Returning home after living abroad, I’m surprised by how desolate it seems now
From afar, my old house looks the same. It’s still a powdery, medium-blue single story with a white porch out front. There’s still the large, brick patio that stood four feet proud off the rear lawn. Visitors can still enter the property from the normal driveway, at the north extremity, or take the “shortcut” we plowed through the sagebrush by dragging a huge cement ring behind our antique International Harvester. The giant granite boulder to the side still looks like somebody carved it specifically for children to play on.
I come closer and watch as the similarities evaporate. All the Christmas pines planted each January and my mother’s treasured aspens are dead and gone. The lawn has given way to bare dirt, the herb garden now the sterile northeastern border of a dog pen. Paint flakes the size of dinner plates flap against exterior walls, and the roof looks like it has been leaking badly. The two barns towards the south end of the property look considerably more habitable than the house itself. The home that had, five years ago, clung to the solid center of Rancho Haven respectability, has now fallen into near ruin. My former home, sadly, is not a bad metaphor for Reno’s journey through the housing crisis.
I recently returned to Reno after spending two years abroad. My sister and I drove by Sierra Marketplace shopping center on the corner of Moana and Virginia. Empty storefront after empty storefront created the illusion of wide eyes, unseeing glass facades broken only by “Prime Property Available” signs. Where there had been grocery stores, launderers and clock repairmen, the large shopping center is now just five or six businesses away from total abandonment.
“God, Reno looks empty,” I said.
“It kind of is,” responded my sister.
She spoke the truth. According to city of Reno statistics, Reno grew 34.5 percent between 1990 and 2000. It grew a further 21.7 percent between 2000 and 2009. Positively bubblicious. Now, according to a 2010 estimate from the state demographer, Nevada lost about 2.6 percent of its population in 2010, with more losses in 2011 and continued shrinkage likely until at least 2013. Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the United States, and the state is a leader in the nation for foreclosures. Nobody, it seems, came through the housing crunch in worse condition than us.
Foreclosure statistics point to a sharp increase, starting in 2007. The damage centered on the sorts of homes you would expect lower middle class folks to live in, specifically three-bedroom homes. As recently as 2007, the average house sold at around $340,000, this in a county where the average household annual income was only $47,856. Now the average home goes for just over $150,000. It seems like the housing bust cut the knees out from construction workers, truck drivers and nurse’s assistants much more than it did for doctors, lawyers or engineers. Some of them fled back to California, some returned to Mexico, all left something of themselves here in the hills around the Truckee Meadows.
Bust, a move
Mike Inskeep, a tall, red-haired social studies teacher at Cold Springs Middle School, lives on a 10-acre plot in the far northern reaches of Red Rock, a few miles east of the California border. His brown two-story clings to the sand and rock about halfway up the hill. To the west are jagged 7,000-foot peaks, one mountain range east of the Sierra Nevada. To the east a sweeping valley floor and wetlands filled to bursting with frogs, water boatmen and leaches, spreads out like a green and brown Persian carpet. To say this neighborhood has changed seems an understatement. It was not long ago the average home in this area commanded $350,000.
“In Rancho Haven, some of the properties have recently been going for around $40,000 at auction,” Inskeep said. “Some people lost their jobs, went to the bank to refinance and got told no. I know several people who’ve just walked away.”
People who arrived during the property boom often find themselves upside down in North Red Rock. Further, the 45-minute commute to Reno has combined with higher gas prices to severely stress the residents and hollow out entire swaths of residences.
“They have had some fires,” he said. “And there’s just no point in saving the house, places where they’ve got sagebrush growing in the swimming pool.”
Inskeep, a 20-year resident, may himself not be long for Red Rock. He recently bought another house near the University of Nevada, Reno for renting out to college students. Taking up residence there is looking increasingly tempting these days, he said.
“The market is probably bottomed out,” Inskeep said. “But our valley, if gas prices are $5, it’s gonna be hard to get people out there. We’ll never get back where we were.”
Hardy McNew, a 77-year-old retired school teacher, lives in a markedly different kind of neighborhood off Mayberry. There are healthy trees and carefully manicured lawns as far as the eye can see. Wholesome women in their 40s wear pastel tracksuits, blond ponytails and iPods as they power walk along the sidewalks. Well-groomed dogs bask in the sun, balding men rub wax onto their power boats. McNew makes no mention of moving away. His experience of empty Reno centers on the old Bishop Manogue High School.
McNew retired early the first time around. He had worked as the chief financial officer at a local firm and made “really a lot of money.” Material needs met, McNew and a friend decided it would be fun to give Manogue “the best English department in Reno.” He sent word to the administration about his availability, mentioned his doctorate and ended up head of the English department. Then, in 2005, they shut down the old school and moved to the current location on South Virginia. The old property, a brick main building with a hardwood basketball gymnasium, a baseball field in the southwestern bowl and a large chapel made from old, incense stained wood, passed into the hands of UNR. Visit now, and all that remains is a women’s athletics facility that’s almost always empty and nearly indistinguishable from the urban farmland to its east. McNew described his feelings upon driving past the first time.
“It was like getting punched in the gut,” he said. “I didn’t want to see it happening. I just imagined the bulldozers. That was 10 years of my life, good years.”
The surrounding area has changed as well. Valley Road has gotten quieter, the businesses less plentiful. In this neighborhood, where some of the richest people in the Truckee Meadows used to mix with some of the poorest while picking up their kids, now the poor alone remain. It hardly seems likely that this type of self-segregation will lend itself to urban renewal.
Neal Cobb has served on just about every historical society in Reno’s history. Historian of the Reno High Alumni, Washoe County Design and Review Committee, Scenic Nevada Board of Directors, the list goes on. He’s also written books on the Truckee Meadows. He says that Reno was similar to boomtowns like Virginia City, Goldfield and Pioche.
“Look at how many people from foreign countries ended up being 49ers,” Cobb said. “It’s the same thing now. It was devastating. We overbuilt. Years back when you had people who could afford to buy houses they were in the trades. The developers were much more conservative during earlier builds you were making it possible for people who couldn’t afford it to buy houses. Anytime there’s a boom there’s also a bust.”