Tenants facing exponential rent increases often suffer in silence, but some are taking to the streets.
In December, a small contingent of protesters gathered at Reno City Plaza, next to City Hall, where the Reno Planning Committee was meeting. The group lined up beside the Space Whale sculpture and waved signs with slogans like “Suffocating Rent Prices” or “Honk if you give a shit!”
Some drivers honked; other passersby ignored the protest. In time, others – mostly young people — joined the demonstration. Several protesters called on the Reno City Council to pass an ordinance setting rent caps. They endorsed rent control as a direct — and effective — solution for a problem that has plagued the city for years, but has ballooned to near-crisis levels since the onset of the pandemic.
The rental-listing site Rent.com reports that average rental prices for a one-bedroom apartment in Reno increased 31% since last year. Statewide, the average increase for one-bedrooms was pegged at 22%. That was far below Reno’s spike, but still among the highest in the nation, which overall experienced a 10.5% jump in one-bedroom rent costs.
The increase in average rents for two-bedroom apartments in Reno was even higher – a 55% jump in Reno, according to the Rent.com report. The site pegs the “average one-bedroom apartment” rent at $1.480 per month.
“The average rent for all apartment types in Reno-Sparks reached $1,632 in the third quarter of 2021. That was an increase of $25 from the previous quarter.” – October 2021 report by according to real estate appraisal firm Johnson Perkins Griffin.
The protesters didn’t need statistics, reports or charts to know that rents in the Truckee Meadows have soared beyond the ability of many tenants to afford them – they’ve been living in the midst of the problem.
Squeezed out of the market
“I know that Reno has this 10-year plan, that they have decided they’re going to upgrade the city, and that’s great and all, but we’re not there yet—and you are not making and helping your citizens get there,” said Sasha Osorio, one of three undergraduate journalism students from the University of Nevada, Reno, who organized the protest.
“Here we find ourselves with a rent crisis that is bound to double the homeless population. What can we do? There is a lot we can do if we, the residents of Washoe County, band together to demand change.” — Sasha Osorio, one of the organizers of the protest in City Plaza.
Osorio, along with fellow students Aspen Schuyler and April Garcia, coauthored a first-person perspective on what they see as callousness to poverty in Reno and the struggles of marginalized communities to find housing. Driven by their own experiences with the injustices of the housing market, they parlayed their class assignment into a demonstration demanding action by the city.
“It’s almost impossible to even pay rent with the minimum wage here,” said Garcia. “Even with Google, Amazon and other big companies in Reno, everything’s bumping up and it’s just like, you’re pretty much kicking everyone onto the street.”
Living in a car
The plight Garcia described as a worst-case scenario was the actual experience of one of her project partners.
“I was living in my car for a couple months, at one time [it was so cold] I would, like, wake up with nose bleeds, and it was just a really hard time,” said Schuyler. “I just had the minimum wage job and I had to try to get in a place that had affordable housing. I don’t even know how many years ago that was, but at that time it was $600 for a studio apartment, and it’s definitely obviously gone way up to the point where people are and do become homeless now.”
Schuyler believes that while city politicians are quick to acknowledge the rise in the homeless population, they encourage the problem by gentrifying affordable neighborhoods while failing to control skyrocketing rents.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Schuyler said.
UNR junior Donny Brooks learned of the protest on Instagram and attended to lend his voice to the cause. Brooks said he knew of several unhoused students at UNR. He is fortunate to have a place to stay, he said, even if the location is less than ideal.
“I live with three roommates and altogether we’re paying $2,000 a month,” Brooks said. “We’re living pretty far away from campus. I have to walk about 45 minutes every morning to get there.”
Brooks said that not having a car made it difficult to maintain his studies and job, especially with bus routes curtailed due to COVID-19 concerns and three transit strikes in 2021. Many students are unable to find stable housing, he said.
“I know a lot of engineering students and they are, you know, really struggling to keep afloat with their class load on top of having to work two jobs a lot of the time,” Brooks said.
“I know a lot of people live with their parents still, and it’s kind of difficult to grow as a person when you can’t find your find a way to be financially stable again.”
Pushback from a passerby
As he spoke to a reporter, Brooks was approached by a passerby who observed the sign he was carrying detailing the cost of a studio apartment on Plumas Street. (approximately $1,000 a month for 275 square feet, according to Zillow.com.) The man looked to be about twice Brooks age, and loudly inquired how much Brooks paid in rent.
