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S10 E5: Transcript - Beneath The Surface Of Tahoe

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Catherine Stifter From Capital Public Radio, this is The View From Here podcast.

Catherine Stifter I’m Catherine Stifter and this is Place and Privilege, exploring housing affordability in California's capitol.

An in this episode, we take a little vacation from all that.

When temperatures hit the triple digits in Sacramento, thousands of us head up to Lake Tahoe to cool off.

And we probably don’t think much about the people who make our lattes and clean our hotel rooms. But they love Tahoe, too.

Both visitors and residents are part of what seems like a booming tourist economy that provides lots of jobs. But mostly these are minimum wage jobs.

And that’s a problem, because it’s expensive to live here. There just aren’t enough affordable places to rent or own. People from out of the area have bought up most of the homes.

Amy Westervelt "So coming out my house, I’ve got on the right of me a second home, on the left of me a second home... "

Catherine Stifter Amy Westervelt’s a reporter and author who lives in Truckee, the most populated year-round community in north Tahoe. And she’s walking around her neighborhood pointing out the empty houses.

Amy Westervelt “Across the street is a vacation rental, that really doesn’t get rented that much. I’d say maybe three times a year. We’ve got one neighbor here that lives full time. Then we’ve got another second home. I’ve never really seen those people. And another second home…”

Catherine Stifter Amy and her family are some of the few full-time residents. Just six families in a subdivision of 50 homes. She says her neighborhood is a desirable one, across the street from the regional park and about a 15-minute walk from downtown.

Those other homes, they’re owned by people who don’t live here year round. And some sit empty year after year. Amy says it's a pretty common situation a nd in this episode she’s going to show us what that means... for families, for communities and for the economy.

Catherine Stifter Place and Privilege. Episode 5, Beneath the Surface of Tahoe

Amy Westervelt According to a study conducted last year by the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, 65% of the homes in Truckee and north Tahoe are second homes. The majority of those houses stay empty for most of the year. Over on the other side of the lake, in South Lake Tahoe, 50% of residences are second homes.

Kati Warner I love Truckee. I mean Truckee definitely feels like a second home because we did always come up ever since I was little and even my family similar to now used to come up for the entire summer. We used to rent out our home in Oakland and come up here for the whole summer, so I have a lot of connection here. I got married up here, you know, I love bringing my kids up here and giving them a space that's not urban and a place just to be.

Amy Westervelt Kati Warner is a second home owner who’s been spending summers in Truckee since she was about 3. Her family now owns four second homes in the area.

Back in the 1980s, her parents bought a pretty simple ski house, with three bedrooms, a lot of bunk beds and a wood-burning stove. As the kids grew up and had their own kids, they began to outgrow that house.

First, their oldest son bought his own place. Then in 2015, Kati and her parents went in on a large new house just down the street from the old ski chalet. It was supposed to be an upgrade for the whole family, but last year her mom bought a house with a private beach and dock on the west shore of Lake Tahoe.

Kati Warner We probably would not have bought this home here in Sierra Meadows if my mom had bought the home that she bought in the Rubicon before we purchased this home because this home was kind of meant to be a family upgrade from her other home. Because there's four of us kids, we all have kids. It’s just our family, the whole extended family, was getting bigger and we were able to so kind of upgrade the home itself and upgrade the driveway et cetera.

And then my mom bought the Rubicon home the year after we purchased this home so that has changed things. Now this does feel too exorbitant, a little bit too big for what our needs are…

Amy Westervelt Still, Kati says they'll probably hold on to this house. They're spending summers there now and usually one weekend a month the rest of the year.

Kati Warner There was two months this last spring where we just didn't come up for two and a half months because … we just didn't. There was other commitments that we had. The kids, every year the kids get more and more commitments, so it's a little bit harder and I know that's going to even continue more so I'm a little bit nervous about that.

Amy Westervelt It's a typical story amongst second home owners, according to Stacy Caldwell, the executive director of the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation.

