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Desert Companion

How Do We House the Homeless?

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Homeless Revised
Illustration by Delphone Lee

In late August, the Las Vegas chapter of the American Institute of Architects hosted an all-day design charrette on the top floor of the World Market Center in the city’s growing Downtown, not far from the nexus of social service providers along the city’s Corridor of Hope, and in sight of the Historic Westside, a neighborhood waiting for its own transformation.

The goal was to hash out embryonic plans for low-income, affordable housing projects along Maryland Parkway, on the Westside, and near the Stratosphere. These plans will be finished this month, and there’s a chance some might lead to built housing.

I thought the charrette might result in some bravura back-of-napkin design sketch that I’d remember years from now when an actual building was put up. But designing buildings isn’t quite like making art, and designing for low-income residents is even tougher. It’s not just the unit, it’s the services around it — day care, job training, parks, and access to jobs and transit.

The few dozen architects, designers, and planners, working in teams on different projects, took to heart the words of architect Rick Van Diepen: “Architects need to be less passive, need to be more engaged.”

They got out their pens and laptops and mostly debated and researched how to make the numbers work: units per acre, costs per unit, and the right mix of studios and one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms. The biggest round of applause I heard all day was when one team announced that calculations indicated their project could pencil out.

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Get the numbers right. The designs will follow. Getting the numbers right — making low-income housing easier and cheaper to build in greater quantity — is critical, as the valley struggles with preserving affordability and helping those who’ve become homeless get off the streets.

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One night in January, every year since 2011, census workers at the Southern Nevada Homeless Continuum of Care — the HUD-mandated planning body comprising local service providers working to end homelessness — conduct a Point in Time count of the valley’s homeless population.

According to the 2019 census, 5,530 people experienced homelessness on January 23. Forty percent were in emergency shelters (1,670) or transitional housing (543); 3,317 were unsheltered — nearly all on the street, outdoors, in camps, or vehicles (only 5 percent are in the city’s tunnels). About 21 percent were unaccompanied youth or young adults. But the census survey notes that about 14,000 people will experience homelessness at some point during the year.

The numbers are trending down — in 2015, the PIT survey counted 7,509. But chronic homelessness, those who have been homeless for at least a year while struggling with mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability, is increasing. And, further, the figure doesn’t take into account the thousands of Southern Nevadans who are housing insecure — doubled up in a friend or family member’s home. Or the rent burdened.

Declining numbers are good news, though they belie most Las Vegans’ assumption that our homeless population is increasing.

Arnold Stalk, who runs Veterans Village, a low-income housing and services provider that houses some 500 people a night, finds the census “arbitrary and nonscientific. You get in your car and identify people who look like they’re homeless.” He contends you can find 6,000 homeless people just within a few miles of Foremaster Lane and Las Vegas Boulevard — to say nothing of the whole valley. “It’s a gross undercount.”

Fuilala Riley, president of HELP of Southern Nevada, describes the flow of people into and out of homelessness as like water flowing into and out of a bathtub. There are challenges at all stages. For folks entering, or at threat of entering, their income is not keeping up with rising rental costs. Half of Americans, she says, can’t withstand a $400-$500 emergency. “When that happens, they might end up in the faucet coming into the tub.”

“Many people who live in our buildings are at risk of homelessness if they did not have Nevada HAND,” says Audra Hamernik, president/CEO of Nevada HAND, a nonprofit that has built and manages 33 developments in Southern Nevada, housing 7,200 residents.

It’s even tougher for people on the streets. There are only about 4,000 shelter beds in town, so even if the census figure is not an undercount, there are more than 2,000 people a night on the streets. Southern Nevada has the third highest rate of unsheltered homeless in the nation.

“The shelters we do have are in very overcrowded conditions. We have no emergency room, essentially,” Stalk says. “There are no family shelters in the valley, little transitional and rental housing, and no housing for people who are chronically ill.”

There’s a bottleneck on the other end, too. Some people are stabilized in transitional or supportive housing — they’re ready to move on into something more permanent — but they can’t afford an apartment.

So what to do? Nearly all low-income housing is built with public-private partnerships. Nonprofits can apply for federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits through the Nevada Division of Housing, and then — because they don’t pay income taxes — sell up to 10 years of those credits to a private company that does pay taxes. A private firm or developer can buy those credits for $.90 or $.95 on the dollar — the tax-free proceeds immediately go to what Hamernik calls a nonprofit’s “capital stack,” allowing it to build immediate equity in a project — buy land, and pay architects and contractors. That, along with other state and federal grants, gets affordable projects off the ground. “It’s very difficult to think in the private world, without some subsidy, that you can make that work,” Hamernik says.

The LIHTC has program led to the construction of 1,066 units of housing across the state, 772 in Clark County. It’s not nothing. Earlier this year the Nevada Legislature passed SB 448, which will provide $10 million in tax credits for new affordable units; this is expected to produce 600-800 new units a year. Further, $12 million in state revenue from marijuana licensing fees will go toward affordable housing (the Continuum of Care providers get about $14 million from HUD; Clark County spends about $50 million a year on homeless services).

But Stalk wants to move to a model where the private sector is front and center in building or rehabbing housing more quickly. “You can’t solve a homeless problem without housing,” Stalk says. “The rest is just semantical. It is absolute talk.”

Stalk’s model leans heavily on private investment, as well as in-kind donations from building trades and a variety of private businesses, including the Strip hotels — to paint and provide supplies.

Stalk just opened fully reconditioned apartments in an old motel, Fremont Gardens, on Fremont Street. “We made a deal with the seller, to do a master lease. Raised the money for it, and the rents will pay for the mortgage. We have a formula that pays investors a decent return, and everyone goes home happy.”

Stalk’s goal is to provide permanent and transitional housing for 400 more people over the next three years. He is trying to acquire more motels on Fremont, in the most decayed part of the city’s redevelopment area.

*

As the charrette wound down, a few things became clear: Reconciling the needs of residents, building codes, and financiers is like solving a puzzle that keeps changing; and the private sector needs to be more involved.

As Kathi Thomas-Gibson, director of community services for the City of Las Vegas, explained, real change won’t take place until the private sector “sees itself as the thought leader, the financial leader, and the policy and planning leader to resolve homelessness.”

“This is not the responsibility of the government,” Stalk says. “This is the responsibility of us.”

 

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