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BLM Land and Affordable Housing

PLASKON: It's a cold, windy, overcast morning in west Las Vegas where Vanesa Jackson lives.

JACKSON: I am renting right now, I pay nothing but the house is so cruddy it is really worth nothing.

PLASKON: With her son in her arms she faces a chain link fence standing between her and a brand new home. She's one of 70 low-income families that showed up at a Habitat for Humanity meeting recently wanting to buy a home, a sign of the need for affordable housing. She's watching members of Habitat celebrate the ground breaking of its 50th home meant for people like her.

SOUND: And that deserves a round of applause. Ha ha ha.

PLASKON: Habitat for Humanity is relatively new to Las Vegas, but a powerful non-profit international developer aimed at serving those in substandard housing. It buys raw land, builds and matches interest free mortgages with the recipient's ability to pay. It's built more than a 150-thousand homes and now builds on average 60 a day. Las Vegas Chapter President Todd Nigro shows off one of the models.

NIGRO: As you walk down the central hallways and then you have your two bedrooms on the right and other bedroom on the left.

PLASKON: Mortgage, insurance and taxes combined will run 500 dollars a month on this 12-hundred square foot home.

NIGRO: This is a hand up, it is clearly not a hand out. We are not taking in and subsidizing, people take a lot of pride in the ownership of their house.

PLASKON: State Assemblyman Bob McCleary was at the event too, he understands the need for a helping hand in this housing market.

McCLEARY: The first 12 years of our marriage we lived in Apartments and we had help from the mayor of North Las Vegas and he helped us with the closing costs and to get us into the house that we live in today.

PLASKON: But finding a wide-scale solution to affordable housing most agree is hard to come by.

McCLEARY: I wish there was an answer, I wish someone would tell me. I would be happy to do it. There a lot of people a lot smarter than I am that have been in this business a long time but they haven't found a solution either . . . I don't know.

PLASKON: But then he thinks a little harder.

McCLEARY: Ha . . . ha. Well get the BLM to give us back the 87 percent of Nevada that they own so that we can develop it. PLASKON: Bingo! Well, pretty close. The Bureau of Land Management owns all the developable land around Nevada's cities and its been really hard to get that land for affordable housing says Susan Mackert Habitats Executive Director.

MACKERT: Probably the largest stumbling block we are facing right now is land acquisition. Land is just becoming more difficult to come by. Builders are getting it as soon as it comes up for bid and we are just trying to get these little infill lots here and there.

PLASKON: But since it is the public's land it can be designated for affordable housing and that was the idea in the early 1990's when Clark County's Doug Bell testified to that effect before congress. Lawmakers thought it was a good idea too, but when the sale of public land was approved in 1998 instructions for how to provide the affordable housing weren't included. For 6 years developers bought thousands of acres of public land with no requirement to build affordable housing. Finally under the pressure of an affordable housing crisis earlier this year, Monica Caruso of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association says developers reminded the government of an original intent of the sales.

CARUSO" We do have a way to do affordable housing in this community, it is through working with the BLM it is already in law and it is through the BLM. We are the ones that said that initially.

PLASKON: Local officials say what took so long was that they were waiting for the BLM to provide instructions, but when prompted, the BLM responded by telling local governments to write the instructions themselves. The BLM adopted instructions in August this year, allowing any government entity to reserve BLM property for affordable housing if certain criteria are met. Developers must agree to build cheaper homes on at least 50 percent of the land, in exchange they'll get up to a 95 percent discount on the price. What is affordable housing? The rules say it's an affordable price for people who make less than 80 percent of the county's median income. The lower eventual owner's income, the higher the discount the developer gets on the property. Caruso of the Home Builders Association says developers aren't interested in the way the program's written now.

CARUSO: It is our position that these are not regs that would allow the BLM to sell land to a municipality to turn around and sell it to a private developer for sale housing. That is our position.

PLASKON: But Tim Whitwright Supervisor of the City of Las Vega's Neighborhood Initiatives says the program is ready.

WHITWRIGHT: The application process and the discount rates are certainly there and in place for ownership as well. Now if what they are saying is that from their point of view they don't see any support for single family ownership then that is their opinion.

PLASKON: The city is looking at more than 40 parcels of land to withdraw from the auction, making them unavailable to developers unless they build affordable housing. The problem for developers is what's called a reverter clause. They require affordable homes to remain affordable even when the owner wants to sell it. That secures an indefinite supply of affordable housing and ensures the discounted property won't be sold for big profits later. Doug Bell Clark County Resources Manager agrees with the Home Builder's Association and says the reverter clause has to change.

BELL: You really need to maintain and have a firm sense of control over the property for others to want to come forward and in putting together real estate deals.

PLASKON: The BLM says it is in discussions to change the reverter clause and it could happen pretty quickly. Meanwhile, Habitat for Humanity routinely puts together real estate deals with large developers like KB home. The new BLM rules haven't been publicized, but when Habitat Executive Director Susan Mackert found out, she said there's no reason why they wouldn't pursue developing affordable housing under the existing rules, especially since the city is offering a 95 percent discount on the land - the most difficult and important commodity to acquire.

MACKERT: We certainly can't afford to pay full price so in order to be able to get that kind of discount would be fabulous.

PLASKON: Even the Governor's office is looking into the viability of implementing the new affordable housing guidelines. But for now the City of Las Vegas is the only entity that's forging ahead to provide affordable housing under the existing rules as soon as the next BLM land auction in Spring 2005. Neighborhood Initiatives Supervisor Whitwright says the City's goal is to alleviate a lack of affordable housing ASAP.

WHITWRIGHT: We make no money on this deal at all.

PLASKON: The city could play hardball requiring that land for sale in its jurisdiction be sold under the current rules, but he acknowledges that would be highly unpopular with developers. In fact 6 months ago Henderson ended its efforts to impose affordable housing requirements on developers after failing to attract bids on a 2-thousand acre parcel of land.

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR

Southern Nevada BLM Land Disposal for affordable housing