“I have to cover $1,400 in rent by myself!” The man half-shouted in response. His implication was unclear, but Brooks simply responded, “That’s tough, man. You should join us.”
The stranger stared for a moment longer before walking away down North Virginia Street.
Fenced off from home
A few weeks before the student protest for a statewide rent cap, The Reno Gazette Journal and ProPublica released a report detailing the destruction of downtown Reno’s weekly motels at the hands of Colorado-based real estate developer Jacobs Entertainment. The story explained how Reno officials apparently gave an out-of-state developer sweetheart deals on property for an as as-yet unrealized – and vaguely described — entertainment and housing project, while doing little to curtail skyrocketing rents and home prices as more locals were turned out.
City officials countered with comments about the unsafe conditions of some of the demolished motels, and touted the money and resources spent by city government and Jacobs’ firm to relocate some of the tenants. Their excuses gave little comfort to the newly displaced residents, some elderly or with disabilities, squatting outside of the fenced-off dirt lots that were once their homes.
Jacobs representatives and city officials at an online public forum Jan. 10 repeated the justifications for tearing down the old motels, but had no details about the “up to 1,000 units” of workforce and affordable housing the developer says may also be a part of the $1.8 billion redevelopment project called the Neon Line District. The RN&R’s story about that meeting includes a link to a video of the Jan. 10 forum.
A public forum
On Dec. 11, RGJ and ProPublica hosted a panel of city officials, property developers and community activists, providing a venue for disaffected members of the public to voice their frustration. At the back of the packed 200-seat auditorium on the ground level of the Downtown Library, Tony Jacobs sat with his 14-year-old son, waiting quietly to address the room.
Jacobs (who is no relation to the developer) moved to Reno from Las Vegas 18 years ago. At the time, he was making $19 an hour and was able to rent a three-bedroom house for his then-wife and son in Midtown for $1,000 per month. Now a single father, Jacobs’ living situation changed drastically in the past two years.
“With the housing increases and stuff over the last few years, and then the job market crashed for a while, and then we had the pandemic, I ended up moving into a one-bedroom apartment, and even now I’m paying over $1,000 a month,” Jacobs said.
Calling for rent control
Jacobs found his new apartment off Riverside Drive after he took a new job working customer service for a large corporation where he makes $16 an hour. Even as he downsized during the pandemic, he said he saw the same house in Midtown now charging $1,950 per month in rent. Jacobs blames the price hikes on the absence of legislation preventing landlords from charging whatever they want for largely-unimproved properties.
The cost of living has already driven his son’s mother to leave the state in search of better pay, and between his work schedule and strained monthly budget, Jacobs is left with little time to connect with his son.
“Sometimes I work overtime just to be able to make ends meet,” Jacobs said. “So, then it seems like Monday through Fridays just—we barely get to spend any time together.”
Even when taking on as much work as he could, Jacobs’ finances became fraught during the pandemic, and eventually he fell behind on rent. He was able to procure rental assistance from the state-run Emergency Eviction Protection Program and never faced the threat of formal eviction. Even so, Jacobs is tired of having to compromise opportunities for his son because of unreasonable rent prices.
“I want to be able to do things for my son,” he said. “I want to able to say yes for him. We’ve been trying to go on vacation for the last five years and we haven’t been able to, you know? He wants to go to Disney, and he wants to venture from here and see these other places, but it’s hard to do that.”
“Literally, almost an entire one of my full paychecks ends up going for rent and the rest of my paychecks go for expenses.” – Tony Jacobs, Reno renter.
Jacobs is studying to get his master’s degree in psychology to improve his earning potential, and upon completion, is considering a cross-country move to New Hampshire where he’s read that workers in his field are much better compensated.
‘Not in my neighborhood’
If he were to stay in Reno, he’d want a house for his son to grow up in, not a cramped apartment. At the ProPublica forum, members of an expert described the challenges in securing building permits for affordable housing, or the pushback from residents in some neighborhoods that squelched similar projects in the past.
But to Jacobs’ mind, building more housing is pointless if landlords can still charge unrealistic fees for most individuals or families.
“We’re just finally getting over this coronavirus pandemic — Well, I think we’ve always had a housing pandemic,” Jacobs said. “Everybody’s struggling to be able to afford where they live.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was made possible by our readers' generous donations to the Reno News & Review’s Independent Journalism Fund via a grant from the non-profit Tides Foundation. It's part of our ongoing series exploring the effects of rapid growth and development on the future of Northern Nevada.