Second Act of Housing Mission Possible
The Mountain Housing Council of Truckee Tahoe (MHC) was born in 2017 from the still dire need for a holistic, community-wide approach to solving our area’s lack of obtainable housing.
At its first meeting of 2023, the mood was one of near accomplishment, like reaching mile 24 of a marathon. Not quite there, but you can hear the crowd.
Most notable of MHC’s many tangible and philosophical successes might be the 2020 emergence of an offspring, the Truckee Tahoe Workforce Housing Agency (TTWHA). The seven-member union of local agencies now has a renewed focus on making the region livable for people and families earning 80% and above of the area median income, regardless of where they work.
With momentum gained from the December approval of its five-year strategic plan, the TTWHA announced at the Jan. 27 Mountain Housing Council meeting the crystallization of its 501c3 nonprofit, the pending Workforce Housing Fund, designed to back “financing tools to accelerate workforce housing solutions.”
Another new kid on the block, the Housing Hub, was also announced at the meeting. The hub is a work in progress, still formulating itself. But when congealed, its role will be helping anyone — developers, private citizens, local employers with land — navigate the menagerie of policies and programs.
The workforce housing agency and the hub comprise a now two-pronged approach to support the economic demographic better known as “the missing middle.” Creation of the two organizations commanded a nimble dance to figure out differing yet complementary missions. As the Mountain Housing Council considers leaving the stage, some question the need for two institutions.
Bullet points on a slide deck described the hub’s charges, in part, as workforce housing-friendly policy advocacy, land use and pre-entitlement support to project proponents, and management of development-focused programs. They want to buoy the builders stifled to the point of surrender by a longstanding, near-impenetrable historical headwall of town, county, and state regulations.
Erin Casey, founder of ERCasey & Associates, is a consultant for the North Tahoe Community Alliance, which drove the formation of the hub.
“Development in our region is hard, the opportunities are limited, so we need to be creative,” Casey said. “We need to come up with multiple solutions, we have not found just one that fixes it.”
Casey, who worked with Placer County until June 2021, said one of the more challenging income levels to serve is that of the 80% and above. “There are many people in our community that make that or more, but very little to no funding for housing in those ranges,” she said.
To illustrate how complex finding solutions can be, Casey explained when local employers increased wages to help employees meet inflation, it bumped many of them out of the income qualification range for housing programs. Their raises worked against them.
As the hub’s partner, the TTWHA will remain centered on finding and providing sources of financial support for aspiring homeowners and renters, ready to spring into action when the hub’s gears catch.
An easy way to look at it is the hub is focused on developers while the fund is focused on the people.”
~ Emily Vitas, TTWHA
The TTWHA’s initial mission was to house only the workers of its member agencies: Nevada and Placer Counties, Truckee Tahoe Airport, Truckee Donner Public Utility District, Town of Truckee, Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, and Tahoe Forest Health System.
Emily Vitas oversees the workforce housing agency and will curate the fund. “Along with the recent housing crush, the pandemic forced us to look in a much bigger way in how we serve the community in which our employees and employers are a part of,” she said. “Public agency members recognized that the impetus of this model of serving your own employees doesn’t sit well with a community in crisis.”
The workforce housing agency members knew they had to go beyond the needs of its 2,300 employees, an awareness that led to the recently adopted strategic plan.
“The solutions we’ve been working on in the last two years can easily be expanded to serve a greater public,” Vitas said. The new 501c3 fund will live under the TTWHA, leveraging private and philanthropic dollars to “unlock more significant public dollars.”
“We have $10 million in soft commitments from our current public member agencies to fund the activities that will be tied to the new Workforce Housing Fund … we know real solutions won’t come easily or cheaply,” she said. “We will also continue to serve our public member agencies in the ways they need us to, so the fund is really a capacity builder and agency expansion.”
The Housing Hub’s roots came from the opposite direction, with an intent to cast a net wide enough for the full Monty.
“It was originally conceptualized as part of MHC 2.0, its second phase, a component of the RHIP (Regional Housing Implementation Plan),” Casey said. “The concept was to develop a nonprofit devoted exclusively to workforce housing, to provide a number of services, from acquiring land to developing projects, bringing in funding.”
Casey says options for funding the hub are being explored, with initial monies coming from the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, Martis Fund, and the North Tahoe Community Alliance, pending board approval.
The hub was percolating as the TTWHA’s members were formulating their new mission. The groups were aware they couldn’t duplicate efforts.
“The hub said, ‘well okay, we were going to be all of those things, so what does the community still need that the expanded agency can’t provide?’” Vitas shared.
Where these two parts mesh will be key to the success of the whole, but in a region already replete with agencies and organizations, and when charged with the crucial mandate of housing the “missing middle” — which doesn’t hide well in Truckee — is creating even more layers the most efficient way forward?
Vitas said the bifurcation makes sense and is indeed what’s best for the community.
“The housing hub and the housing fund are focused on two different pathways. The hub is focused on developer, technical assistance, and project and policy advocacy, whereas the fund is more focused on leveraging dollars to facilitate and administer projects and programs that serve the people,” Vitas said. “Additionally, because the hub is focused on advocacy efforts, they are committed to not utilizing public dollars to execute their mission, so we are trying to avoid the comingling of my public agency members’ money with advocacy efforts.”
Casey concurred. “TTWHA’s board and governance structure makes sense for its work. The nature of the hub’s work demands different funding and governance,” she said. “The hub will need flexible funding sources and leadership on the board.”
“An easy way to look at it is the hub is focused on developers while the fund is focused on the people,” Vitas said.
With so many initiatives being introduced under various acronyms and entities, leaders have unwittingly created an assistance shell game, minus the busker’s profiteering mindset. It can be hard for the aspiring homeowner to uncover the right solution.
“Part of the work we’re doing right now is more thoroughly engaging the realtor and lender network,” Vitas said. “It’s our role to be educators in our community as to what the opportunities are, whether its Truckee Home Access Program, Workforce Housing Preservation Program, or Martis Fund Down Payment Assistance. There are a group of agents and lenders who are leaning in on this in a very big way.”
One of those is real estate agent Megan Evans, a Truckee resident and daughter of two retired local agents.
“I educate myself as much as possible and then turn to the experts, the people in the community who have the ability to make change,” Evans said. “I have clients at all levels, Bay Area transplants and first-time buyers, and I ask them about their roadblocks, their challenges.”
Evans looks to be the source of the source, referring clients to Vitas or local lenders familiar with such initiatives.
Vitas said some citizens remain apprehensive about approaching an agent if their credit score isn’t great or news of interest rate hikes permeates their news feeds.
“I understand people may be afraid of deed restrictions or AMI (area median income) caps. But this is what government has to do to utilize their dollars to help,” Vitas said. “It’s the agency’s duty as the people-focused entity to [educate] in a bigger way.”
With the onset of the Housing Hub and the renewed mission of the TTWHA, what’s left for the Mountain Housing Council, so close to the finish line?
Vitas said that’s up in the air.
“They’re trying to figure that out, to identify what else they can help with in the community,” Vitas said. “They’re going to survey their members to see if there’s a there there,” she said.
And if the sun does set on the Mountain Housing Council, it should do so upon an optimistic horizon.