By Joanne S. Marchetta
We shape our community when we come together to care for the whole and trade problems for possibilities. Right now, sentiments in the Lake Tahoe Region around the deepening impacts of the housing crisis reveal concern for the very wellbeing of our communities, and understandably so. While more and more of Tahoe’s homes sit vacant for much of the year, some of Tahoe’s stewards struggle to live and raise families here. The very individuals who provide an outstanding visitor experience and who help protect our beaches, forests, and lake lack equitable access to the Tahoe dream.
According to recent housing data, approximately half of Tahoe’s workers now live outside the region and of those who do live here, nearly two-thirds don’t earn enough to afford the living expenses of a typical family. For the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), providing for more affordable and achievable housing is fundamental to the integrity, sustainability, and climate resilience of the region. Not only do long and costly commutes into the basin take a toll on workers and their families, they add to local greenhouse gas emissions and compound our traffic problems. More employees staying in the basin also provides greater local demand for transit, which ultimately supports a more connected and viable transportation system. And when businesses and organizations are able to attract and retain qualified staff, they are more likely to thrive and reinvest in Tahoe communities. That reinvestment underpins environmental redevelopment and much-needed water quality improvements. The integrity of the whole depends upon the healthy workings of all its parts.
Beyond the environmental and economic consequences of the housing shortage, Tahoe’s essence is in the balance. A recent survey by the Tahoe Prosperity Center shows the majority of respondents feel Tahoe is headed in the wrong direction, and 73 percent identify Tahoe’s housing shortage as the number one threat to quality of life here. That concern scored higher than traffic, wildfires, and many others.
Leadership activist Margaret J. Wheatley writes, “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” While challenges abound, the community sentiment confirms there is widespread resolve to fix the problem.
The increase of expensive second homes and new demographic shifts can tend to overshadow recent progress on affordable and achievable housing options. Since August 2020, 400 workforce housing units in the Tahoe Basin have received permits. This includes the 248-unit Sugar Pine Village affordable workforce housing project in South Lake Tahoe that is being shepherded by many partners including TRPA to ensure it can break ground as soon as possible. An additional 95 workforce units that will be deed-restricted for affordability using incentives in the Lake Tahoe Regional Plan are currently in the permit process.
Confronting Tahoe’s greatest challenges as we have learned again and again requires epic collaboration—many diverse people and organizations working together for common ends. TRPA has joined with the Mountain Housing Council, the Tahoe Prosperity Center, St. Joseph’s Community Land Trust, local government partners, community institutions, and private developers to create opportunities and to keep bringing workforce housing projects forward.
Last year, recommendations from a working group of these partners led to new policies that make it possible to add accessory dwelling units, like granny flats or small apartments, to any single-family property on the California side of the basin. Called the Tahoe Living working group, TRPA is reconvening this think tank at the end of this month to build upon our comprehensive, collaborative solutions to Tahoe’s housing crisis.
There is much more work to be done. The working group will help us find new ways to encourage a broader range of workforce housing types like duplexes, cottages, and townhomes for middle-income resident. TRPA will also look at policies on density, height, and land coverage and ways to encourage different housing types like moveable tiny homes that don’t otherwise harm our sensitive environment.
We will need the resolve and support of the community to keep projects of every scale moving forward and to continue finding new opportunities for more affordable and achievable housing. The Tahoe Living Working Group will convene virtually on Wednesday, March 30. Information on the group’s work, workforce housing incentives, and other policies are available at trpa.gov/housing.
–Joanne S. Marchetta is the Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency