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A new approach to housing Las Vegas’s homeless

‘The really creative ideas come out of necessity’

The proof that Las Vegas has still not quite recovered from the financial collapse almost a decade ago can be seen from the air. The tallest building in the city, the Fontainebleau, remains incomplete and unoccupied right on the Strip, its developers bankrupted in the crash. There are vast parcels of empty land where vintage hotels were bulldozed to make way for luxury developments that never materialized. At the fringes of the city, cul-de-sacs that were eagerly carved out of the desert remain checkerboards of vacant lots and vacant homes.

What can’t be seen from a window seat of an airplane, however, or from a cab leaving the airport, or from a hotel room on the Strip, are the people who have been impacted the most by the city’s economic turmoil. In the last few years, Las Vegas has consistently ranked in the top 10 among large U.S. cities in per-capita homelessness rates, according to a 2016 Housing and Urban Development report, with about 60 percent of its homeless population unsheltered, or living on the streets.

A majority of the city’s homeless residents—72 percent according to the Nevada Homeless Alliance—were not homeless when they first came to town. As a city that lures in 4 million visitors a month, Vegas’s hedonistic image ends up attracting a specific brand of new residents who believe they, too, can strike it rich. “They come to reinvent themselves and think the streets are paved with gold, jobs are plentiful, housing is cheap, money’s flowing, and the living is easy,” says Kathi Thomas-Gibson, manager of community services for the city of Las Vegas. “We have folks who relocate from other places and then realize that is not the case.”

Speculative real estate development is nothing new to the city, but Las Vegas’s most recent cycle of boom and bust hit its residents particularly hard. In the nine years since the real estate market tanked, the counties of Southern Nevada have remained among the top in the nation for foreclosures and repossessions. One in four Vegas homeowners owe more than their home is worth.

There are so many vacant homes—a recent report by the city estimates that in some neighborhoods up to a third of the residences are empty—that squatting has become a viable way to find shelter. Local news channel KTNV has a Squatter Spotters hotline where viewers can report squatters in their neighborhoods.

In 2015, the city released a homelessness strategy that emphasized its commitment to “housing first,” finding people a place to live whether or not they’re employed, sober, or receiving assistance. “Housing is the foundation,” says Thomas-Gibson. “We have to make an absolute commitment to make affordable housing accessible.”

About two miles north of Thomas-Gibson’s city hall office is an area that has been named the Corridor of Hope, a robust effort to build a centralized community of homelessness services. Envisioned as a transit-accessible one-stop shop, the Corridor of Hope is where people can obtain ID cards—one of the biggest challenges for homeless residents—set up mailing addresses, and meet with an outreach counselor. The city recently held a series of community design charrettes for residents to decide what amenities were needed at the site, from permanent restrooms to storage lockers to a mobile medical clinic.

But Rick Van Diepen, an architect and principal at Greenview Global who led the city’s charrettes, worries that without more housing, the people helped at the Corridor of Hope will just end up back on the street. “When they come through the program, the city doesn’t have enough permanent affordable housing for people to go into,” he says.

It’s not just supportive housing like shelters and treatment centers that’re needed. The city’s tourism industry is powered by service workers who are paid very low wages and are a paycheck away from eviction. A new study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that Las Vegas has the biggest shortfall in the country of available housing units for its lowest-income residents. There are only 12 rental units for every 100 very low income households. The national average is more than double that—35.

That’s a deficit that existed before the crash, says Van Diepen, but the bottom falling out of the local construction industry means there’s no incentive for developers to build new subsidized housing. “We’re looking for solutions that let us keep people from becoming homeless,” he says. This may be the biggest challenge of all in a city where property values have not yet rebounded to pre-crash levels, and new projects are still tough to get off the ground.

Compounding the construction crash is the fact that Las Vegas doesn’t funnel much money to public services (and sometimes redirects that money to other initiatives—recently, funds gathered from the city’s hotel room taxes were diverted from transportation and education to build a new football stadium). “Nevada doesn’t have a state income tax for our programs and agencies, so a lot of our homeless programs are dependent on federal funds for survival,” says Merideth Spriggs, a local homelessness advocate. This means that housing groups will have virtually no public funding if recently proposed Housing and Urban Development budget cuts go through. “We have let the money drive the program, and now we have to start thinking out of the box,” says Arnold Stalk, who houses veterans in former motels. “The really creative ideas come out of necessity.”

The thousands of vacant properties left boarded up by the foreclosure crisis also hint at a particular type of homelessness that Vegas needs to solve. A recent survey of Vegas’s homeless population found that up to 20 percent of respondents were holding down jobs but couldn’t find housing, says Thomas-Gibson. “They may have once owned a home that ended up in foreclosure so their credit is ruined. Then they’re renting and they get an eviction notice and have unpaid utility bills. It’s a downward spiral that it is difficult to come back from.”

It also means at least one-fifth of Vegas’s homeless residents don’t necessarily need city services—they just need an affordable place to live, says Thomas-Gibson. “If they could just get some help paying the deposit, or covering that move-in cost, they have enough income to cover an affordable rent.”

Because the city’s speculative real estate market makes it particularly difficult for housing advocates to purchase or develop land, Thomas-Gibson is focused on working with what Vegas already has: Taking stock of its built assets and figuring out how she can use them to get people housed—fast. “One of our responsibilities is neighborhood revitalization,” says Thomas-Gibson of her department’s mission. “The opportunity to take blighted, underutilized structures and turn them back into productive life is my charge.”

Once the glittering heart of the country’s gaming culture, downtown Vegas now lives in the shadow of the Strip. Although the city’s comprehensive plan to revitalize the area is starting to show promise—there are new hotels, revamped attractions, and a transportation-focused “innovation district”—the downturn hit downtown Las Vegas particularly hard. Due to the many vacant properties and proximity to the Corridor of Hope, it has also become a popular neighborhood for the city’s homeless population.

In the years after the mortgage crisis, a glimmer of hope to redevelop the neighborhood came from a surprising place: the suburbs. Tony Hsieh, the founder of online fashion purveyor Zappos, announced in 2010 that he was relocating the company’s headquarters from the nearby city of Henderson to downtown Vegas. Zappos was moving into Vegas’s Brutalist city hall, which Hsieh planned to purchase from the city, no less.

Then the urbanist fantasies of vibrant downtown sidewalks suddenly filled with young tech employees received an even bigger boost. To supplement his investment—and draw more potential startups to the neighborhood—Hsieh launched the Downtown Project in 2012, a $350-million, five-year plan to reinvent a 58-acre swath of downtown.

In addition to funding coworking spaces and restaurants, the Downtown Project also worked as a housing developer, carving out units for its acolytes in existing buildings. In 2013, the former Gold Spike casino was gutted, its gaming floor transformed into a bar, and its motel rooms converted into apartments—called “crash pads”—that catered to tech workers. By 2015, the Downtown Project’s development arm managed 1,000 units. In 2016, it broke ground on its first new-construction housing project, the 231-unit Fremont9, which will open this fall.

But some of the Downtown Project’s acquisitions were more controversial, including several motels and apartment buildings that had previously housed lower-income residents. After purchasing the Towne Terrace apartment building, the Downtown Project tried to evict its mix of college students and downtown workers, leading to outrage that eventually convinced the Downtown Project to allow them to stay.

Others were not so fortunate. A few blocks away from Towne Terrace, the 320-unit Campaige Place was designed by San Diego architect Rob Wellington Quigley in 2000 to provide “dignified housing” for the service industry’s minimum-wage earners, who paid subsidized rents. After being purchased by the Downtown Project, the property has been rebranded as The 211, where tenants are “guaranteed to collide with some of the most innovative and savvy professionals in the country.” The $650 rent for a 170-square-foot studio isn’t outrageously expensive for Vegas—the average studio rents for $550 in downtown—but it is no longer financially accessible to the former tenants, who were relocated.

The idea that Vegas’s new arrivals might be displacing longtime residents was not really discussed among Hsieh’s followers as it was happening, says Aimee Groth, author of The Kingdom of Happiness: Inside Tony Hsieh’s Zapponian Utopia, a new book about the Downtown Project. Groth lived in a crash pad at the 8th Street Apartments, which she knew had been home to a transient community before the Downtown Project bought it. But she didn’t see the same type of awareness from her neighbors. “Within the Tony cult there was excitement over all the new properties, and everything new that was coming in,” she says. “Displacement just didn’t come up in my conversations with DTPers or Zapponians—it was not something discussed off the record or over drinks or even just talking with folks who had moved out to Vegas.”

