By Julie Regan
Lake Tahoe is a wonder not only because of the brilliant blue lake and towering mountains that hold it in place, but also because of the vibrant communities and people that reside here. It is incredibly rare to have this magnitude of pristine beauty and diverse communities that together support a $5 billion regional economy.
I feel fortunate to have been a part of our special community for nearly 30 years. What I’ve learned over the decades is that this delicate balance comes with unique challenges. These challenges have recently garnered international media attention. Climate change, visitation pressures, and a workforce housing crisis cannot be solved by holding on to the status quo. We need to work together to find solutions in order to make progress. Fortunately, collaboration has been the backbone of Tahoe’s success story to date, with more than 80 partners coming together to invest over $2.8 billion in environmental improvement projects that also support more than 1,700 jobs a year.
Many solutions for affordable housing at Lake Tahoe have come forward and real progress is being made. Community collaboratives such as the Mountain Housing Council and the Tahoe Prosperity Center have been working with a broad range of partners to identify and activate the local, regional, and state-level actions needed to address the problem. For its part, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) has convened a regional working group of housing non-profits, local government partners, community institutions, private developers, and the public to help create opportunities for workforce housing projects of every scale. The Tahoe Living Working Group is identifying policy changes that make affordable housing options more feasible and give these projects an advantage over market rate homes.
Rising land and construction costs have driven the market trend of large single-family homes. Unintended consequences of TRPA’s slow growth policies have also contributed to this trend in high-end housing. Our Tahoe Living Working Group is engaging the community to develop height, land coverage, and density policies that encourage smaller, multi-unit development to provide a greater range of housing types and affordability, especially in town centers. TRPA adopted new policies in 2021 that make it possible to add accessory dwelling units (ADUs), such as granny flats or small apartments, to any residential property on the California side of the basin. TRPA has permitted 17 new ADUs since the change.
Local governments around the region are also stepping up in significant ways. The City of South Lake Tahoe and Placer County each started a Lease To Locals program that compensates property owners for renting below market rate to local workers. So far, the programs have housed 114 people in 46 different properties.
Placer County’s homebuyer assistance program provides up to $150,000 in down payment assistance to qualified applicants. The program has already led to three home purchases, with 30 more qualified applicants actively looking for homes. In South Lake Tahoe, home ownership is becoming a reality for three local families at the Riverside Avenue homes built by the non-profit St. Joseph’s Community Land Trust.
Washoe County is working with local non-profits through the Washoe Tahoe Housing Partnership to create a collaborative housing roadmap for the Incline Village and Crystal Bay communities. And the long-awaited redevelopment of the Tahoe Biltmore site in Crystal Bay is planning for 24 deed-restricted worker residences along with other community and environmental benefits.
The Lake Tahoe Regional Plan utilizes an innovative growth management system with development caps matched with conservation and restoration programs to achieve environmental standards. The plan created a special pool of development rights called bonus units that are only available for environmental and community benefits such as deed-restricted ADUs and residential projects. That special pool is catalyzing much of the progress we are seeing in the basin today, including the three Riverside Avenue homes, two of which were pre-sold to local families last year.
TRPA bonus units are also being used for the 248-unit Sugar Pine Village affordable housing project in South Lake Tahoe that is expected to begin vertical construction this spring. An additional 34 deed-restricted residential units have been permitted in the basin since 2020. These bonus units also incentivized Kings Beach Housing NOW to construct 77 affordable housing units in 2014. These special development rights offer private developers and local governments a valuable incentive for workforce housing.
There are many challenges ahead, but there is simply too much momentum and progress to consider Tahoe unlivable. By expanding upon the improvements, we have the power to make Tahoe a better place to live, work, and play while protecting the lake for all.
–Julie Regan is Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency