Tahoe Housing Trouble: Growing costs, low wages make it impossible for locals to stay

Many motels around South Lake Tahoe have converted to long-term rentals.

Many motels around South Lake Tahoe have converted to long-term rentals.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — South Shore native Maria Martinez has every reason to be in South Lake Tahoe. At the same time, every obstacle thrown at her is slowly forcing her to leave.

Now in her late 20s, she was born in Mexico and raised in foster care in Tahoe and parts of Northern California from a young age. She works full time between two jobs to support her three children, and her boyfriend also works full time.

"I'm stuck waiting when I really can't afford to play the waiting game," Martinez said, adding that the hardest part of her situation is feeling like she can't provide her children with what they deserve. "They've been through a lot for little people."

Martinez is one of what advocates say is among a growing group of people who make up the backbone of the lake's labor force but can no longer afford to live in Tahoe. More working-class families are increasingly squeezed by rising prices and a lack of affordable housing inventory.

It's a problem that has reached critical level in California but also is reaching across the country as home ownership becomes less and less possible.


California's wage gap has been growing for decades, with income inequality now greater than it was prior to the Great Recession. Top pre-tax cash incomes in California are 40 percent higher than they were in 1980 and middle-class incomes are only 5 percent higher, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Working class incomes are 19 percent lower.

Even those making what looks like an "average" living are feeling the effects of the housing race. The median home price in South Lake Tahoe recently surpassed $500,000, according to a report from Chase International. This makes it nearly impossible for many of those making the median household income for the area ($42,400 in South Lake Tahoe) to buy a home in their lifetime.

Martinez makes an hourly wage at a restaurant and works a second job in retail. In total, those two jobs amount to an income well below the household median.

Meanwhile, families and individuals are moving into motels, even staying at campgrounds. Some are fleeing after years of living in the basin to keep a roof over their heads.

Lake Tahoe Unified School District had 18 students classified as unsheltered this past school year, according to Amanda Hammond, the district's homeless youth and foster advocate. This was about three times higher than a normal school year, and Hammond said it's likely there are more kids the district didn't know about.

The exact number of transient families is hard to pinpoint, Hammond said, because some parents fear run-ins with child protective services (CPS). Some families make home at campgrounds.

"They don't usually share with me where they're camping, because if it's colder that can be a CPS Report," she said. "But I'm aware that it's happening."

Though her family hasn't had to camp, Martinez admits she fears CPS encounters, which makes reaching out hard for her and other parents.

Last year, Martinez and her children were living in a tiny apartment in South Lake Tahoe — it was cramped, but manageable.

Everything changed when her brother, who was living with the family part time, committed suicide in the apartment. It ultimately forced her to move out and made the threat of homelessness a stark reality.

"That has got to be the hardest thing I have ever seen in my life," Martinez said.

While searching for a place to live, Martinez was still paying for the apartment, waiting for the lease to end, while staying with friends and in motels.

Then in November, Martinez had a stroke-like episode. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and she and her boyfriend finally decided it was time to get a place off the hill.

The family now has a three-bedroom in Carson City for about $850 per month. They commute to South Lake Tahoe for work, and Martinez also needs to be in California for medical treatments.

Despite her illness, housing, not her MS or emotional health, has become her top priority.

"As much as people would think that's a priority, the priority is finding housing with my kids," she said.


Lake Tahoe residents are not alone in this crisis; the shortage of affordable housing units is a national issue. For every 100 households earning between 30 and 50 percent of the their area median income, there are 65 affordable units available, according to research from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

With dreams of living a life in the mountains, Fresno native Megan Soliz was greeted by a housing nightmare when she moved her family to South Shore about two years ago.

Soliz expected cost of living to be higher, but did not anticipate how hard it would actually be to find housing. The family bounced between relatives and motels every few weeks before finding a rental home about a year later.

"(Tahoe) was our little spot to get away, and then I told my husband at one point 'you know I really want to live up there,'" Soliz said. "Compared to living in Fresno pretty much all my life I just could not believe how bad the housing was here. I was just mind-blown."

Soliz has been a bus driver for more than a decade and found a job at the lake with relative ease. The family decided to make the move and find housing once they were here, because they could stay with relatives in the meantime.

With her husband traveling for work, Soliz was faced with trying to find a place for her mother and two children.

"It was probably one of the most stressful times of my life," she said. "I've never in my life had to worry about where me and my kids were going to live."