The friction was made worse in 2014 when Hsieh wrote a blog post that addressed the homelessness issue in what some considered to be a tone-deaf manner. “We have to sometimes remind people that we're not the government, and in fact we look to experts in government with experience to tackle problems such as homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health,” Hsieh wrote.

As Hsieh wrote that post, however, the Downtown Project was, in fact, launching a limited but effective effort to help local homeless residents. In January of 2014, Merideth Spriggs, who had begun working in homelessness outreach after becoming homeless herself, started leading 52 “rangers,” the Downtown Project’s neighborhood ambassadors, in homelessness sensitivity training. Just having a group of people who walked a specific geographic area—a key tenet of the Downtown Project’s philosophy—was an important part of the program’s initial success, she says. “The rangers had 16 blocks they knew that they were responsible for, like a beat cop, so we knew the people.”

Spriggs also brought the Downtown Project’s tech savvy to its homeless services. She brought in a data-tracking system that allowed the rangers to catalog the names and basic information of who they were helping. When it was revealed that many of the neighborhood’s homeless residents didn’t know the location of shelters or when meals were served, she helped the city create an informational flyer that listed the addresses and hours of nearby services, including a Google Voice number that people could call any time to get more details.

In September 2014, after scathing criticism and a public resignation from one of its leaders, the Downtown Project laid off a third of its employees. Yet Spriggs was going strong. She began training and collaborating with other agencies and neighborhood groups, eventually outgrowing her 16-block zone and becoming the regional leader for the 25 Cities Initiative, a federal homelessness program. When she left the Downtown Project in 2015, Hsieh showed his appreciation with a financial commitment: He donated $45,000 to Spriggs’s nonprofit.

By her count, the Downtown Project helped 138 homeless individuals who accepted assistance—which could include anything from a ride to a shelter to a housing option—including 22 people who remain housed today. Yet for whatever reason, what Spriggs did was never part of the Downtown Project’s public messaging. “It wasn’t really common knowledge unless people knew me,” says Spriggs. “I believe I was the first homeless outreach worker in the country hired by a for-profit company.”

The Downtown Project may have incubated some successful homelessness efforts in Vegas. But removing so many housing units without replacing them with new, affordable stock will make any neighborhood’s housing problems worse.

Over the last few years, dozens of the businesses funded by Hsieh’s investment have closed (at the five-year mark, even by Hsieh’s own assessment, the Downtown Project has yet to achieve its goals). Now the boarded-up buildings owned by the Downtown Project, some of them former startup hubs, contribute to the existing blight. At the eastern edge of the Downtown Project’s footprint, a long-hyped renovation of the vacant Fergusons Motel remains stalled. It’s a reminder that those who own the land hold outsized power in this city. The lives that are wrapped in the deals that materialize and evaporate are the most vulnerable to the gambles that developers take.

Heading east on Fremont, the stacked shipping container parks and fire-breathing insect sculptures of the Downtown Project’s nascent urbanism quickly evaporate. The new book store and record store give way to a roll call of Vegas’s signature motor court hotels—Safari, Sky Ranch, Roulette, Towne & Country—their architectural details and gloriously Googie neon signs still intact, if a bit faded.

A few are vacant like Fergusons, shrouded by chain-link fence, but many are open for business, signified by marquees declaring DAILY WEEKLY MONTHLY. While some still temporarily house budget-minded tourists, it’s clear just walking down Fremont that the city’s vintage motels are unofficially serving as Vegas’s affordable housing stock.

As the city’s housing director, Arnold Stalk saw that Vegas’s motels offered the opportunity to close the gap between the affordable housing shortage and the large numbers of unsheltered veterans on the streets. Five years ago, he left city government and launched the nonprofit Veterans Village (Stalk’s own father was a World War II veteran) to house honorably discharged veterans. Just off Fremont is Stalk’s latest project, Veterans Village #2, 204 units of housing in a former motor court, opened last year. He just closed escrow on a third motel in North Las Vegas.

Stalk was trained as an architect, recruited to the legendary Los Angeles architecture school SCI-Arc by its founder, modernist architect Ray Kappe. At SCI-Arc, Stalk learned the importance of designing for inclusion. After graduating, he designed projects for homeless residents in Los Angeles, including the first methadone clinic in the city’s Skid Row neighborhood.

