roughly $22 — to generate an estimated $5 million. By raising the real property transfer tax by 25 cents — it is currently $2.55 per $500 of property value — officials estimated they could rake in an additional $15 million.

Neal said the policy proposal wasn’t feasible specifically because of the sewer surcharge and tax and that there was “a lack of agreement among certain entities” about increasing those — she didn’t specify which jurisdiction she was referencing. Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson additionally called this kind of tax increase “problematic.”

If the bill passes, cities and counties would appoint an official to be a part of a “working group” to study, assess and develop a strategy for additional funding sources. Neal argued there isn’t enough collaboration between cities and counties to come up with solutions together now.

Arash Ghafoori, the executive director for Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, said groups and jurisdictions are already working together and there is already a Southern Nevada Homeless Continuum of Care looking at ways to tackle homelessness. “We have already been working together and making plans,” he said “The issue of homelessness is in a dire state. It’s a crisis. It is an epidemic. We need to be bringing more resources to the table now. The original proposal would have done exactly that.”

Despite being the originator of the bill, the City of Las Vegas supported the conceptual amendment adding that it looked forward to “getting in a room to identify the best strategy to address funding.” That strategy still could ultimately include a sewer surcharges or property taxes if all parties agree.

While nobody was in outright opposition, that appeared to be because groups testifying were shocked by the last-minute changes. Instead, they testified as neutral on the bill.

That included Felipe Silva, a housing justice organizer with Make the Road Nevada — he told lawmakers several members of the group planned to testify in support of the bill before finding out during the presentation the language had been changed.

Nevada is facing an affordable housing crisis as well as a homeless crisis — those two things are interconnected.

During several bill presentations during the session, lawmakers were briefed on both the extent of the crisis and potential solutions.

According to the Nevada Homeless Alliance, Nevada ranks “last in the country in terms of affordable rental units available.”

Nevada only has nine homes available for every 100 needed for those who are earning about 50 percent of the area median income — area median income is about $55,000. For extremely low income households, or those making about 30 percent of area median income, there are only 15 affordable units for every 100 needed.

The United States Interagency Council on Homeless estimates on any given day, more than 7,500 Nevadans are experiencing homelessness — an estimated 6,100 are in Southern Nevada.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, the state has one of the highest rates of unsheltered homelessness in the nation — an estimated 56 percent of the state’s homeless population has no access to any sort of shelter.

To deal with the affordable housing crisis, lawmakers proposed legislation to allocated $10 million per year in transferable tax credits for affordable housing development, Senate Bill 448, and reducing or waiving certain fees, such as sewage fees, to aid developers, Senate Bill 103.

State Sen. Julia Ratti also introduced SB398 to clarify what authority county and city governments have to address affordable housing issues. The bill was originally a conceptual amendment attached to SB103. 

While other states, like Oregon, have mandated tactics such as rent control and stabilization statewide as one potential solution to the affordable housing crisis, Ratti doesn’t think it would work in Nevada.

“I think the diversity in our communities would make something like that a challenge,” Ratti told the Current in March. “When we do something statewide, we have to do things that make as much sense in Winnemucca as it does in North Las Vegas. It needs to make as much sense in Sparks as it does in Pahrump. It’s very important that policies that support affordable housing are market-driven. We need to be responsive to specific market conditions of that community.”

Even though the intent is to give municipalities the tools to respond to the affordable housing crisis, rent control and inclusionary zoning have never been welcomed by players in Nevada’s powerful housing and development industries.

“For rent control, I don’t know if there is political interest to create such policies,” Kate Thomas, the assistant county manager for Washoe County, told the Current in March. “Inclusionary zoning would be more palatable.”

Thomas added that inclusionary zoning, when done correctly, can be a good tool that has been shown in other places to address affordable housing issues.

As far as homelessness, lawmakers proposed Assembly Bill 174 to create the Nevada Interagency Council on Homeless — former Gov. Brian Sandoval created the initial council through executive order, but it is set to expire in 2020. The legislation solidifies the council beyond the executive order.

During its bill hearing in March, Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson said without the council, the state wouldn’t qualify for certain federal dollars, such as the Cooperative Agreements to Benefit Homeless Individuals grant. The council would additionally call for the creation of a statewide strategic plan to tackle Nevada’s homeless problem.

Neal said AB73 would be a companion piece to AB174, not a rival.

Lawmakers also proposed multiple bills to aid homeless youth in graduating high school — an estimated 17,000 students in Nevada schools are homeless and the state also has the highest unsheltered youth populations. Neither bill provided additional funding.

No legislation specifically allocated state money to tackle homelessness or provide steady revenue for municipalities to address the lack of affordable housing. AB73, as it was originally proposed, was the only legislation that added a specific revenue stream — a tax and fee — to address both crisis.

That is now dead.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.