Housing problems do tend to be associated with more urban areas. But unlike San Francisco and New York City, resort towns like South Lake Tahoe need to have a workforce strong enough to support millions of visitors annually.

That's a lot to ask of a region with about 55,000 full-time residents (as of the 2010 U.S. Census), and where close to 60,000 homes are owned by absentee owners, according to Tahoe Prosperity Center's (TPC) 2018 Measuring for Prosperity Report.

The most expensive places to live in the nation, which include the Bay Area, Honolulu and the New York metropolitan area, tend to have median incomes higher than the national average, according to the Bureau of Economics.

The area median income (AMI) in the 96150 zip code, which extends roughly from Meeks Bay to Kirkwood, is $51,400 per household, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the national median income is about $59,000 per household.

This makes parts of Lake Tahoe more expensive from a relative standpoint.

Less than one in five Tahoe residents can afford the median home price, according to the 2018 TPC report.


There are some affordable housing options in South Lake, but opportunities are few and far between. Bijou Woods, Sierra Garden Apartments, Tahoe Pines Apartments and Evergreen Apartments are a few that offer lower rents, but waitlists have some people waiting for years.

Tracy ONeal is the community manager at Sierra Garden Apartments, which receives Section 8 rental assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

ONeal called the demand for housing "outrageous." As of June, the waitlist had more than 70 applicants waiting on two-bedroom units, more than 90 waiting on one-bedrooms and about a dozen waiting for handicapped units.

"It's absolutely awful. They need more subsidized and low income housing," she said. "Especially for domestic violence victims and veterans."

Sierra Garden Apartments is designed to be more transitional, but ONeal said some people stay for long periods of time, depending on their circumstance.

Ray Rhodes is one of the residents at Sierra Garden. After his girlfriend of more than 20 years left him and his three kids, the family bounced between motels and campgrounds, and spent some nights in their car.

Rhodes is living with stomach cancer and is unable work. His only source of income is what he gets from disability; it took him about two years to get an apartment at Sierra Garden. His family moved in earlier this year.

As a result of being homeless, Rhodes is now thousands of dollars in debt, but said now that he and his kids have a place to live, he intends to pay back everyone who has helped him.

Martinez has been less fortunate. She has submitted applications to more affordable apartments, but her efforts are yet to yield any results.

To complicate matters further, Martinez is unable to go to school because she doesn't have the ability to take time off of between work and being a mom. The lack of secondary educations makes it even more difficult to find a job that pays a living wage.

She has thought about moving to a cheaper city, like Susanville, but the past several months have left the family struggling more than ever before. She said she doesn't have the freedom to quit her job, take the time to move their things, rent a new place to live and find work if that means going a week without a paycheck.

It took Rhodes years to get settled after losing his source of income, despite being a veteran and surviving on disability.

For him, the problem is largely cultural. He grew up at the lake in the 1960s and 1970s, and said though Tahoe is full of good people who will help others in times of need, something about the community "isn't what it used to be."

"Tahoe back then was a place where there wasn't all these lawsuits and absentee owners," he said. "People are so far removed from what community means anymore. It's unfortunate. Something's happened to break that tie. I don't know what it is."

Now, he sleeps on his couch in the living room so his kids can have their own rooms. One good thing that came out of the last few years, Rhodes said, is they are now "professional campers."


Hammond said the problem has grown worse, partly because there's only so much to be done in such an expensive place.

"We have some wonderful, supportive resources to get people housed. I don't think that's the issue, I think it's that housing is a private enterprise and a competitive market," she said.

Until more options are available, Martinez continues to commute from Carson City, and stays with a friend in South Lake Tahoe a few times a week to accommodate her work schedule.

"I know I'm not in the place in life right now where I want to be," she said. "It's getting to the point where it's hard to be positive. I've been strong before but I'm still not emotionally and mentally over my brother. And I can't go talk to somebody because it can't be a priority. I need to find housing or figure out the kids' needs, whatever that is."

Soliz, on the other hand, is getting out. She has plans to move to Wyoming because her husband found a better job there. Though she's proud she eventually made it work in Lake Tahoe, she can't help but be relieved to be moving to somewhere much less expensive.

"I was to the point where my stress was too much just thinking about where we were going to live. I thought about moving back (to Fresno)," she said. "I'm glad I stuck it out, (but) it's just so much cheaper up there."


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