In and around Lake Tahoe, housing costs are going through the roof. Of course, that’s the case for all of California — but what makes the situation in Tahoe unique is that the people driving up the cost of local housing don’t actually live there.
Local preschool teacher Lauren Suttie knows this too well. For six months, she lived in a 24-foot RV with her boyfriend, Nick Lewis, and their two large dogs.
“We call it the mobile mansion,” she says as she shows me around. “I mean, I know people living in their cars, so this is luxury. We had our bed up here, our TV. We had to turn the shower into a closet, so we didn’t shower in here; we showered in the RV park.”
The good news: The couple just moved into a new rental home. The bad news: Lewis says they still feel uneasy.
“You know, we’ve been there for two days and I still feel like someone’s gonna pull the rug out from under us,” he says. “And I hate to be that untrusting of people, but it’s kinda made me that way.”
Here’s why the couple is house-skittish: For six years, they rented a few different places around Tahoe. Then, earlier this year their landlord decided to sell his house. So they found another house, but 48 hours before their move-in date, those owners backed out.
“We had a U-Haul packed in the driveway, our whole house was packed up and we’d told our landlord we were moving,” says Suttie. “We had no place to live. We were going to be homeless.”
The two aren’t alone. More residents are finding themselves in similar situations.
“It’s definitely getting worse,” says Truckee-born and raised Elvia Esparza, who works at the Family Resource Center in town.
“We get housing calls all the time — four or five a day from people saying, ‘I’m getting evicted, I can’t find a place,’ ” she says. “There are a lot of people who are homeless, living in cars.”
According to Stacy Caldwell, CEO of the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, a big part of the problem is that Tahoe mostly has one type of house.
“We have 33,000 housing units and 80 percent of them are single-family homes,” she says. “So that shows we don’t have a diversity of type of housing stock.”
The foundation commissioned a regional housing study earlier this year that delivered unsurprising results: Sixty-five percent of homes in Truckee and North Tahoe are second homes, many of which sit vacant most of the time. Seventy-six percent of residents overpay for housing. More than half commute out of the basin to earn enough money. The region will need about 12,000 workforce housing units over the next 20 years, but has the capacity to build only 7,000.
But there are cultural and economic trends at play, too, especially the rising cost of living in the Bay Area, the increasing ease of telecommuting and what’s known as “the Airbnb effect.”
Boat mechanic Jared Fournier had to leave his rental in September when the landlord decided to turn it into an Airbnb. The place now generates the same amount in a week that Fournier paid each month. “I get it, I guess, but you look around here and there are so many vacation rentals sitting empty all the time. You’d think they would want the steady monthly income.”
Now he’s renting a room from someone who went on vacation for a month. “So it’s very temporary,” he says. “After that I need to figure something out.”
Various ideas are being considered to address the workforce housing issue — everything from permitting changes to a local fund to provide financing for smaller, more affordable housing options. But it’s a problem with dozens of layers and it won’t be an easy fix. In the meantime, winter is coming.