Renters and the arrival of industry

“You’ve been Tesla’d” is a common refrain in Reno these days, especially for seniors or people with disabilities living on a fixed income. The phrase refers to the increasingly common practice of landlords raising the rent by a significant amount, hoping to force out tenants so cosmetic improvements can be made to the property accompanied by a larger rent increase for the new tenants. Extremely low vacancy rates mean renters either accept the soaring rents or take their chances in an extremely competitive marketplace.

Sometimes landlords don’t bother with incremental rent increases and proceed directly to no-cause evictions. They move everyone out at the same time, then upgrade their properties, knowing they can easily find new tenants at a much higher rate of return. It’s capitalism pure and simple, a classic case of supply and demand, but the economic equation doesn’t take into account those who are left behind, struggling to avoid becoming homeless.

As I read Matthew Desmond’s new book, Evicted, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, I kept thinking of Reno’s motel people, paying weekly or monthly rents to live in often substandard conditions because they simply can’t live anywhere else due to their limited income, criminal history or sheer poverty. Desmond follows eight families through the housing travails of Milwaukee, providing heartbreaking insight into income, racial and gender inequality and the toll it takes upon children growing up in generational poverty.

The Reno City Council’s well-intentioned focus on blight is crushing this same population as developers are encouraged to tear down substandard motels where the lowest income people have been living for years, often in deplorable conditions. Recent articles in the Reno Gazette-Journal depict shameful situations where people have been paying ridiculous amounts of money to live among bedbugs, cockroaches and rats, with backed-up plumbing and little or no cooking or laundry facilities. No one should be living like this, but there is simply nowhere else for them to go.

Shelters are full, and more people are moving to the river because they can’t pay their rent. The Reno Housing Authority is having difficulty recruiting landlords willing to accept HUD housing vouchers that haven’t kept up with fair market rents. Meanwhile, public housing tenants are loath to accept a job at minimum wage or slightly higher because they can’t afford to pay market-based rent. They’re better off keeping a roof over their head in subsidized housing and scraping their living expenses together one way or another, through visits to food banks, charities or, as Desmond describes in his book, individualized networks of slightly better-off family and friends.

This is not a sustainable community. Gov. Sandoval, elected officials and economic development directors celebrate their clever tax breaks that have enticed Tesla, Apple and other rich corporations to set up shop in Reno, and then lecture us about the need to create more affordable housing. Studies are planned and forums are held, but solutions are years away if they are ever enacted. The Tesla effect is already here and growing exponentially. Just ask your friends who are renters.

Gov. Sandoval’s veto of a minimum wage increase further exacerbates the problem. Do the math for yourself and see what percentage of a minimum wage salary must be spent to acquire a small apartment in a decent neighborhood. Seriously. Do it.

During the depression when rents skyrocketed, people took matters into their own hands, forming tenants’ unions and organizing rent strikes and large demonstrations when people were evicted. Desmond believes a more efficient universal housing voucher program is needed, open to anyone who is income-eligible, to avoid evictions which keep families in abject poverty.

One thing’s for certain. Without immediate action, it’s going to get much worse.