Stacy Caldwell When you hear the story it starts to make sense. Oftentimes it was grandma, grandpa who bought the home maybe in the early part of their marriage. They had their babies, they spent Christmases and vacations here and then those babies grew up and maybe they started a tradition with their children. Maybe they didn't. And now they're older. And those third generation children are now scattered around the country and that house is sitting there. It might be an asset to them or it might be a burden to them. We don't know. So how do we begin that conversation of unlocking those homes and actually recognizing what those homeowners need? Empty homes aren't good for anyone. They're not good for a community and they're not good as an asset.

And so in a second home-owner community like this, that is also a delicate conversation because second homeowners are a big part of our economy and they're a big part of our community. So we're not suggesting that we need to unlock every second homeowner's unit. But there is layers to this. So we know that 65% of them sit vacant more than half the time. And we also know that a growing number of them are tending towards the Air BnB, vacation rental model. And so once we as a community start to get our arms around these complexities, we can start to ask: Can we just tap into 10 percent of those vacant homes that sit vacant more than 50 percent of time? Because there are some of us who live on streets that we never see the homeowners. It's a hundred percent of the time vacant.

Amy Westervelt Kati's family is now renting out her parents' first Truckee home, a decision they made in part because they knew their neighbors didn’t want to live next to a vacation rental.

There's been some talk in the region of imposing a fee or tax on homes that are occupied less than a certain percentage of time. That idea makes Kati uneasy.

Kati Warner It's almost like a luxury tax which I guess is what it is. So you know, luxury taxes are usually easy to pass because the people that have it are in the less percentage so..guess it depends on what side I am on, to be completely honest.

I mean we're paying property taxes that go to all these resources that we're not utilizing, like the schools I'm not utilizing. Also at the other end where there's a lot more money specifically in schools because there is a lot of money being pulled in but the resources are you know they’re for less kids, so.

Amy Westervelt She says part of what she loves about Truckee is that she feels like she is part of the community, and she always opts to support local businesses here.

But many of those local businesses are struggling to find workers because of the housing shortage, and resentment has been increasing in the community.

Amy Westervelt Do you ever feel like ‘locals versus whatever’?

Kati Warner I do and I didn't always used to feel it and I'm feeling more defensive about it. Like I feel I do I feel defensive when I go around.. that ‘oh where are you..’ I’m like I’m a summer, I say ‘summer local’ because I’d like to, I wanna call myself a local but I also know I'm really not. So I have to kind of curtail it somehow, so I say I'm a summer local but I know that has its own connotations. But, so there's definitely that feel and I don't like it. And I also don't like it because I don't even like the Bay Area people that come up here and do the same thing. S o I don't want to be part of it yet I know I am part of it because I am it.

Amy Westervelt Over near Tahoe City, I'm visiting Trina Gold, who moved into this rental after losing a home she had spent her life savings to build.

On the morning I meet her, she’s been crying because she ran into an old friend and had to explain what she's been up to this past year.

Trina Gold We've been through a lot. It's been a long, hard journey. Let’s see, I've been here 40 years, almost 40 years. I moved here in 1980. And I always knew I coming to Tahoe. This is my home, it always has been.

We lost our home in 2015 we actually really lost it in 2008. But we've been fighting all this time and we're still have not finished the battle and we're still fighting about it because it was just one of those messes.

Now we're renting in Tahoe and through the decades I've watched so many families leave and it's just, I’ve just watch them leave. You know one after the other after the other as they got priced out. And that you know here after 40 years I'm getting priced out of my home.

Amy Westervelt Trina had just found a new rental in Truckee, but it's going to be a stretch, financially.

Trina Gold We pay $1800 and I was appalled at the condition. The heating broke, the water broke. I mean everything about this house was broken.

We pay $1800 a month for a three bedroom, two bath. And we have two tenants that live upstairs and it's not really an apartment. [laughs] It's it's … you know it's close quarters. And now, moving into an even smaller house in Truckee for $2250 a month. And I have no idea how we're going to do that. Financially, the pay scale is just not like that.

