Cortez Masto eyes housing investments separate from stalled social spending bill

Senator tours latest affordable housing project, talks financing with nonprofit developer

By: - February 24, 2022 5:44 am

U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto talks with Nevada HAND CEO Audra Hamernik about the latest Nevada HAND project, Decatur Commons. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

At a time when rent in Southern Nevada is rising to unattainable rates, about 30 new families have already been able to move into an income-restricted property, Decatur Commons, which was constructed by the nonprofit developer Nevada HAND.

When fully completed this year, the 480-unit apartment complex will lease to low-income families and seniors earning between 30% and 80% of the area median income. 

Rents are determined based on their income level and household size. 

Creating affordable and low-income housing projects typically runs up against multiple obstacles, from finance to zoning restrictions. 

One component of the Build Back Better Act, a climate and social spending bill that proposed investing nearly $2 trillion over a decade but has been stalled in the Senate since November, would have made a historic investment to preserve and create affordable housing units. 

An analysis from the National Low Income Law Center last year estimated that based on current investments Nevada could receive $148 million just for the creation or preservation of affordable homes for extremely low-income households.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who toured the property Wednesday, said she is looking at housing provisions within the bill to see what elements might be able to garner support independent of Build Back Better.

“I think (these provisions) are essential for projects like this so we can build more affordable housing and add to the supply chain,” she said. “I have started talking with my colleagues in the Senate to say this is essential to address not only the supply issues but to bring the costs of housing down.” 

Groups like the National Low Income Housing Coalition have warned for years of a housing crisis and that states are experiencing a deficit. 

Nevada, which lacks more than 105,000 affordable units statewide, has recently seen investments in the creation of more affordable units at the state and local level. 

However, the need is growing.

Housing stock has decreased while rents in Southern Nevada have increased more than 20% in two years.  

Nevada HAND President Audra Hamernik said the organization gets about 2,000 calls a day from people in desperate need of an affordable place to live. 

“People need affordable housing like never before,” she said. “Unfortunately, a lot of those callers are told we have no vacancies. We have 4,600 units in our portfolio right now and there is a waitlist. At a certain point you close the waitlist because it doesn’t make any sense. We hate that. It’s just the way it is.”

Constructing affordable housing isn’t easy. 

Decatur Commons, which costs $110 million, required several layers of financing from the federal Low Income Housing Trust Fund to construction financing from Wells Fargo and Citi Community Capital.

“Right now, the finance is cobbled together,” Cortez Masto said. “It’s not just one piece. The goal here is how do we incentivize more of it, and how do we make sure that at the end of the day it pencils out to build more affordable housing.”

Cortez Masto said there are a number of provisions with the Build Back Better legislation worth exploring independently that could help entities like Nevada HAND secure more financing to build projects.  

Components range from looking at expanding the availability of low-cost bond financing to   directing more money into the national Housing Trust Fund, and rental assistance programs. 

“I think we’re going to look at our options and what vehicles we have, whether we can get bipartisan support, which I hope we can since there are affordable housing issues happening all across the country,” she said. 

Money provided from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal relief bill signed into law last March, is also helping state and local governments invest in housing. Of the $6.7 billion the state received, $338 million was carved out for housing. 

Local governments also received $1.04 billion in direct aid to use at their discretion. 

Clark County voted in the fall to allocate $150 million of $450 million in relief dollars on affordable housing. Last week, the Las Vegas City Council voted to direct 20% of its $131 million in relief dollars toward housing. 

And Wednesday Gov. Steve Sisolak announced “a $500 million commitment” to “lower the cost of housing” and “help people stay in their homes.”

“In the next few months we’re going to know a lot more,” Hamernik said. “The County had a process where we pre applied for certain types of projects, and then they are going to be putting out real proposals requests that we will respond to. I think we’re going to hear from them really soon about the types of projects they are interested in.”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.