Representatives for a prominent casino developer this week defended his decision to raze nearly 600 housing units to redevelop part of Reno’s downtown into an entertainment district and floated his “vision” to contribute land for a publicly funded affordable housing project.
Many of the several hundred people at a virtual town hall Monday welcomed the idea of better affordable housing in the area but met the proposal by Jacobs Entertainment with skepticism. The idea floated by Jeff Jacobs, who has demolished 15 motels that were used as last resort housing, includes 850 “affordable and workforce housing units” built above public parking garages that would ostensibly provide parking for his nearby planned entertainment venues. Jacobs wouldn’t build the housing; rather, he would contribute land for a project to be built and operated by the Reno Housing Authority.
Monday’s town hall followed a ProPublica investigation that found the city has failed to require that Jacobs replace the affordable housing he razed despite a critical shortage. The investigation also found the public has repeatedly been cut out of the decision-making process. Since 2016, Jacobs has bought more than 100 parcels in downtown Reno, clearing much of the land and leaving most of the lots vacant as he pitches ever-changing ideas for the area.
Prior to the town hall, Jacobs held a briefing for reporters on his affordable housing idea but did not invite ProPublica and didn’t respond to the news organization’s request to attend. At that briefing, he criticized the town hall, organized at the urging of Reno City Council member Naomi Duerr, as a way for “a couple council people” to “let their supporters have a shot at us,” according to News 4-Fox 11. Duerr argued the public felt excluded from the process and deserved more participation.
At the town hall, audience members grilled Jacobs’ representatives on the housing demolition and the lack of significant development so far on the land he has assembled. They also tried unsuccessfully to pin the developers down on their affordable housing proposal. In response to pointed questions from audience member Selena Kaffer, Jacobs’ lawyer Garrett Gordon said he could offer no timeline or other details for the housing concept because the company has yet to begin a “conversation” with public partners such as the city of Reno and the housing authority.
“At this point it’s a vision, it’s a proposal,” Gordon said. “We have to work with numerous agencies to bring such a huge project to fruition. I don’t have a timetable for you tonight but certainly will in the coming months.”
Kaffer countered: “So just to clarify where we are at, in the last five years 500 to 600 units have been demolished, and we don’t have a timeline for when 850 units of affordable housing will be rebuilt to replace those.”
But Gordon said it’s wrong to think of the demolished motels as lost housing, given the state of disrepair of many of the units.
“They really shouldn’t be considered housing units at all,” Gordon said. “It shouldn’t be slumlords who are providing our housing units for the most vulnerable in our community. It should be the Reno Housing Authority.”
As of February, an estimated 2,550 people lived in Reno’s weekly motels, which have become de facto housing of last resort. While many are in poor condition, ProPublica found others that were well-managed and well-kept motels — some of which Jacobs has also tried to buy — that were a critical resource for those seeking shelter in the city’s difficult housing market. While Jacobs offered relocation assistance to people living in his motels, ProPublica found their lives were thrown into chaos and not everyone wound up in a better situation.
Mayor Hillary Schieve and four council members attended the virtual town hall, but none sat on its panel to field questions or defend the lack of city policies to preserve affordable housing or deter housing demolition. According to the participant log, Schieve left the meeting after 21 minutes. Council members Neoma Jardon and Oscar Delgado did not log in, according to the document. Video of the meeting also streamed on YouTube and remains available online.
Many in the audience clamored for more affordable housing as well as a stronger voice in what will eventually be built on the swath of Jacobs-owned land covering 15 square blocks of downtown.
“This meeting should have happened before most of these places were demolished,” said Ilya Arbatman, who said he worked at a music store demolished by Jacobs. “A vision is something you have before you tear things down.”
Jacobs has yet to detail a comprehensive plan for his land, some of which he intends to develop into event space, some of which he’s marketing to other developers for market-rate housing, hotels and other unspecified uses.
“He’s moving forward strategically, methodically,” Gordon said during the meeting, noting potential plans for an amphitheater and zip line.
ProPublica asked the Reno Housing Authority about the viability of Jacobs’ concept for 850 affordable housing units. The authority owns and manages nearly 1,300 affordable housing units and has developed several projects smaller than the one Jacobs would like to see.
“With scarce availability of developable parcels, the RHA is interested any time a local developer would like to pursue housing in the Truckee Meadows, especially when they’re willing to offer land,” said RHA spokesperson April Conway. “Any increase in the numbers of rental units takes a little pressure off of the available housing apartments.”
Conway said the authority couldn’t provide a time frame or a cost estimate for the idea.
“Any costs associated with a housing project needs a feasibility study done first, and with rising costs everywhere, it wouldn’t be prudent to make even a ballpark guess at this point,” she said.
The authority recently completed its first housing project in two decades, a 44-unit senior housing complex that cost $13 million. Even with a $1.5 million donation from Jacobs, the authority struggled to finance the project.
“There would be many resources needed for a project like this,” Conway said of Jacobs’ idea. “But funding would be first and foremost.”
If the idea did come to fruition, the number of units would dwarf the 326 units built in Reno in the past six years.