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COMMENTARY: Affordable housing must be a priority in Southern Nevada

Nevada must increase the number of affordable housing units being built and do a better job of protecting those who are already housed.

Last month, my office received a desperate call from a 90-year-old man who was being evicted by the owners of his housing complex because they were no longer accepting “housing choice (Section 8) vouchers.” Every single available legal aid office in this state was ready and willing to help this gentleman. The problem: His phone stopped working. The only way to reach this individual was through the very housing complex that was evicting him.

This 90-year-old man was not able to go apartment shopping, nor is he in a position to pack up all of his belongings and start fresh.

We need to do better, and we can do better.

According to the federal government and financial experts, households should not spend more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing. Yet half of all Nevada renters are paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, while nearly a quarter of Nevada renters are paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent.

Why does it matter? Affordable housing now will impact our economy, lessen the need for additional subsidized housing and other welfare programs and will ease the burden on our public safety and criminal justice systems. Lack of affordable housing not only affects our economic diversification strategies, it also affects our educational opportunities for children.

Working families need the ability to purchase food, clothing and general school supplies, but investment in cognitive extracurricular activities that help with a child’s development, such as piano or art lessons, or involvement in an after-school sports can have lasting effects on children as they grow up in our community. A research brief for the MacArthur Foundation indicates how investment in both a child’s cognitive and social-emotional well-being results in not just “greater success in school, but in less incarceration, higher employment and less reliance on public programs later in life. The current findings show that affordable housing can play a role in those investments.”

Efforts have been promising in response to the pandemic, including the recent $124 million received by the Nevada Housing Division for rental assistance. In addition, the American Rescue Plan is on its way. This is necessary support for those already housed within our great state. But where does our senior go if he can’t find another landlord to accept his voucher? He must turn to an unsubsidized unit he can afford. Good Luck. There is a shortage of 163,523 affordable housing units in Southern Nevada, according to the latest Annual Housing Progress Report published by the Nevada Housing Division.

How can we do better?

Statewide, Assembly Bill 317 would provide income protections. When housing choice voucher holders cannot find landlords who will rent to them, those federal dollars are lost to Nevada. When housing choice voucher holders cannot find landlords who will rent to them, 90-year-olds are evicted. AB317 would prevent that.

Also at the Legislature is Senate Bill 12, which would require owners of affordable housing, built with any amount of government funds, to provide certain notices before converting to market rate. Yes, we lose affordable housing that is already built, too. SB12 wouldn’t prevent units from switching to market rate, but it would give local jurisdictions time to present options to owners who are willing to stay affordable.

Locally, elected leaders, planners, developers and residents need to be open about the changes necessary to support affordable housing. Identifying our current issues and needs as well as mapping out a solution in terms of land use for housing and for future economic development is exactly what was done with the city of Las Vegas’ 2050 Master Plan.

The vision for the 2050 plan is that Las Vegas will be a leader in resilient, healthy cities — leveraging the pioneering innovative spirit of its residents to provide equitable access to services, education and jobs. Not only this, but focusing on economic development, land use and housing.

The time is now for affordable housing in Nevada. Because, when it comes to housing, 90-year old Nevadans can’t wait.

— Brian Knudsen represent Ward 1 on the Las Vegas City Council. Dorian Stonebarger is his chief policy adviser and currently pursuing her doctorate in public policy from UNLV.

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