As Reno Grows, So Could Its Homeless Population

Even though it seems beneficial when cities grow and large companies take residence, the current residents reap the losses. 

By Alejandra Horwitz

Hit hard by the 2008 recession and a stagnating casino industry, Reno has spent the last several years diversifying and revitalizing its economy and welcomes big tech corporations to do so as well.

With the presence of companies like Tesla in Reno thousands of new jobs have become available; however, it has also resulted in a rise in cost of housingdisproportionately affecting low-income residents.

Cities along the West Coast experiencing similar periods of economic growth have faced severe and unprecedented homeless crises. As reported by the Associated Press, a study conducted by the University of Washington has found that factors which constitute a city’s successincreased housing costs coupled with low vacancy ratesare also responsible for the increase in the number of homeless residents.

According to the 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, of the states with the largest percentage of homeless and unsheltered residents, Nevada ranked second behind California, with a rate of 58.4 percent.

The Atlantic reports that for long-term Reno residents, whose wages are not comparable with those offered by the growing tech industry, the increase in the price of rent can lead them to seek accommodations at pay-by-the-week motels.

Residents who live in unstable and non-permanent housing situations, such as weekly motels, are counted amongst the city’s homeless population.

Paul Parent, who is the Men’s Services Coordinator at the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission, a local homeless shelter, attributes the recent spike in Reno’s levels of homelessness to rising costs of weekly hotels/motels, in addition to that of traditional housing.

“If you look at all these hotels that are being razed, that are being struck down and condemned…there are fewer rooms for people to have weekly hotels, and weekly hotels know that, so it drives their prices up,” Parent says.

The Mission provides transitional housing for those who have successfully completed rehabilitation programs. In doing so, Parent says they are helping people who otherwise “don’t have a fighting chance.”

Parent, himself a success story of the Mission’s rehabilitation program, describes the Mission as “a light on the hill” for those in need of assistance, but says the Mission has struggled to meet the growing demand for assisted housing in recent years.

Findings published by the Department of Housing and Urban Development state that the scarcity of affordable housing is a leading cause of homelessness nationally.

According to Next City, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to social progress in urban areas around the world, the price of a single-family home in Reno has doubled since 2012, and the average rent has increased by 25 percent.

25-year Reno resident Bart Horwitz is the owner and landlord of a property in the heart of Midtown.  He says prices have risen consistently over the last ten years. In 2008, Horwitz charged $800 per month for his 900 square foot property; now, he charges $1,325 per month.

“I did a comparison study before renting to my last tenant, who is presently in the house, and it was at the bottom end of the rental range. 900 square foot houses in the Midtown area seem to be going for around $1,500,” Horwitz says.

The rising market value of Midtown homes is the result, in part, of ongoing gentrificationthe process of renewal and rebuilding in response to the influx of middle-class residents into deteriorating areas.

“My current tenants are both working,” Horwitz says, “they seem to struggle monthly to make the payments on the rent.”

Professor of Economics and Chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Nevada, Reno Mehmet Tosun, argues that changes in levels of homelessness may be the result of more than just the rising cost of rent. He says they are significantly impacted by actions taken or foregone by the local government.

According to Tosun, while growing economies do initially attract more homeless peoplein addition to skilled laborersthe implementation of affordable housing programs by the city could eventually lead to an overall decline in homelessness.

Even so, without adequate data, Tosun says that the impact of an economy’s growth on the homeless population cannot fully be assessed.

Tosun also addressed the influence local business owners could have on policy decisions as the revitalization of downtown and Midtown areas continues.

“I don’t know if that is going to create problems or it is going to help in some way, because businesses in downtown may actually put pressure on the government to do something about it, which could turn into a positive for the homeless people,” Tosun says.

In 2017, business owners weighed in on an ordinance that proposed to criminalize behaviors such as climbing, standing, sitting, laying or sleeping on any public or private structures not intended for such purposes.

Some businesses owners, whose property rights they argued had been violated, spoke in favor of the ordinance at a city council meeting convened to discuss it.

Eric Raydon of Marmont Properties said in a testimony at the meeting, as reported by Next City, that unchecked vagrancy locally is having a negative impact on the community.

Community service organizations in opposition to the ordinance argued that it would impinge on the civil liberties of homeless individuals.

Although the inclusion of more general clauses, including one that prohibits the use of cellphones in a crosswalk, allowed some to argue that the ordinance does not explicitly target the homeless population, the restrictions set forth would most severely affect homeless residents.

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Alejandra Horwitz is a contributing writer at InSight Magazine who studies journalism at the University of Nevada. She loves writing, photography, learning new languages and just about anything that involves dogs. In the future, she hope to find some crazy cool job that allows her to do all of it!

Alejandra can be contacted at aruthhorwitz@gmail.com.

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