Various ideas were put forth during a workshop of the Carson City Planning Commission on Aug. 30 that focused on affordable housing. Even the fate of the long-vacant Ormsby House downtown came up. Though commissioners took no action, they heard from a variety of guest speakers and discussed ways to make housing more affordable in the capital city.
Part of the discussion revolved around what constitutes affordable housing.
“We build, develop, own and manage affordable housing from chronically homeless designations all the way up to 60 percent of area median income or AMI — that’s designated as workforce housing by HUD,” said Matthew Fleming, executive director of Northern Nevada Community Housing. “I personally think that in our economy and our market and our region, our need for affordable housing extends all the way up to 120 percent of AMI.”
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the most recent estimates show 10,045 households in Carson City above HUD’s area median income, which the agency calls median family income. Approximately 2,660 households were lower than 30 percent, and 4,375 households were between 50 and 80 percent. The figures included both renters and owners.
This federal fiscal year, family median income for Carson City was estimated at $85,500, according to HUD guidelines. Sixty percent of that would be $51,300; 120 percent of that would be $102,600.
Bill Brewer, executive director of Nevada Rural Housing, said financing for affordable housing projects requires multiple funding sources, including federal tax credits. He compared the financing process to a lasagna — containing many layers — but said both affordable-housing and market-rate developers are looking for dirt to build on.
“Unfortunately, affordable housing has gotten to be a dirty word in the public often,” he said.
Affordable housing means “quality housing that’s available to people who are at the lower end of the income spectrum, typically that 30 to 60 percent area median income range,” Brewer said.
Nevada Rural Housing as well as Northern Nevada Community Housing have affordable housing projects in Carson City, such as Richards Crossing and Valley Springs. NNCH is planning to build a 126-unit complex off North Roop Street in the next year.
Teri Preston, chair of the planning commission, described how some families in the city must have two incomes to meet current costs of living.
“In my mind, that’s the workforce housing,” she said. “We got the subsidies done for the lower (income) housing. We’ve got market-rate that’s here. But we don’t have anything for the teachers. We don’t have anything for the firefighters.”
Community Development Director Hope Sullivan said a housing gap appears to exist for those in the range of 60 to 120 percent AMI. She asked Mark Turner, a local developer of market-rate homes, how builders can meet those needs.
“Our middle and higher range product is really (for) out-of-state buyers, and we all know where they’re coming from,” said Turner. “The economy and the price of housing that they sell over there affords them a lot of latitude in what they can buy when they get to this side of the Sierra here, though that’s changing as their market is cooling a bit, and ours is heating up.”
Turner said the development process has become contentious in the community. Some people in the community don’t like higher density housing that could be cheaper to develop, he noted.
“That’s what it takes. You have to be able to put more units on the same size of ground to bring pricing down,” he said.
Fleming pointed out a current goal in the affordable housing industry is to mix subsidized units with market-rate units — something Sullivan thought could be possible through a density bonus for developers.
“It’s good to have a diversity within the property itself of income levels and so on,” Fleming said.
Planning Commissioner Richard Perry argued Carson City needs more single-family starter homes, which he described as 1,200-square-foot homes on small lots.
“The part that I really want to explore is how do we get to single-family starter homes because that’s what I hear from people all the time, people who are working here: ‘How do I get out of an apartment and start somewhere?’” he said.
“It’s a real problem. It’s a hard place to get to,” said Turner.
Turner said no large tracts of land are left in Carson City for those types of projects.
“Maybe people need to open their minds a little bit as to what we can accept and create — you know, basic, useful, quality housing to meet those needs,” he said.
Sullivan said development of vacant land is challenging. She recommended underutilized properties be examined in the upcoming update of the Carson City Master Plan.
“I think vacant land is interesting, but it’s hard,” she said. “I think as part of the Master Plan, we need to look at underutilized properties and whether or not those should be identified as something other than what they’ve been identified as.”
An affordable housing land-use designation for infill projects could work, Turner suggested.
“Even if you had an affordable infill designation and had that delineated as to what was going to be allowed to be built in there under the affordable infill designation, that would offer you a jumping off point,” he said.
Speaking during public comment, Jim Peckham, executive director of Friends In Service Helping, had another idea.
“Everybody always comes to me and says, ‘What about Ormsby House?’” Peckham said. “It’s a crazy thing, but if we come up with the Three Musketeers where the state pays some money, the city pays some money and a developer pays some money, maybe we got 60 to 100 condos — again I don’t know how many rooms are there — but it’s just a waste of space right now.”