Little housing stock, high rents in Nevada create a homeless bottleneck

By: - October 11, 2021 5:23 am

Staff with HELP of Southern Nevada conducting housing assessments during Project Homeless Connect in 2019. (Nevada Current file photo)

On the days she couldn’t find a place to stay for the night, Tayanna Herrell and her four children would camp out on top of a playground area at Doolittle Park or other nearby neighborhood parks. 

Herrell, her two 5 year olds, a 4 year old and a 2 year old began experiencing homelessness when she left an abusive partner in early 2020 just as the pandemic began to rage. 

Turned away by family and friends, parks were often the safest and only option most nights.  

“I kept blankets there all day if I could,” she said. “But you can’t sleep. You just have to watch the kids sleep. And during the day you can’t sleep because you want to figure out how to help yourself and your kids. It was exhausting. Physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.”

During a late afternoon bus ride back to the park, Herrell happened to see a sign for HELP of Southern Nevada and vaguely remembered hearing about the organization as a place that might be able to offer assistance. 

She gathered her children, got off the bus and walked into the lobby moments before it was scheduled to close. After Herrell said her family didn’t have a place to sleep that night, an emergency crew showed up and drove them to a Budget Suites where they stayed for the next few months while Herrell worked on getting stable.

“I was in shock. I was crying,” she said. “The first thing I did was give everyone a hot bath and then cook something on the stove. As tired as I was, I sat awake after the kids went to sleep because I couldn’t believe it.”

With a roof over their heads, Herrell was finally able to search for and gain employment and transitioned into a permanent supportive housing program where HELP pays for her apartment while she receives intensive support services.

Helping people exit homelessness and placing them in stable housing isn’t easy when there is a backlog in the system.

The lack of affordable housing options and manageable rent prices has created a bottleneck in the assistance system and deprived thousands of people from a stable living environment.

As of September, HELP of Southern Nevada has 368 clients in permanent supportive housing programs, which provides housing assistance and supportive services to help people exiting homelessness become stable. 

About 70 were ready to move on from permanent supportive housing and take over their own rent but couldn’t because of the lack of affordable housing options. 

It’s creating a clog. 

Another 51 people in bridge housing, often weekly and extended stay motels used to stabilize people before they are placed into permanent supportive housing, are ready to move into permanent supportive housing. They can’t because there is no place to put them.

“Some people have been in bridge housing since February,” said Kelly Robson with HELP of Southern Nevada. “Some are in our medically fragile program and they need a downstairs, wheelchair accessible unit. That’s a nightmare. Needing an ADA unit and downstairs apartment is extremely hard to find and a real challenge at this point. That’s taking an average of four to six, closer to six months, to try to find at this time.”

The backlog is not unique to HELP of Southern Nevada. 

According to Clark County there are 3,201 people in Southern Nevada on the coordinate entry list, which is how providers keep track of housing assessments for all clients. Of that, 389 are families, 2,517 are individuals and 295 are transition-aged youth, or youth transitioning to adult services, under 25. 

Washoe County is experiencing a similar backlog and as of September had 458 people waiting. 

“All the folks in the queue have already been assessed,” said Tim Burch, the human services administrator for Clark County.  “We know who they are, what they need by way of housing, whether they need permanent supportive housing because they have several debilitating physical and mental health issues and they need to live in a supportive arrangement, or are they able to live independent and they’ve just been homeless for a while and need help coming out of that, or are they just experiencing an episodic homelessness because they got evicted for the first time because of the pandemic and they are finding they need help finding housing.”

On any given night, 5,083 people will experience homelessness in the Las Vegas metropolitan area, according to the 2021 Southern Nevada Homeless Point-in-Time count. It is estimated 12,030 will experience homelessness at some point in the year.

Southern Nevada’s bottleneck prevents people who are using emergency shelters or sleeping on the streets from entering existing housing programs. 

“We can’t just keep putting people on our queue,” Robson said. “The queue is not going to go down.”

Exacerbated by the pandemic

Prior to the pandemic, Burch said Southern Nevada lacked 78,000 affordable units to meet the needs of people who make at or less than 50% of area median household income, which according to U.S. Census Bureau data was $56,354 per household in 2019.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates the median income for renters is $44,034 per household.

Nevada Housing Coalition estimates in total that the state has an 84,000-unit deficit for extremely low-income renters with the greatest housing deficit for the most vulnerable population or people making 30% or less than area median household income.

