Changing Fortunes in Nevada Create Tensions, Opportunities in the Region’s Housing Market

Written by BlackbirdGo January 18, 2019
The People

It’s 2016. Three months prior to the closure of his lease, Clinton Cox—then a 25-year-old psychology student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and full-time associate at Asurion—is hunched over his laptop, the blue light of a screen reflecting a web browser in his eyes. He’s conducting a query in PadMapper, a real estate app frequently used by renters looking to find a place to live. It lets him narrow his search by a variety of criteria, including the number of rooms, the ZIP code, price, and other factors that help users tailor their search to specific needs.

In Cox’s case, he’s looking for an apartment or single-family home for four. He, his girlfriend, and their two roommates are searching for a rental property to accommodate the four of them. They’re submitting applications well ahead of their lease’s closure date because they’ve heard that rentals are becoming increasingly scarce—and expensive.

Over the course of the three months, Clinton and his roommates face one rejection after another, unsure of why they’re being denied but feeling the pressure nonetheless as weeks—then months—go by at seemingly breakneck speed. One property, a three-bedroom home, finally seems promising in the last weeks of the second month; Cox and his roommates are in good spirits. Then, a rejection comes once more, and the property manager implies that they’ve been rejected because the landlord is in search of an actual family looking to make a long-term investment—not young “tenuously connected” people just looking for a place to live.

Clinton and his roommates get desperate. They begin feigning a familial connection to make a better impression. No leads end in success. By the end of the final month of their lease, Clinton and his roommates are forced to make a choice: live no place at all or re-sign their lease. They decide to sign a new lease and to stay in their apartment for the next two years, living through comparatively modest rent hikes year over year and swallowing the cost because the market feels unfriendly. Cox wagers that it is safer to stick to the devil he knows.

Clinton’s is just one of a handful of stories told by young working and middle-class renters in the region, who have—since some time in late 2015—found navigating the real estate market increasingly tedious and oftentimes dispiriting.

An Increasingly Common Story

If you scroll the timeline of any Facebook user with an extensive network in Nevada, you’ll find the rise in housing costs scornfully attributed to a handful of sources. Up north, many ascribe the difficulty they’ve had finding or staying in a domicile to the 2014 arrival of Tesla and the litany of startups that have followed in its wake (though it should be noted that Rob Kramer, COO of Custom Ink—an e-commerce firm focused on the design and sale of custom t-shirts and other apparel—was an “early Reno adopter” who saw the potential in the region before Elon Musk did). Down south, the change is largely attributed to entities like SolarCity and, more recently, the announcement that the NFL’s Raiders will move to the Las Vegas valley and a new stadium will be built to serve as their home base. These announcements, move-ins, and tax breaks have brought money, personnel, and jobs to the region, but, in the eyes of many Nevadans, these developments have come at the cost of the character of their home—and the availability of affordable spaces to live.

Ashley*, who agreed to speak under the condition of anonymity, pointed to an even more insidious manifestation of the changes that have resulted from Nevada’s shifting and selectively prosperous economy.

“I’ve lived here with my family for years,” Ashley says of the University of Nevada’s gateway district, which has become the subject of some controversy as the area’s historic homes and related properties have gone up for bid to see them relocated in order to support the university’s expansion (Nevada’s growing population means more students at all of the schools in the region but particularly both branches of the University of Nevada, which recently earned distinction as Tier-1 research universities from Carnegie’s Classification of Institutions and have consistently attracted vast swathes of new talent year over year). “Now, we are suddenly on a month-to-month lease and everything is up in the air. We don’t know when we’ll have to leave—and we don’t know where we are going to find a place to stay, because things are so expensive.”

Ashley went on to mention that she didn’t want to be named in this report because she feared retaliation from her landlord, who is said to be monitoring reporting about housing in the region closely.

Bad for Everyone? Maybe Not.

While many stories about Nevada’s housing situation are troubling, that doesn’t paint the whole picture. For some, the change in the market has served as the impetus to make meaningful changes in life and investments in the future.

Rory Dowd—beloved Reno local who has served as a booking agent, bartender, and podcast host to Reno’s long-running “Worst Little Podcast”—explains that the impending spike of Reno’s housing market served as the impetus for his family to pursue homeownership in 2016, because doing so would ultimately be less costly than continuing to rent at a rate that was almost certainly going to increase year over year. Dowd’s family had difficulty finding a home in their price range for much of the year, and the first they encountered was in such poor shape that Dowd didn’t feel comfortable going forward with a purchase.

Momentarily, things felt bleak—but just as quickly as Dowd had turned down one property, another in his price range became available. This one was a bit of a fixer-upper, just under $200K—a relative unicorn in Reno even at the time—and Dowd’s family jumped at the chance to move in, pooling what resources they had and using money they’d received as a wedding gift to narrowly cover the 20 percent down payment required. Since then, Dowd’s family has worked to improve the condition of the home and is paying only slightly more than they might have had they continued to rent… without the worry that the rent will continue to jump by leaps and bounds annually.

Realtors, too, have enjoyed fairly positive outcomes where Nevada’s housing market is concerned. As a hotbed of activity that is attracting a new and wealthier population, properties are moving quickly—which is, at least for the moment, a good thing for realtors like Lake Tahoe’s Zoe Dodd and Cole Mizak. Even as the statewide market shows some signs of slight cooling, the realtors report that there is greater demand for property than there is a supply.

“Right now, our market is in a serious state of low inventory, ultimately driving up prices,” Mizak explains. “However, lately we've been seeing a slight plateau in our local market due to increased volatility around the financial markets and the political world.”

Indeed, while quick purchases and cash-buys have become a momentary norm in the state of Nevada—and while prices are high for investment properties and rentals alike—forthcoming developments throughout the region and an economic correction may portend yet another shift in Nevada’s fortunes… and bring about new complicated realities for the people that live there.

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