The measure would be a step toward addressing Nevada’s lack of housing options for people exiting prison, which organizers say keeps hundreds of people eligible for parole past their due date each year. (luoman/Getty Images)
After failing to convince North Las Vegas council members to fix zoning restrictions that prevent the creation of transitional housing for people leaving prison, organizers are hoping to place it on the ballot for the 2022 midterm election.
The city’s current policy requires that the facilities must be at least 1,500 feet from religious institutions, daycares, schools and parks.
John Johnson, who is organizing the initiative, wants to reduce the limit to 1,000 feet and omit the religious provision altogether.
Any facilities would still need to go through the permitting process and win council approval.
The measure would be a step toward addressing Nevada’s lack of housing options for people exiting prison, which organizers say keeps hundreds of people eligible for parole past their due date each year.
Nevada Current reported in August 2021 that the Department of Parole and Probation identified at least 57 inmates “had exhausted all residence options and were without means to parole”
North Las Vegas Councilman Isaac Barron, who is working with Johnson, said the backlog might be as large as 150 people.
Johnson runs the nonprofit, Empowerment through Training and Education, that provides housing and rehabilitation services for those formerly incarcerated. He approached Barron in 2020 to open a facility in North Las Vegas.
At the time, Johnson didn’t realize the restrictions on transitional housing.
“The city of North Las Vegas got very restrictive on this because back in the 80s there were several transitional houses all in one street right next to several churches,” Barron said. “When that got found out, the residents were probably justifiably up in arms so the city got very restrictive. But as with most things, the pendulum shifted and maybe it got a little too restrictive.”
Johnson said the limit doesn’t exist in unincorporated Clark County, only in the other municipalities like North Las Vegas.
Initially, he attempted to change the zoning regulations through a city ordinance but was unsuccessful.
“We put a draft together to try to get council members to support it but we couldn’t get the votes so we had to do it as a ballot initiative,” Johnson said.
Barron said a ballot initiative might be a better approach partly because it’s an election year “this is a little sensitive.”
“I think the good thing about doing this (through a ballot) is it takes the politics out of it,” he said. “Right now, it’s a political year. There are several people running and hope to be on city council. They all run with a different political tilt. If the organizers are going and taking over the process through petition, it eliminates that from this ordinance passing.”
Politicians seeking to woo voters with “tough on crime” policies have often backed away from criminal justice reforms, even when those changes are rooted in data.
A ballot initiative, Barron added, might be a better approach to side-stepping political debates and winning over residents firsthand.
“That’s the difference between a petition and even just bringing something to the city council,” he said. “How many people tune into a city council meeting? Not that many. That’s just the way it is. When you have a petition drive, now you are taking the issue to the actual residents and they are the ones who get to decide for good or for bad.”
If the question doesn’t make it onto the ballot, or if it does and fails, Barron said he would take it up through the council.
“If it doesn’t pass here in this election year, well we can always take it up in a non-election year,” he said.
But even if it does pass, there are still many barriers before more transitional housing can be open. Johnson said in the county where the zoning process is less restricted, there still aren’t a lot of places for formerly incarcerated people on parole to live.
Barron said he has talked with other individuals and nonprofits who expressed interest in opening facilities.
“I’ve had informal talks with churches and some churches want to do it,” he said. “I suspect it will be faith groups interested in doing this.”
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