By Vince Hoenigman
First and foremost, there is widespread agreement that Lake Tahoe is at a tipping point. Our lake is threatened on multiple fronts and the housing affordability crisis is driving local residents out of the basin. It is causing more pollution from traffic and harming the fabric of communities. The lack of affordable housing and the substandard conditions some of our most at-risk community members live in are simply not acceptable. We must act.
Agencies at Lake Tahoe and across the United States are working to overcome fundamental barriers to creating affordable and workforce housing. It is critical that communities stand together and embrace the changes that are needed if we are to confront a housing crisis of immense proportion.
As the California Governor’s appointee to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) Governing Board and Chair of the Regional Planning Committee, I recognize the significance of policy shifts across the state and how critical it is for Lake Tahoe to keep pace. Since taking office, Governor Newsom and the California Legislature have invested $30 billion in affordable housing production and enacted dozens of permitting reforms, including 56 housing bills this year alone. In this climate, communities that don’t step up to solve their housing problems are turning their back not just on workers and businesses, but also on much broader public goals.
Resort communities everywhere are dealing with the same issues, yet Tahoe is unique among them. Our growth management system caps the number of units allowed in the basin and over 90 percent of all housing units have already been built. In a supply-constrained environment like ours, housing prices will continue to rise, pushing out workers and families. We have put off solving this problem for too long and further delay will only increase the impacts to everyone down the road.
Regardless of whether policy improvements will help California or Nevada, or North Shore or South Shore, every community in the basin has a responsibility to provide housing for its residents and workforce. The policies under consideration provide a baseline for action lake-wide while giving each community time to tailor their approach to their unique character and needs.
Further, the proposed changes not only provide achievable workforce housing, but also water quality improvements and help revitalize and create walkable and transit-serviceable communities. They pull remaining development into our town centers and require upgrades to stormwater management systems. They will also serve a swath of people working in the basin who aren’t entirely reliant on cars for their daily lives.
These regulations do not solve the affordable housing problems entirely. Other policy changes will be needed to address more heavily subsidized affordable and middle-income housing as well as affordable housing for larger families. Conversations about vacant second homes, locally governed short-term rentals, and overreliance on public subsidies are important to have. All solutions are on the table. However, Regional Plan policy changes that level the playing field for these greatly needed projects should not be swept aside to have a referendum on other issues. Traffic congestion, roadside parking, and emergency evacuation are being addressed comprehensively in ways that don’t limit equitable access to housing. We also need to recognize that reducing short-term rentals will produce scant numbers of workforce housing units. Few are in town centers and many of those, even if initially aﬀordable, may not remain aﬀordable for long because they’re not deed restricted.
We have to incentivize the development of buildings we want otherwise we’ll continue to get large, luxury buildings because that’s where the market is.
Lately, our efforts have been characterized by some as dangerous overdevelopment that will clog Tahoe’s roadways and open loopholes to allow more high-end residences. These regulations allow only 100 percent affordable, moderate, or achievable housing that is owner/renter occupied year-round by people working in the basin and none can be used as short-term rentals.
Scenarios of overdevelopment and unsightly buildings lining Tahoe’s roadways are simply not possible under the proposed policy updates. As the Lake Tahoe Region approaches “build-out,” we have to be asking what shape we want that remaining development to take.
I firmly believe incentivizing redevelopment in town centers will deliver benefits for the lake and our communities. While some of these proposed changes have drawn criticism, it is crucial to consider the benefits of workforce housing, community revitalization, improved lake clarity, and reduced traffic and emissions. Each project going forward will still be subject to its jurisdiction’s design guidelines ensuring the projects conform to the community’s character, and communities are still able to work with local governments to customize these policies as long as they achieve the same level of progress.
A well-informed public is critical to confront deep-rooted issues in a place as highly protected as Lake Tahoe. I encourage you to read up on the Tahoe Living strategic priority and consider lending your input by contacting the Governing Board or attending the hearing on December 13 in person or online. Find out more at trpa.gov/housing.
Vince Hoenigman is the California Governor’s Appointee to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board and Chair of the Regional Planning Committee. This column reflects his opinion as one of 15 members of the Governing Board.