Experts say housing crisis and economic growth are gentrifying the rural West
Winnemucca, Nevada, is in the Great Basin an hour south of the Oregon border. High desert peaks rise sharply on all sides and a sea of sagebrush stretches to the horizon.
Leslie Reed is exactly the kind of person you would expect to meet here. She is independent, stubborn and does not hesitate to get her hands dirty. Reed lives in an RV park near the golf course with five rescue dogs, a cat, and two Russian tortoises. But she prefers to be in the countryside.
“I don’t live in the neighborhoods, okay? I have animals. I like my privacy,” she said. “My illness forced me to move to town.”
Reed is 63 years old and suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In July, she says, her health deteriorated.
“I had heart problems and I used to sit on the floor at work, I was throwing up, because I was working too much,” she said.
Reed lost her job at a local laundromat, which got her into real trouble. In Winnemucca – where the population is just 8,431 – rents are rising rapidly.
Shortage of affordable housing in Mountain West towns and resorts are well documented. But low-income rural residents are also finding it harder to stay housed as waves of gentrification move inland from the coast. Nevada Ranking last in the nation in terms of available housing per 100 very low-income households, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Alaine Nye runs the non-profit community action agency Frontier Winnemucca. She says there aren’t many options for people in Reed’s position.
“Affordable housing is scarce,” she said.
Nye and his staff have successfully put Reed on the waiting list for a federal rent subsidy and are helping him navigate the process of getting disability benefits. While Reed waits, her owner lets her guard the spot where she parks her fifth wheel. But many of its neighbors were not so lucky.
Nye says the agency’s workload began to increase after the COVID hit, as unemployment rates and property values soared across the country. Today, some of her clients are in temporary accommodation, as there are no emergency shelters in the area.
“There are 71 people living in motels right now,” she said. “That’s the highest number we’ve ever had.”
The Nevada Rural Housing Authority is also trying to get the crisis under control. She recently bought two apartment complexes in Winnemucca aimed at senior citizens and very low-income households – for example, a family of four earning less than $42,000 a year.
One of these buildings is the Mountain View apartment complex. During a site visit a few months ago, half of the units still had the original faded blue upholstery. On the other side of the parking lot, the rest had been opened up to show reflective sheets of new insulation.
Beth Dunning works for the Housing Authority and took a tour of the housing being renovated.
“We took out all the flooring, all the cabinets, all the appliances,” she said. “We replace all damaged doors. We replace all plumbing fixtures, faucets, toilets, sinks. All of this is replaced.
Housing authority staff estimate that the apartments should open next winter. But it could have been a lot sooner if they hadn’t had to bring in supplies and contractors from Reno and Las Vegas.
On top of that, they deal with COVID-related delays.
“Mechanical gear took us longer to get than we’d like,” Dunning said. “Furnaces, fan coils, condensers, windows. We’re at, like, a 16-week supply period.
Meanwhile, the housing shortage isn’t just bad for people like Leslie Reed. Local officials say it’s also a big problem for employers. Jan Morrison directs economic development for Humboldt County, which includes Winnemucca.
“You can’t have employees if they don’t have a place to come home to at night,” she said.
County Assessor Andy Heiser said the crisis is forcing his office to fill vacancies. Job seekers who cannot find accommodation decide to look elsewhere.
“After reviewing our current real estate market, they have decided to withdraw their application,” he said.
Morrison says the local economy is on track to create approximately 2,000 jobs over the next five years – and since it published its last report in February, the projections have grown steadily. But there are not enough premises to fill them, so they will have to bring in more workers.
She says nearby gold and silver mines also help drive up prices, as they pay significantly more than most other industries. On average, Nevada miners earn over $120,000 every year.
“They can afford a higher price,” she said. “If we don’t have the product they can turn to, they’re going to turn to what they can get.”
And what they can get is often the housing that low-income residents depended on.
Ryanne Pilgeram says the influx of well-paid workers — like Humboldt County miners or remote workers who left big cities during the pandemic — is pushing working-class residents out.
“Rural communities are just as inundated with global economic forces and laws as the Bay Area,” she said.
Pilgeram is an associate professor at the University of Idaho who studies rural gentrification and literally wrote the book on the subject. Pushed Out: Contested Development and Rural Gentrification in the Western United States, published last year, takes a close look at how high-end development is changing the small community of Dover, Idaho.
Pilgeram says these economic shifts are a wake-up call for Idaho, Nevada and other western states.
“We can look at what happened in California and think, ‘Do we want this to be our fate?’ ”
Pilgeram says it will take political will to deal with the crisis. But like affordable housing, she says, it can be difficult to scale up.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana , KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations throughout the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the public broadcasting company.
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