“That’s a huge number,” Burch said. “Despite the fact Clark County has long invested its (Community Block Grant) and HOME dollars in hard capital for building affordable housing projects, we can only get two or three projects through the Bureau of Land Management a year. It’s not enough to keep up with what we need.”

The county has tried to use creative funding sources to address housing needs like directing nearly $12 million accumulated from marijuana business license fees toward housing youth and medically fragile people experiencing homelessness.

But there just isn’t enough housing. 

“We were told there are normally 11,000 apartments empty in the community so people can go find stock, but there are only about 6,000 right now,” Burch said. “At this point, forget affordability. Our normal apartment stock is half what it is normally. We really are feeling the burdens of the housing crunch.”

Affordability is another barrier. 

Southern Nevada rents have increased 20% since February 2020, Burch told County Commissioners in September. 

The spike in rents has severely hurt how nonprofits and social services providers house those experiencing homelessness.

“Even going into rapid rehousing and going into permanent supportive housing, we are struggling to find landlords who are going to work with our program just because we are limited in what we can pay,” Robson said. 

While HELP, like many service providers, receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to pay clients’ rents, Robson said they are restricted to paying only fair market rent. 

“So right now, FMR for a one bedroom is $937,” she said. “Looking around, landlords right now are getting up to, depending on neighborhoods, $1,400 or $1,500 for one-bedroom units. So what’s the incentive to take our clients into a one-bedroom besides guaranteed rents because we are paying the rent.”

Affording rent is all the more complicated if a person is disabled and has Social Security Disability Insurance as their only source of income.

“If you only make $784 in disability, there is no way possible for you to move on to your own apartment at this point in time unless you’re a senior moving into a subsidized unit,” Robson said. 

Under conditions set on federal grant funding, HELP can only use apartments that offer a one-year lease. 

“Some of the properties decided, especially with the moratorium and some were getting burnt, that they no longer wanted to do one-year leases,” Robson said, a decision that effectively removed the apartments from HELP eligibility.

The most vulnerable people are now competing for housing against the people with reliable sources of income and the ability to afford larger up-front payments and security deposit fees, Robson said. 

“In order to get into a rental property, you have to make three times the rent in order to qualify,” she added. “There is no possible way if your monthly income is Social Security disability that you’re ever going to make three times the rent, because that’s your income. So those clients are absolutely stuck at this point from moving on from programming.”

Providers and nonprofits often use weekly and extended stay motels as bridge housing to move people off the streets into a more stable environment until other housing options become available. 

“Once that documentation is together and we’ve proved they’ve met criteria for the programing, then we go from bridge housing into a permanent supportive housing unit to their apartment and they sign the lease,” Robson said. “The purpose for the bridge program is so we don’t lose them in the process of making sure we have all the documentation together.”

But once case managers have the documentation and everything in order for clients to move on, there often isn’t a place to permanently house them. 

Over the last year, the county used federal relief dollars to move more people off the streets, especially those who are medically fragile, at-risk of suffering severe complications of COVID or already COVID positive, into non-congregate shelters and motels.

“We have on-boarded quite a few non congregant emergency shelter beds throughout the pandemic,” Burch said. “We have some master leases with providers and motel properties in town to make sure we get people housed as safely as possible and continue to work on the long term piece.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic 1,657 people have been placed in non congregate shelters or motels. Only 156 have been placed in permanent housing or gone to live with friends and family.

According to the county: 

  • 507 are still in non congregate shelter;
  • 109 have been moved to a higher level of care, which includes medical and treatment facilities or long-term care;
  • 208 have gone into bridge housing and are in the pipeline for permanent housing placement;
  • 12 are in jail;
  • For 848, there was no data collected.

The county said there could be several reasons no data was collected, including people leaving on their own without providing information.

Can’t afford the rent

When a client seeks services from HELP, Robson said part of case management is helping people put the pieces of their life back together. 

“When they come to us, that puzzle is in 500 pieces, sometimes 1,000. So piece by piece, it’s about putting that puzzle back together until they are whole and ready to take that next step without us,” Robson.

The process can take time and can’t be done without a stable living environment. 

“If they do want to get sober, you’re able to start them on drug and alcohol treatment,” Robson said. “You can start working with them and doing treatment. You can start getting them identification. You can get them on food stamps. You can start the whole disability process. Everything from bridge housing. They have their own unit, it’s just a hotel/motel, not an apartment,” but Robson said compared to the street or shelters it provides a much greater opportunity for people to stabilize their situation.

