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By: Karen Newell Young
Housing shortage hits youth hard
Employers feel the pinch as well as rental rates keep climbing
Ali has a degree in environmental management and works for a Nevada City nonprofit. She also lives in a 9 x 5 shed without running water. She pays $300 a month in rent.

“I would rent elsewhere if I could find something, but there was nothing available,” said Ali, who asks that she not be identified by her real name. “I am so happy with this community, but I probably won’t stay.”

The housing crisis is a hot issue in Nevada County – as well as throughout California – but one element that sometimes gets lost in the discussion is how it affects young people who can’t find housing and merchants who can’t find workers.

Young people are the foundation of Nevada County’s service industry, primarily because there are no other industries in the area to provide jobs. They often work for minimum wage and thus cannot find affordable housing.

The rent in Nevada County is high and getting higher. But because of supply and demand, few rentals are available even for those who can afford them. The rental scarcity is the result of many factors, including competition from short-term rentals such as Airbnb and similar operations. Even people who can afford to rent say nothing is available.

This lack of affordable housing is a multi-pronged challenge that affects merchants who can’t find workers able to accept minimum wage because it would not provide enough income for rent.

“We have restaurants that can’t open because no one is applying,” said Reinette Senum, a Nevada City councilwoman. “There’s a feeling that even if they do apply for a job, they can’t afford housing or wheels. So, there is a big disincentive.”

She adds that as merchants struggle to find workers young people are leaving to find jobs and affordable housing elsewhere. The city, meanwhile, is seeing increased homelessness on the streets. The crisis is interwoven with the local economy, the well-being of young and old, and the future of Nevada County.

“We’re seeing increased homelessness and mental illness on the streets,” Senum said. “A lot of these homeless people work, but can’t afford housing. Or they are living in camps, couch surfing or living in a tool shed.”

Shana Maziarz, manager of Three Forks in Nevada City, says she always has job openings.

“It’s a constant struggle,” she said. “I put up postings all the time and get no responses. I’ve had two staff members who have moved away because they can’t find housing. I would say we’re having a crisis in our community, especially in the restaurant business.”

Tenants of Nevada County, a group of housing activists, is aiming to address the crisis. Members intend to give voice to tenants and advocate for real and immediate needs to tackle the housing crisis.
It formed over frustrations when the 71-unit development called The Grove was under consideration by Nevada City’s Planning Commission. The development was approved in April.

“We opposed it because it didn’t offer anything for working people who are struggling to find housing,” said Cody Curtis, a member of Tenants of Nevada County and a farmer in Cement Hill.

The tenants group wants to develop a community land trust not driven by profit but to offer truly affordable long-term housing for the community. Their second aim is to increase the stock of affordable dwellings by encouraging landowners to develop secondary units, like so-called granny units that are not restricted to relatives.

Another goal is to limit Airbnbs and other short-term rentals that generate large profits to landowners — money that can’t usually be made by offering long-term housing.

He has experienced the crisis personally as he must move from temporary seasonal housing to a heated studio in the winter. He lives in a converted goat barn in the summer.

“The fact that I have access to these places makes my life possible,” Curtis said. “We need more property landowners like this.”

He added that property owners have discovered they can make more money by renting through Airbnbs and other short-term rentals.
“The mom-and-pop property owners who offer long-term availability are disappearing,” he said.

Curtis says eventually the crisis will affect the quality of life for all residents.

“Property values are soaring because it’s a desirable place to live,” he said. “We have amazing farmers markets, we have these wonderful services, but how lovely would it be if there were no service workers? The workers who are producing all this value won’t stay here. The well-being of the workers should be the foundation of prosperity. These are the engines for increased business and property values.

“We are not NIMBYs,” he added. “We want more housing, but expensive houses are not the solution. It is about the kind of supply that needs to be offered.

“We want to meet the immediate needs of working people. It’s a matter of justice.”
Photo by Karen Newell Young
A Nevada City woman makes the most of her nine-by-five foot shed that she calls home. She works full time for a nonprofit in Nevada City.