Because of this work in LA, Stalk was brought to Las Vegas to work for the city. But he also took a turn as a developer in Vegas, and he experienced the impacts of the volatile market firsthand: After losing big in the crash, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. His insight into the processes of development and financing allows him to unite a broad coalition of private and public partners, no small feat in a city dominated by a single industry.

In one of his most remarkable accomplishments, Stalk has been able to forge partnerships with local casinos—creating a funnel for the vast quantities of uneaten food and unused housekeeping supplies to make their way to the Veterans Village kitchen and pantry. “When you can get a casino operator to fund a homeless project, that’s a real accomplishment because they don’t think like that,” he says. But he’s also thinking like them: Veterans Village is open 24/7 and can accept donations in the early morning hours. “Being in the position to receive the product is an art.”

After he bought the Veterans Village #2 property, Stalk was able to repaint and renovate the units with the help of hundreds of volunteers and an array of donations. In the office are renderings for a crisis intervention center that will be built from the ground up, thanks to $2 million from the city and $1 million from retired NFL player Steven Jackson. But the complex itself, while cleaner and refreshed, retains its lodge-like character.

Seeing any motel renovated for a new use is a great relief to Nevada Preservation Foundation Associate Director Michelle Larime. Although the advocacy group has motels on its “watch list,” it has only begun preliminary conversations with the city to survey which motels are left and how they can best be preserved.

“As far as Veterans Village is concerned, that’s a great use of these motor courts, but it’s hard because a lot of them aren’t very big—you don’t get very many units out of them,” Larime says. Rooms often lack kitchens, and some may need to be expanded, combined, or thoroughly renovated to become ADA-compliant.

But Larime hasn’t seen many other adaptive reuse alternatives presented for the motels—and time is running out. “Most of the motor courts on Fremont, they’ve already been demolished and turned into something else,” she says. “Of course we’d prefer to see what’s existing stay.”

In many ways the motel typology is ideal for affordable housing. The properties occupy prime real estate along busy corridors that are already accessible to transit. Expansive parking lots or neglected pools can easily be converted to public space. The office that greeted weary travelers becomes a natural place to offer free services. Motels dot the American landscape; they’re a piece of history on the main drag of every big city facing a housing shortage. A comprehensive plan to serve the community while saving the structures could provide homes for people across the country.

Two miles west, Stalk’s first Veterans Village location exemplifies these characteristics. Most recently an Econo Lodge, the motel is right on Las Vegas Boulevard, about halfway between Fremont Street and the beginning of the Strip. Nestled among dusty auto shops and pastel wedding chapels, the property has retained many aspects of its vaguely Old West theme, down to the wagon-wheel motif in the railings.

For the parking lot, Stalk is sketching out ways to modernize the space and increase capacity. He’s got ideas for how to add a thematically appropriate mid-rise structure that could more than double his 125 units. He’s created tiny homes out of donated shipping containers that he’s sliced skylights into and filled with Ikea furniture.

In the office of Veterans Village, residents fill mugs with coffee that’s brewed 24 hours a day. Behind a wall, there’s a food pantry that’s open to the public. “There are two lines, one for residents who live here, and the other line is for anyone in the community,” says Glenn Noll, a Navy veteran who moved in two years ago. “They do it 365 days a year.”

Noll was staying at the local Veterans Affairs hospital when he heard about Veterans Village. He was able to be discharged and transferred there within a few days. A fellow resident drives him to his medical appointments. “This is a good place,” he says. “I have my own apartment and I can come and go whenever I want.”

Unlike some supportive housing developments, Veterans Village allows pets, so Noll’s goal is to train therapy dogs that he can take back to the hospital to serve his fellow vets. He also serves as the official photographer for birthday parties, barbecues, and visits from Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, and is a big fan of Stalk’s shipping container homes. “I told him as soon as those are ready, I get to live in one of those,” he says. “They’re just a good use of space.”

Noll is one of the 350 veterans Stalk plans to be housing every night by the end of this year, serving a significant portion of Vegas’s homeless population. But Stalk waves off the city’s census. The bureaucrats do a homeless count because they have to, he says. “My count is one. If there’s one person who is homeless, there’s a problem here.”


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