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Desert Companion

Design: Housing Divided

Can Las Vegas avoid the affordable-housing pitfalls suffered by other prosperous regions? Let’s hear from  some architects!

On a quick weekend trip to California over the holidays, I had a sense of where housing is going in this country. If you’re a one-percenter, you can afford a hillside home above Santa Barbara, looking onto the Pacific. If you’re a professional, managerial type — and you’ve been priced out of Santa Barbara — then you could set up in the pleasant suburban hills of Santa Clara, north of L.A. For everybody else, there are the endless, cheap tract homes sprawling through Victorville. Just watch out for that commute.

Eric Strain, principal of assemblageSTUDIO and an architecture professor at UNLV, cautions that Las Vegas may turn into Santa Barbara one day if local architects and planners don’t think more critically about affordable housing. Granted, Las Vegas hardly seems the place to get worked up about the cost of housing. We’re not in San Francisco.

But Strain worries that working- and even middle-class Las Vegans are committing too much of their income to housing. Finding a quality unit in a decent neighborhood for below $1,000 a month is becoming tougher.

“That’s what we have to get past when we talk about affordable housing,” he says. “We’re not talking about taking all these homeless guys off the street. We’re talking about bringing in nurses and students and some service workers in the casinos, people who are actually working in the community.”

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Strain is attempting to tackle housing issues in Vegas from multiple angles. He’s leading a new studio at UNLV that will collaborate with the city on an infill prototype development in West Las Vegas. And on February 6-7, he’s spearheading the Mayor’s Symposium on housing at the Fifth Street School, welcoming a range of top-flight architects and developers to town.

Further, the February lecture will accompany a series of Wednesday evening talks on housing that will run through April at the Juhl Lofts, where Strain has been named artist in residence. (This series, called projectHOME, will conclude with a presentation of 2018 AIA Award winners.)

Housing has been a focus of Strain’s UNLV design studio for four years, as well as his professional practice. “When you look at architectural history, modernism really started with housing. Housing is what Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier and the whole Bauhaus and the Vienna Secession … really started focusing on.”

The challenge for Las Vegas will be to think about smaller units, infill opportunities in the heart of town for multitenant units, even housing with more shared amenities and fewer parking spaces. There are changes that might play better for empty nesters or new graduates than for adults in their prime earning years. Maybe Downtown instead of Summerlin. But if the middle class really is starting to split apart, how you live and what you pay for it, may be crucial in stitching it back together.

“Would you rather be able to pay $1,200 and not be able to live,” he says, “or pay $600 and be able to live?”

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May 01, 2006

Affordable Housing