I negotiated on the rent as much as I even dared hope. But you know I didn't get rough or anything like that because they would just move on to the next person.

And to watch this over the years my son's class started out, let’s see there was 20, 40, 60, 80... probably about 140 kids in his class and I think they're down to 70. And he's a senior next year. T rying to get through one more year so he can graduate with his class that he's been with for 12 years.

Amy Westervelt Trina works part time as a video editor and makes a little extra money doing commissioned paintings of the lake for various clients.

Cobbling together a living with various jobs is pretty standard in Tahoe, and worked for a large percentage of the population in the past. But these days, Trina can only afford to stay in the area because of her unusual living situation.

Trina Gold My husband and I have been separated for five years. Yet we live together because you can't afford to split. We're not that much of an odds where.. you know two parents is always better than one. But we you know made the conscious decision to live together, separately. And it's hard. You know I don't have a life.

Amy Westervelt Trina isn't alone in coming up with a … creative … solution to her housing woes. Last year Lauren Suttie, a local preschool teacher, wound up living in an RV for six months.

Lauren Suttie We call it the Mobile Mansion! I mean I know people living in cars. So this is like a luxury compared to that. We had a bed up here, our TV, I made the shower a closet. This was my closet, I hung all my work clothes here. And we didn't shower in this, we showered in the RV park.

Amy Westervelt And did you have to move it around places? Or could you kind of be in one spot?

Lauren Suttie Sort of. We parked at Truckee River RV park. I mean it was kind of a debacle because there's so many locals trying to get the monthly rate spots because it's 600 bucks for a monthly rate and it's 300 a week. So we were like so screwed without a house that we were like whatever we'll just give them the weekly rate and then they gave us a spot with no water. They were like, well we never rent this spot but since you guys are desperate...

Amy Westervelt Lauren and her boyfriend Nick, who's the race director at Sugar Bowl, eventually found a house to rent in Kings Beach. But not everyone gets so lucky.

Elvia Lopez Esparza My name is Elvia Lopez Esparza and I was born and raised here in Truckee and I have been working for the Family Resource Center as an office manager for six and a half years.

So I recently moved three months ago to northwest Reno. We were looking for a house here in Truckee, we sold our mobile home that we'd lived in, in Coachland. And when we sold that we started looking for housing here in Truckee to purchase.

Amy Westervelt Elvia was excited when she first started looking.

She and her husband had qualified for financial assistance that was made available by fees assessed on 2 and 3 million dollar homes in Martis Camp, a high-end development near North Star ski resort.

Elvia Lopez Esparza One of the things that made us decide to sell the mobilehome is that we qualified for the Martis Fund's first time homebuyers assistance, which would give you 10 percent of the purchase price or up to $40,000. We were looking for months and noticed that the prices got crazy and the only houses we can afford are for family sizes of two and there's five of us. I have three kids, my husband and I.

But of course we didn't find a house that was under $400,000. So that's why we started looking in Reno.

Amy Westervelt Although she's living in Reno now, Elvia's life is still in Truckee.

Elvia Lopez Esparza We still commute, work here in Truckee, my husband works for an excavation company, for Al Pombo. He's been there for over 10 years. My kids are still attending school here in Truckee and it's just the kids are not minding the commute now. But I think it's going to be even harder with time and more because sports are starting. It's going to be a bit of a hassle to try to figure out how I can manage both work, sports and just have them maintain their activity here with Truckee. I want them to stay here in Truckee because this is where I was born and raised and I want them to, to keep on continue to love and be a part of Truckee. So that's just going to be a struggle, but I guess we’ll manage.

Amy Westervelt At the Truckee Family Resource Center, Elvia’s often the first one to hear about other residents' housing struggles.

Elvia Lopez Esparza It's definitely getting worse. We get housing calls, probably four or five a day, calling to say hey, I'm actually getting evicted, I need rental assistance, I need to find a house. There's a lot of people who are homeless, living in cars.

