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Missing middle: Does Reno need to think like a big city to solve its housing crisis?

By Jason Hidalgo, Reno Gazette Journal, March 7, 2019

Jason Hidalgo covers business and technology for the Reno Gazette Journal, and also reviews video games as part of his Technobubble features. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhidalgo.

For nearly a century, Reno took pride in being the Biggest Little City in the World. As a growth spurt brings in skyrocketing housing costs and a host of other challenges, however, some say it’s time for Reno to start thinking, well, big.

One of those people is Steffen Lehmann.

Lehmann, who founded the Future Cities Leadership Lab and serves as the director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Architecture, says Reno’s problems are nothing new. The self-described urbanist has taught and consulted in various countries over the years, including Australia, The United Kingdom, China and India. As someone who has seen the symptoms plaguing Reno before, Lehmann spoke with a sense of urgency as he diagnosed the city’s condition.

“Reno is growing up from a big town into a city that’s emerging as a world player,” Lehmann said. “Reno is changing and becoming a different type of city and it needs to step up to that challenge.”


A residential rendering showing examples of property types known as the “missing middle,” which advocates say promote more efficient housing density. (Photo: Images provided by Future Cities Leadership Lab)

While figuring out what’s going on with the Reno is easy, finding a cure to the city’s ills is much tougher. From politics to neighborhood dynamics, a lot of opposing forces are competing to push what each side feels is the right solution. This especially applies to what many consider as the top issue for the city’s residents.

“Housing continues to be our No. 1 concern,” said Mike Kazmierski, president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. “At some point, if we don’t address housing, we will create so many other problems in the community from having more homeless people to loss of revenue for companies not deciding to come here.

“If nothing changes, it’s going to get pretty bad.”

A city of short distances

Many of the problems that Reno is facing — insufficient housing supply, worsening housing affordability, congestion at the Spaghetti Bowl — can be traced back to a shift in community development several decades ago, Lehmann said.


The culprit?

Lehmann points to zoning and its role in the suburbanization of America. By creating distinct silos that separated residential and commercial areas, Lehmann says zoning ended up encouraging sprawl and disconnected communities. The phenomenon has led to longer commuting distances and car dependency as developing public transportation options for these areas became more difficult and costly.

“A lot of mistakes were made in the ’60s and ’70s,” Lehmann said. “It created the problem where you have to commute from the suburban areas where you live to the places where you work, and these commutes started getting longer and longer.”

Although Reno still has the advantage of short commutes compared to Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, space for new housing remains a problem, EDAWN’s Kazmierski said. To figure out why, one only needs to stand anywhere in Reno and look around.

“We’ve got mountains all around and most of the easy, available land has already been built on,” Kazmierski said. “We also have a lot of BLM land around us so it’s not like we have a bunch of land nearby that we can just expand into.”


Downtown Reno on Wednesday morning Jan. 16, 2019. (Photo: Andy Barron/RGJ)

Expanding farther away from the city center also comes with added costs, according to Lehmann. That’s because doing so comes with the need to build new sewer lines, utility connections and other infrastructure while also providing additional public services such as police and fire stations. Single-family housing also typically costs more per dwelling than multi-unit projects, resulting in pricier homes. 

One solution is to look inward by better using the space that the city already has, Lehmann said. This includes focusing less on sprawling single-family developments and doing more infill projects to increase housing density.

Examples include multi-unit housing projects such as duplexes, bungalow courts and townhouses. Such units are part of what’s called the “missing middle,” residences that range from two to 50 units that increase housing density and are geared toward urban living.

The missing middle was the key topic at a luncheon held by EDAWN on Thursday, where Lehmann served as the keynote speaker. By mixing such developments with retail and office spaces, Lehmann says you can create more synergistic communities that are not only more walkable but easier and cheaper to connect with via public transport.

“What made sense 40 years ago doesn’t make sense now,” Lehmann said. “You need to build a city of short distances.”

In the zone

Getting the kind of density that Lehmann is talking about, however, will require changes in Reno’s zoning laws.

In the last decade, the city already started implementing changes for increasing housing density in several key areas, said Claudia Hanson, planning and housing manager for the city of Reno.

The changes include mixed zoning districts in the downtown core as well as key transportation hubs such as the transit corridor from Meadowood Mall to the University of Nevada, Reno.

In addition to essentially allowing unlimited housing density in those sections, the changes eliminated a lot of the requirements that were slowing down projects, Hanson said. This made it possible for certain projects to go straight to permitting without having to go through the public meeting process.

“The goal was to revitalize the downtown core … and also help slow down development on the fringes of the city so we can get higher density in the transit corridors,” Hanson said.


