(Photo by Ronda Churchill for Nevada Current)
Lawmakers on the Interim Finance Committee on Thursday universally acknowledged the need to address Nevada’s affordable housing shortage, but several committee members, from both sides of the aisle, expressed concerns that a $250 million investment will not have legislative oversight.
Nevertheless, the committee, which approves state spending when the full Legislature is not in regular session, approved the spending of $250 million — one half of a planned $500 million investment. State administrators said the half a billion dollars will fund new multi-family housing developments, preservation of existing affordable housing units, programs to increase home ownership, and land acquisition for future affordable housing projects. But many specifics that would typically be presented to the IFC before approval are not yet known.
The measure to approve the $250 million received bipartisan support, but three Republicans — state Sens. Pete Goicochea and Don Tatro and Assemblywoman Robin Titus — opposed.
Goicochea said he supports addressing the issue but couldn’t vote for what was before the committee: “I know we need to move the dollars but I have too many questions about how this is going to shake out.”
Democratic Assemblyman Chris Brooks, who chairs the committee, said he was voting to approve the spending of the money because the lack of affordable housing is an emergency that needs to be addressed. He expressed faith in the Nevada Housing Division administrators overseeing the plans, which have been dubbed the Home Means Nevada Initiative by the governor’s office.
But Brooks did not hold back his belief that the approval of the spending “circumvents the role of the Nevada Legislature.”
“The Nevada Constitution is crystal clear,” he said from the dais. “Everyone up here was elected by Nevadans, and the Constitution says we are supposed to have that oversight.”
Brooks said that in the future he would not vote in favor of any similarly structured financial asks.
“Please do not do this again,” he added.
Brooks pointed toward the schedule of the Nevada State Legislature — one of only two state legislative bodies that does not meet every year — as a source of his frustrations: “(Our Legislature) does not serve the people the way that it should because of our part-time nature of being citizen legislators.”
IFC Vice Chair and Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, a long-time legislator known for being a stickler for process and details, said it took “a very very long time” to get to her vote of support for the spending.
“I have neighbors and in my job folks knocking on my door who are in desperate, desperate need,” she said, referencing her job as executive director of the nonprofit United Labor Agency of Nevada. “Sometimes we have to set the bureaucracy aside. I don’t like it. I’m very apprehensive of it. But we have a crisis in this state that needs to be dealt with right now.”
Nevada lacks more than 105,000 affordable housing units, according to some estimates.
The Nevada Housing Division will be required to give regular “detailed reports” to IFC on the progress of the program and its spending. However, the Interim Finance Committee will not have the authority to approve or disapprove specific decisions.
The plan to invest $500 million in affordable housing was first announced by Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak during his atypical state-of-the-state speech in February. The money is part of Nevada’s $2.7 billion in flexible spending from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
Michael Holladay, chief financial officer at the Nevada Housing Division, made the case that the affordable housing initiative needed to be handled differently because of its sheer size and scope. Going through the IFC’s existing approval processes, which typically involves multiple steps and the approval of specific projects, would be cumbersome for an already stretched state agency. It would also be off-putting to developers who want assurance the public money is there before they commit, he said.
“This is going to have a lot of eyes on it,” said Holladay, speaking to concerns about accountability. “It’s going to have (U.S.) Treasury oversight. It will eventually have (Office of Inspector General) — someone who has oversight over the Treasury will come in and view the program as well. Keeping it all in one place will make it far more transparent.”
Bailey Bortolin, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, said the separate process would also help ensure that the ARPA money is spent before the federally set deadline.
“We simply can’t afford to be tripped up (on a project) and not be able to complete this within the timeline,” she said.
Bortolin also emphasized the collaborative nature of the efforts to address housing. She noted that requests to fund various housing-related efforts represented more than half of the dollars requested during the governor’s “listening tour,” which sought input on how best to spend the flexible funding provided by the American Rescue Plan Act.
Democratic state Sen. Daniele Monroe-Moreno, who supported the approval of the money, called the plan imperfect but said it was important to move in the right direction: “We have buy-in of the counties, cities, nonprofits… The people who do the work all came before us today and said, ‘We need this.’ We need this and we need to do it now.”
The lawmakers’ discussion and vote Thursday came after more than two hours of public comment almost universally in support of the affordable housing spending.
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