BY TIM HAUSERMAN
Every school day I would know it was 8 a.m. when the young boy and either his father or mother made the short skip from their little house up the street to the school bus. Later in the day, I would often see the mom ride her bike up the street, pushing hard to get up the short hill in front of my house. On my neighborhood walks, I would see the family playing in the yard. They are gone now. They left about six months ago. Since they left, the house has been dark. There has never been a car in the driveway. It’s as if the house, once awake, is now asleep. It no longer serves a purpose.
A few months before they left, a real estate sign went up on the house. As he was walking home after his son caught the bus, the father asked me if I knew of any places to rent. During chats in past bus stop trips, I was always impressed at how relaxed he looked, strolling down to the bus wearing shorts on a winter day. But this time I could tell by his demeanor that the challenge of finding a new place to live was very stressful. Relocating your family in the current long-term rental market was proving to be an extreme challenge. A few days later, the mother stopped to by to discuss how difficult the process was. She repeated her husband’s plea for help; she was putting out feelers everywhere she could, hoping that someone could come up with a solution.
Then, after a flurry of last-minute packing, they were gone. Now on this block of a dozen homes on Tahoe’s West Shore, the only people who live here are myself and one other longtime homeowner that I rarely see who lives across the street. A ghost neighborhood.
The other 10 houses on the street are now second homes or vacation rentals. There are many nights when the entire street is dark and peaceful. A row of unused homes, sitting, waiting. Then on other nights, the homes are ablaze, as if the visitors feel that every light in the house must be on at once. The driveways are suddenly packed with clean SUVs, and if it’s summer, the decks are laden with folks standing around and laughing. Then, poof, the laughing porch-goers disappear once again, and the houses await the next onslaught.
The Tahoe long-term housing crisis has been discussed frequently over the last few years. Usually, we talk in general terms about the shortage of affordable housing and how expensive the properties are that are available for long-term renters. We have heard from individuals, like the young family up the street from me, who struggle to find a way to stay rooted in Tahoe. And we know that local businesses can’t find employees because their potential workers can’t find a place to live.
The impact of our housing crisis, however, is not just on those who directly confront the stark reality of finding a place to live, but on the neighborhoods themselves and what they will become. What does it mean when you have no neighbors? Who watches out for your house when you are out of town? Who do you go to for the proverbial cup of sugar, or has our society changed so much that we don’t do that anymore? What is the impact on a small-town neighborhood when we no longer have kids riding their bikes up and down the street?
I grew up in Dollar Point. At the time, in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a neighborhood full of primary residents. There were kids to play with all up and down the street. At least a half-dozen kids near my age lived within a 10-minute walk of my house. We knew all of our neighbors, and perhaps more importantly, they knew us and could watch out for us.
A few years ago, I took a stroll down my old street in Dollar Point and there were no signs of families living there anymore. The houses that once held local residents had been enlarged or rebuilt into second homes and vacation rentals. The only cars in the driveways were trucks owned by folks making repairs or cleaning the houses, many of which had Nevada plates.
There are still neighborhoods in Tahoe that attract families, but they are getting fewer. Many neighborhoods that used to be a flurry of local activity now teeter back and forth between the extremes of being all but empty and filled to the gills with short-term renters. There are lots of individuals and organizations working to solve this problem, but a walk down just about any street in the area on a midweek evening is now a quiet stroll. Where is everyone? Perhaps they are driving to their home in Reno, where they can find a community.
Main Image Caption: Where Have All the Neighborhoods Gone? Photo illustration by Sarah Miller/Moonshine Ink