[People speaking in Spanish]

Amy Westervelt Outside the 7/11 in Kings Beach local residents agree: it's expensive here, but worth it. And everyone is working a lot.

Amy Kelly We have one of the lowest unemployment rates. We typically see families come in, they’re sometimes working 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet. And it's a struggle, it's always a struggle.

Amy Westervelt Up the street from the 7/11, I meet Amy Kelly, the executive director of the North Tahoe Family Resource Center.

Amy Kelly The reason for our location in Kings Beach is because, principally because Kings Beach is a poverty pocket in California. And according to the Placer County Commission on Families and Children, 31% of the children living here in Kings Beach are living in poverty. That is based on the federal poverty level, which would really put a family of four at about $24,000 a year of income. So whatever we can do to make sure people in our community have their basic needs met, we make every effort to do. And the biggest stretch around helping people meet their basic needs is around housing.

Very typically we see families of 4, 5, 6, 8 living in very small homes.

[Women and children entering a room]

Amy Westervelt I hear similar stories over at the Family Resource Center in South Lake. At the center's weekly women's meeting, several local women, all of them immigrants, have brought their kids. Some have also brought food to share, and they talk about various issues facing them in the community.

Bill Martinez Un, una pregunta. Qué porcentage de su, su sueldo va a vivir? A pagar la renta?

Amy Westervelt Bill Martinez, who runs the center, is asking the women what percentage of their income goes toward rent.

Woman: Todo

Bill Martinez Casi, casi todo?

Amy Westervelt All of it, they say, or almost all of it. [over ambi from same interview]

Woman 2 Mi esposo tiene que trabajar dos trabajos

Woman Porque hace poco subieron el salario. De que sirve si subieron la renta?

Amy Westervelt One woman says her husband has to work two jobs, and she works also. Another says that as soon as salaries go up, rents go up too.

The going rate for rent around here is about $750 a month for a mobile home, up to $1100 a month for a house. The women say their landlords tend to raise rents when they feel like it, and avoid making repairs.

Still, in many ways these women are lucky to have found rentals at all.

Heidi Hill Drum There is a plethora of old rundown motel properties throughout the area. Those are those motels that were built back in the 50s prior to the Olympics in 1960 and they're still here and they haven't been upgraded and they haven't been renovated and they're acting as defacto affordable housing for many of our local workers. The problem is is that we can’t turn them into workforce housing because they are expensive.

Amy Westervelt Heidi Hill Drum, executive director of the Tahoe Prosperity Center, is giving me a tour of what's called "the tourist core area" in South Lake Tahoe, along with Bill Martinez from the South Lake Family Resource Center and Bill Roby, executive director of the El Dorado Community Foundation who explains why the area’s motels have become de facto apartment buildings.

Bill Roby They come into being because there's a population set here that isn't able to afford the first and last month's rent. And so they end up moving into something like this because they can pay as they go along. So, future is a little bit uncertain as is employment at times because it's seasonal dependent upon the flow of people in and out of Tahoe [loud background noise]. So we find places like this popping up that are serving individuals in a manner but they're charging them much more than if they were in a traditional lease or rental situation in the community.

Amy Westervelt So then they end up in a position where they can't ever...

Bill Roby Right. They're trapped. Right. Because they're having to pay out much more than their income allows to do any kind of savings because they're paying more premium right here on a week to week basis [yeah].

And it’s not conducive, they're not zoned there for this kind of housing. There's not a lot of code enforcement that is not occurring around these places and they don't have kitchens. So where's the cooking being done? Where's the nutrition for the children?

Amy Westervelt The lack of code enforcement is also tied to housing, as Heidi explains.

