“Affordable housing is not what it used to be. It’s not attainable anymore,” said Mishon Hurst, deputy executive director of the Nevada Rural Housing Authority. The Soups On! luncheon, hosted by the Carson City Chamber of Commerce on Nov. 16, featured speakers like Hurst who provided a look at Carson City’s affordable housing situation.
The common consensus: the city does not have enough subsidized and naturally occurring affordable housing to support its low-income earners. Elizabeth Fidali, an economist with the Nevada Housing Division, said Carson City has about 1,000 units of subsidized housing, but households who qualify for assistance number approximately 6,700. Add in naturally occurring affordable housing that’s being rented to lower-income earners, and there’s still a gap in service. According to Fidali’s figures from 2014-2018, the city was short about 3,300 units of affordable housing for families that needed it. Fidali emphasized that the gap in service does not mean that the city should go build several thousand units of affordable housing. What it more accurately implies is that, from 2014-18, there were probably about 3,300 households paying more than they could afford in rent. There are flaws in the data, Fidali added, beside the fact it is outdated. Assets besides income were not captured in the American Community Survey, which she used for her analysis. For a more recent picture of the housing market, Fidali pointed out that from 2019-20, Carson City residents have seen an overall 9 percent increase in wages, but a 40 percent increase in home values. As for how that speaks to the quantity of naturally occurring affordable housing, she included a graphic with her predictions: a red arrow, facing downwards, with a frowny face.
Of note, according to the most recent data from the Sierra Nevada Realtors organization, the median home price for the Carson City market in October 2021 was $468,500, up 5.3 percent from the previous month. In October 2020, the price was $404,250. Compared to five years ago, the median in October 2016 was $265,500. Hurst has more recent experience with how the pandemic and market inflation has shaped affordable housing. She used NRHA’s rental assistance voucher program as an example. NRHA receives funding based on data that lags two years, but landlords can charge more than they did in 2019, based on market value. “(Our voucher holders) can’t find a unit that’s within the dollar amount. They can’t find a vacant unit. They can’t find an affordable unit, and so sometimes those vouchers go unused,” she said. Though NRHA has 1,500 vouchers available to low-income rural residents, including those in Carson City, only 1,200 of them are being used. Current market housing rates make it hard for rural residents to find a unit that fits the voucher requirements. One of the biggest hurdles is landlords who won’t participate in the program, Hurst said. “What we need, what the Nevada Rural Housing Authority needs, is community support in accepting those vouchers, community support in earmarking units,” she said. Aaron West, CEO of the Nevada Builders Alliance, presented another solution to the affordable housing shortage. “We’re going to have to innovate our way out of it,” he said. During his speech, he highlighted local Northern Nevada businesses like Starbrook Modular and NVO construction, who are pioneering off-site manufacturing of homes. Cutting down on-site construction may help lower costs in the future. But West said that he’s also hoping for legislation, locally and statewide, to bring down builders’ costs or incentivize affordable housing projects. “On average, it’s taking five to six years from the time that you buy a piece of property and decide that you want to build on it to get it through a process where you can actually go vertical,” he said, emphasizing that developers pay interest during that five-year wait. The delay includes not only project approval on a city-level, but also pandemic-related supply disruptions and labor shortages. There’s also the problem of market demand. Current buyers have cash on-hand, waive inspections and appraisals, and close in under two weeks, West said. That’s unreasonable for many residents, let alone low-income earners.