Betting on the house

In Las Vegas, the BLM puts cheap land on the table for affordable housing

  • Artist's rendering of the new affordable housing project being built on former BLM land in Las Vegas

    COURTESY NEVADA H.A.N.D.
 

On one side of Harmon Avenue in Las Vegas, a manufactured home with burgundy siding, rose-colored shag carpet and teal living-room walls waits for a buyer to come up with its $64,000 asking price. The home is part of the Jaycee Senior Mobile Home Park, an aging collection of trailers that was started in the 1980s as a government-sponsored affordable community. 

Across the street, local agencies have begun building what they hope will be the model for a new wave of affordable housing in the Las Vegas Valley. When they're finished next summer, the 103 units in the Harmon Pines Senior Apartments complex will blend in with the other homes nearby - beige stucco, red-tiled roofs, clusters of palm trees. But when the builders broke ground on the five-acre parcel in March, their shovels turned earth purchased from the Bureau of Land Management. Instead of the $3 million appraised value, the buyers paid $198,000, under a little-known legal provision that allows BLM land to be sold at up to 95 percent discounts for affordable housing. 

Las Vegas' population is booming. With an influx of service-industry workers, swelling ranks of retirees, and the closure of several mobile home parks, one of the city's top concerns for the future is a lack of affordable housing. But finding cheap land to build on is tricky, in part because the city is hemmed in by federal land, from BLM holdings to an Air Force base. 

Harmon Pines is the first project to take advantage of a unique provision in the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act. Passed in 1998, the law expanded wilderness areas and allowed the BLM to offload nearly 50,000 acres in and around Las Vegas. But it also contained a little-noticed clause known as 7(b), which allows the BLM to sell discounted land to local governments for low-income housing. Now, that provision is poised to take off, with at least one other project in the works and the possibility that it could become a model for other Western cities. "It's a wonderful resource in the battle to build affordable housing," says Mike Mullin, executive director of Nevada H.A.N.D., the nonprofit that is developing Harmon Pines. 

Still, critics say the affordable housing provision is just a slightly more palatable piece of the original act, which encouraged unfettered growth. "Special interests benefit," says Janine Blaeloch, executive director of the Western Lands Project, a watchdog organization that keeps an eye on federal land sales and trades. "And Las Vegas gets all the land it needs to keep sprawling across the desert." 

The idea of tapping federal land for affordable housing has been around for some time. The Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition has been pushing the idea for 15 years, but there was no workable process for local governments to acquire the islands of BLM land speckling the valley. 

Finally, in 2006, the BLM laid out the process for implementing 7(b), and Harmon Pines became a test for those guidelines. Clark County and its partners - the BLM and the Department of Housing and Urban Development - whittled down the variables so they could see how the new procedure would work. The county chose a seasoned affordable housing developer and a test case - senior apartments in a neighborhood well-suited to them - with minimal complications. 

The county hopes that Harmon Pines will become the model for thousands of other affordable housing units around Las Vegas, and the BLM has roughly 1,200 acres in the valley set aside for future projects. "Hopefully, once we get the first few pioneering projects out of the way, we can develop more of an assembly line," Mullin says. 

By the end of the year, the BLM expects to close on a 10-acre parcel for a 180-unit multi-family affordable development called Arbor Pointe Apartments. But unlike Harmon Pines, which is located just blocks from shopping and other facilities, Arbor Pointe is out in the less-developed southwestern corner of the valley, far from bus routes and jobs on the Strip and downtown. 

This tendency for such sales to be on "the sprawling edge of town" worries people like Jane Feldman, the co-chair for conservation with the Southern Nevada Group of the Sierra Club. While the location of Harmon Pines seems fairly logical to her, Arbor Pointe's site seems like an odd choice. "There are no jobs. There are no services. There's no public transit," she says. "And you want to put low-income housing out there?" 

But the agencies involved are confident that since the area is growing, jobs and other services will follow. "Development is happening," says Michelle Leiber, realty specialist in the BLM's Las Vegas office. "If it wasn't going to be affordable housing, it would be a casino or something else." 

Las Vegas is not the only Western city surrounded by public land - Grand Junction, Colo., Rock Springs, Wyo., and Kingman, Ariz., are just a few other examples. For these communities, laws that help federal land change hands would make sense, according to Douglas Bell, community resources manager for Clark County. "(The southern Nevada law) set up a process where every time you want a piece of land, you don't have to go back to Congress," he says. "While this effort is clearly related to Nevada and the BLM, this program could be used in any area where there is a lot of federal land." 

So far, that's not happening. Even cities like St. George, Utah, and Las Cruces, N.M., with their own bills that designate new wilderness and facilitate land sales to make way for growth, are not including affordable housing measures. That's probably because those communities are much smaller, and although there may be demand for affordable housing, it's not comparable to Las Vegas' needs, according to Jeremy Garncarz of The Wilderness Society's Wilderness Support Center. 

With or without affordable housing provisions, these bills worry Blaeloch, who believes that the agencies already have the authority they need to trade and sell small parcels for legitimate purposes. These blanket bills, she contends, allow legislators to win spoils for their states and encourage the federal government to dispose of large chunks of public land that otherwise wouldn't make it through the agency's process. Even affordable housing provisions, when they exist, irk her. "It's hard to say something bad about affordable housing," she says. "But most communities have to deal with that in their own way - through impact fees from developers, for example. I don't think everyone in the U.S. needs to help Las Vegas build affordable housing." 

The author is a High Country News intern.

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