Heidi Hill Drum So the other major impact we're seeing in our community from the lack of workforce housing in particular is that businesses are struggling to hire employees because those employees are having to move farther away to find more affordable places to live. So one of the issues that we have in our community is there is an ordinance that says that an old motel, if it is going to be used for housing and not tourist units anymore it has to upgrade its facilities. So it has to add kitchens, it has to upgrade its bathrooms and sprinklers and all the other things that make it more of a place to live as opposed to a hotel or motel unit. And unfortunately the city and other municipalities are having trouble hiring workers to even do the code enforcement.

Amy Westervelt As we walked around, I spotted two teenage girls sitting out in front of one of the motels-turned-affordable housing. One agreed to speak with me.

Amy Westervelt Okay, so what is your name?

Marlene Lopez Marlene Lopez

Amy Westervelt And how long have you lived here?

Marlene Lopez All my life.

Amy Westervelt In this particular spot?

Marlene Lopez Unh-hunh.

Amy Westervelt Marlene's parents work at one of the upscale new developments in town. Her mother runs the snack bar and her dad runs the landscape crew. She's 15 and has lived in a motel room her whole life. But while Heidi and Bill think that's atrocious, Marlene loves living here.

Marlene Lopez It's a very beautiful place, yeah.

Amy Westervelt It's something I heard over and over again from low-income residents of both South Lake and across the lake in Kings Beach.

These communities need better housing options, to be sure, but it's easy for those who work with these communities to forget that these residents -- many of them immigrants -- want to live in Tahoe for all the same reasons that second home owners and tourists flock here: it's a beautiful place, surrounded by nature.

Laura Yo pienso que porque es un poco mas seguro que las ciudades grandes para los niños.

Amy Westervelt That's Laura, at the South Lake Family Resource Center. She says she stays in this community because it's safer than a big city would be for her kids.

Residents of Kings Beach say similar things:

EduardoEs caro pero esta bonita. Que vale la pena.

Amy Westervelt It's expensive, but it's beautiful. Vale la Pena. It's worth it. That's Eduardo, who works in construction, but I heard "vale la pena" throughout the Tahoe basin.

Which is not to say efforts to improve the living conditions of Tahoe residents are in vain. These are the people who keep Tahoe running, and the region is struggling to strike a balance between the people who love to visit here and the people who, for the most part, serve them.

Heidi Hill Drum So there's also a perception of the Lake Tahoe economy that we're thriving because it's busy when you come up on July 4th weekend and all the restaurants are full and there's lots of people here . But the reality of our economy is that we're not thriving. // Our local families should not be living in motels. Our local families should be living in homes where they feel safe and they have a kitchen and they are able to thrive. And this is an issue that Tahoe faces in some ways more because so many of our residential properties are not owned by residents who live here full time.

Jesse Patterson We have plenty of buildings in Tahoe, we’re just not using them for the right things.

Amy Westervelt That's Jesse Patterson, deputy director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the folks responsible for all those Keep Tahoe Blue stickers.

Jesse PattersonRight now many of our visitors are staying in residential areas in single family homes on the outskirts of town, while many of our local workforce struggle to find affordable housing and often live in motels as extended-stay residences. If all the tourists and visitors are living on the outskirts of town, they’re not riding transit or walking or biking to their destination and adding cars, traffic and pollution to the lake.

Amy Westervelt Most environmental organizations in the basin see housing as their issue too -- more emissions from both poor planning decisions and commuters forced out of the area will ultimately hurt the lake that brings most people here in the first place.

Unfortunately it's not as easy as simply turning vacant casino towers into high-rise apartments or redeveloping motels that are falling apart.

Meea Kang, of Domus Developments, is the only developer to have built affordable housing in Tahoe in recent history, and she did it back when California's now-defunct redevelopment agency provided incentives.

Meea Kang It's too hard, too expensive, too difficult. So we had to have 12 different entitlement processes. And then we had to go jump through everybody’s hoops. The reality of affordable housing is that it costs a lot to build and you could never can earn the kind of revenue you know renting it or selling it that you could for a market-rate development. So something has to happen where someone is subsidizing the gap.