Photo of the Tessera Tourism Improvement District in downtown Reno, between Fifth Street and I-80.

(Photo: Handout)

Hanson, however, says it is also important to apply high-density zoning selectively and appropriately. Although the city is exploring mixed zoning options to increase density — albeit to a lesser extent than downtown — in some areas in northwest and southwest Reno, it does not believe it is a good idea to have unlimited density right next to single-family residential zoning.

The challenges involving zoning is part of the concern for proponents of missing-middle housing such as Kazmierski.

“If you have single-family zoning, you can’t have missing-middle housing, which limits how much you can increase density,” Kazmierski said. “(Missing-middle housing) is really the only way to meet our housing needs moving forward.”

Lehmann agreed. Whether it be zoning or building codes, officials need to make sure that the rules work for the community’s needs and not the other way around, he said.

Hanson, however, says the city’s current zoning rules are needed to provide a diverse selection of housing options to Reno residents while protecting existing neighborhoods at the same time.

Reno’s Newlands Historic District, for example, is on the National Register of Historic Places, Hanson said. The neighborhood was part of a fierce community debate last year about allowing accessory dwelling units or “granny flats” within existing homes.

The measure was ultimately rejected by the Reno Planning Commission and City Council after strong pushback from several residents in the neighborhood. Wells Avenue is another area with single-family neighborhoods that the city believes should not have unlimited density.

“In these areas, we’re actually looking to step down density and create a transition area between the high-density core and corridor … and the existing single-family neighborhoods,” Hanson said. “Providing diversity in housing is critical for any city and we need to respect those residential areas.”

Not enough homes

While disagreements about zoning exist, one thing that people on both sides agree on is that Reno has a housing shortage. Housing supply in Reno-Sparks, which was below two months during the first six months of 2018, improved to three months but is still in a seller’s market. A balanced housing market typically has six months worth of housing inventory.

The median price for an existing single-family home in the city of Reno, meanwhile, was $385,000  in February. Although lower than the record of $404,500 set in June, it’s still a nearly 14 percent increase from the same month last year.

Kazmierski is not surprised.

Before the recession, Reno had 800 new houses for every 1,000 new jobs. After the recession, that number fell to 300 new houses per 1,000 new jobs. It hasn’t gotten much better in recent years, Kazmierski added.

The latest Northern Nevada Economic Planning Indicators Committee Report, also known as the EPIC Report 2.0, projects that the five-county area of Washoe, Carson City, Storey, Lyon and Douglas will see more than 51,000 new jobs as well as a population increase of more than 54,000 residents in the next five years.

The number makes sense given the arrival of companies such as Tesla in the region as well as Reno’s inclusion in the Northern California Megaregion, said Gordon Gossage. Gossage is president of Regenesis Reno and is involved in YIMBY of Northern Nevada — short for Yes In My Backyard — which advocates for growth and development.

In 2017, the Northern California megalopolis had a population of 12.6 million. That makes 54,000 residents a drop in the bucket. Whether someone is coming from the high cost-of-living situation in the Bay Area or from California cities with less robust economies such as Merced, Reno would be an attractive place to move, Gossage said.


Renderings of the “future city” concept. (Photo: Images provided by Future Cities Leadership Lab)

Gossage, who also spoke at EDAWN’s missing-middle luncheon, pushed back against concerns about the impact of high-density housing on existing neighborhoods, including lowering property values. “The government does not have an obligation to preserve the value of your house as your best investment,” Gossage said. “The role of government is to facilitate the growth of housing and help people find homes.”

Kazmierski pointed to places like Minneapolis as examples where officials made daring moves to increase housing affordability by changing zoning laws.

Others say Reno needs to stop thinking of itself as just a big town and start taking measures now before it grows even more and paints itself into a corner like many larger cities have.

If Reno-Sparks does it right, it has the capacity to support not just one but two city centers that are interconnected and have the ideal perks that come with urban living, including walkability, restaurants, retail and good public transportation, Lehmann said. “Every city that grows has a housing challenge, it’s not unique to Reno,” Lehmann said. “Now is the moment to act and get it right. I’m talking about quality density, not that nasty density gone wrong in the past that everybody hates. You don’t want to wait until it’s too late and the situation has changed.”

At the same time, EDAWN’s Kazmierski admits that growth is a touchy subject.

There are people, for example, who like the small-town feel of the Reno that they grew up in. Residents who already have homes also might not be able to relate to the challenges faced by people who are having difficulty finding housing right now. Add politics and the logistical challenges that come with addressing growth and you end up with complicated problems that can’t be solved easily Kazmierski said.

Hanson from the city of Reno agreed.

“It’s a balancing act.”

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