After months on the street, Herrell was finally able to turn the tide once she had a roof over her family’s head.

“I had a rough patch there for a little while, especially at the beginning of motherhood,” Herrell said. “I’ve been focused the entire time. I just needed a stepping stone to get there.”

Even before she left her partner, Herrell applied for Section 8 housing for five years. She never received an update on her status or place in line. 

But tensions at home began to escalate. 

“I was with my partner for four years and the entire four years he kept me in the house secluded,” she said. “I didn’t have a working phone and couldn’t communicate with anyone. I reached my breaking point when my daughter got hurt in the middle of one of his fits. It was hard to turn to family because they said, ‘well you’ve been gone for four years with this guy.’”

After leaving, she tried to reconnect with friends and family members hoping to find a safe place to stay. At times, she said she would literally have the door slammed shut on her face.

“How do you keep looking at your kids and forcing them to be outside when you know in the back of your mind there is something you can do to give them a home?” she said. “Mentally you go into a really dark place when you see your kids outside like that. You can’t physically grasp that you have nowhere you can be to get stable.”

Every day became a fight to find a safe place to sleep, distracting her from other priorities like finding a job. 

“Once you find out if you’re going to be outside or inside, that’s when you start planning for dinner,” she said. “If you’re outside, you get a can of ravioli. It might not be hot, but it’s food. A can of ravioli and spoons go a long way.”

A tearful Herrell arrived at a Budget Suites in August 2020. It changed everything. 

Within the first month of being housed in a bridge program, she found a job working at Popeyes. She was there eight months but left for higher pay at McDonald’s. 

“After three months after I got into Budget Suites, I was moved into a more permanent house,” she said. “It’s a townhouse. The kids have their own room. They have an outdoor patio room. They ride their scooters and play. It’s an area where they have their own space.”

When people are leaving permanent supportive housing and preparing to take over the rent, they aren’t always able.

“It depends on the rent. If landlords don’t raise rents on us,” Robson said. “Some of the (rents) we’ve negotiated really well with the utilities and everything included so some of the clients want to stay. It’s really hard to find a place with utilities included.”

Robson didn’t know for sure how many clients remain in the apartments they were initially set up in, but estimated about half choose to find another unit for myriad reasons. 

Some want neighbors that allow them to be closer to work and child care options, while others need to live in another area of town as a way to prevent from falling into bad habits that might have contributed to them experiencing homelessness. 

But usually affordable rent is the deciding factor. 

Create more housing

When the pandemic hit and unemployment skyrocketed, there was growing fear a wave of mass evictions would put hundreds of thousands of households on the street. 

A combination of rental assistance, eviction moratoriums and eviction mediation programs were set up as a safety net to prevent people from losing their housing. 

The CARES Housing Assistance Program provided more than 32,000 households with assistance.

It also kept people from entering homelessness and prevented drastic increases to a 3,000-plus wait list. 

“If we get general rental assistance, the biggest thing it’s going to do is allow people to stay in their homes and it’s going to stop people coming into the queue,” Robson said. “(Rental assistance) isn’t going to alleviate and create more housing. There are 3,000 people in our queue. It will keep that number from growing.”

Southern Nevada, she added, needs more “fixed-income properties that offer a subsidy.”

Despite an obvious demand for it, however,  the market has failed to supply housing at affordable prices.

Social service providers and housing advocates have been urging county and state officials to to use funding provided by the American Rescue Plan Act to address the housing crisis. 

Nevada received $6.7 billion through ARP funds. Of that $2.7 billion specifically for the state general fund and $1.04 billion toward cities and counties. ARP funds also include $338 million specifically for housing.

The Nevada Housing Coalition released recommendations last month asking the state to invest $500 million in affordable housing with $275 specifically to build more multi-family rentals.

The coalition estimates the state could build 1,710 units — 750 units go toward incomes under 30% AMI, 700 for units for incomes of 60% AMI or lower, and 260 units for permanent supportive housing. 

Burch said the county is looking at allotting $138 million of its ARP dollars for affordable housing projects. 

Robson said it isn’t always about building brand new and hopes the state looks at creative options. 

“I would like to see ARPA funds used to rehab some of these old motels if possible and turn them into affordable housing,” Robson said. “We have so many abandoned apartment buildings and abandoned motels. We don’t always have to build something brand new. It’s great to build something brand new, but if we can look at some of the eye sores around and rehab them and see what we can get out of them.”

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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.