Amy Westervelt The five apartment buildings she built inKings Beach are often pointed to as an example of what the region needs, but the context has changed since it was built. California no longer has a redevelopment agency, which means there are really no incentives for developers to build affordable housing.

Still, various efforts are underway to address the problem. The local family resource centers are working with landlords and policy makers to explore solutions. And the community foundations are bringing together policy makers and private entities to explore solutions as well.

Back in Truckee, Stacy Caldwell and the Tahoe Truckee Community Center have set up, and secured funding for a three-year task force called the Mountain Housing Council.

Stacy Caldwell They're all the top decision makers of the different organizations that are at play. And so we really wanted the individuals who have access, authority or at least access to the decision making and could help us navigate some of the complexities of their organizations. Because when the decision makers and the leaders at the top show that this is a priority and can articulate that within their own organizations then we find that things can move a lot quicker.

So the housing study itself articulated that there's over 12,000 unmet needs or demands on housing here and that represents those who commute from outside for work here. And it also represents those who are housed here that are not in adequate housing stock meaning they're under housed, overcrowded, overpaying.

So what do we feel like we can accomplish in the next three years together that we would be proud of in solving the housing situation and it's probably not 12,000 which is frustrating but it's something. And so then the conversation went to you know that the study itself actually delineates income targets and unit size. So that gave us a really good kind of kind of universe of options. And do we want to cut each of those in half and go after that or do we want to take existing pipeline and increase it by 20 percent. Those were all [phone in background] where the conversation was heading.

Amy Westervelt In the meantime, demand for housing continues to outstrip supply, so the council is looking for more immediate fixes, too.

Stacy Caldwell Unlocking those vacant homes even if we can scratch the surface on that should be considered low hanging fruit because building new homes across the spectrum whether it's subsidized or above market just takes time. And what our community is feeling is that we don't have a lot of time. We're losing community members every day.

Amy Westervelt You can’t do a Tahoe story without a single lake metaphor, so here’s mine: There are as many layers to the housing issue in Tahoe as there are shades of blue in the lake. With developers, both tourism and non-tourism businesses, professionals and tradesmen, families and ski bums, tourists, second home owners, and residents all needing different things, there is no silver bullet solution.

It’s not a question of whether the region needs to do this OR that, it’s a matter of doing this AND that. And also those five other things. Tahoe has always been an expensive place to live, but it's become more so as costs have risen throughout California and as incentives have dwindled for affordable housing developments.

In close to a hundred conversations with regional stakeholders of all sorts over the past year, there's one thing I keep hearing over and over: we are at a tipping point. Either this problem gets solved, or Tahoe ceases to be a real place where people live.

Catherine Stifter What do you mean by that?.

Amy Westervelt The Town of Truckee and other Tahoe communities have sent people to places like Park City, Aspen, Vail to see how they've solved this problem. And in many ways, they didn't. They might have waited too long to solve the problem. There’s not much of a year round community in those places and that’s the fate that Tahoe wants to avoid.

Catherine Stifter Amy Westervelt, with another chapter in the story of California’s housing affordability crisis. Next on Episode 6. It’s The Supply Stupid

Michael Strech Home production is very complicated. You can’t just turn the spigot on and when you’re out of a recession and have people build homes.

Greg Sandlund In the past six years we’ve developed less than 500 homes a year. To meet our growth projections. It should be over 3000.

Catherine Stifter You've been listening to The View From Here podcast.

Place and Privilege. Episode 5, Beneath The Surface Of Tahoe.

Produced by Amy Westervelt and Sally Schilling.

Edited by Catherine Stifter.

Music by Privileges.

You can find previous podcast episodes at the-view-from-here-dot-org-slash-housing.

Find this podcast on Apple iTunes, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.

And p lease rate and review the podcast on Apple podcasts.

Follow us on social media with the hashtag #ViewOnHousing

This is The View From Here. From Capital Public Radio.

I'm Catherine Stifter. Thanks for listening.

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