For most of his life, Ernest Block has managed to stay one step ahead of homelessness. When he was 9, his parents scrambled to find a new place to live after his grandmother sold the family ranch. As an adult, when his rent surpassed his income, he found friends willing to take him in as a housemate. And at other times he obtained shelter by providing live-in care for an ailing family member.
Then, about 10 years ago, he found Nystrom House, in the shadow of downtown Reno’s Sands Regency Hotel Casino. The rent was affordable. For $450 a month, he had a room with a shared kitchen and bathroom.
To Block, the eight-room home on Ralston Street — though aging and not the grand house it had been in its heyday — was an oasis in a busy, and often rough, neighborhood on the western edge of downtown. Fruit trees sheltered the backyard from the lights of nearby casinos. When he returned home from his job as a dishwasher, the neighborhood cat would be waiting. Block would lie on the grass and let her curl up on his chest.
“I liked that place,” he said. “It felt like home to me.”
In late 2016, an out-of-state casino owner, Jeffrey Jacobs, started buying up property surrounding Nystrom House: vacant land, derelict houses, historic mansions, a car repair shop, a dry cleaner, a wedding chapel, a neighborhood bar, a gas station. And motels, lots of motels. Within months, Jacobs owned Nystrom House, too.
Then, as Block and his housemates watched, Jacobs began demolishing the motels. First the Carriage Inn and Donner Inn Motel. Then the Stardust Lodge. Next, the Keno, El Ray and Star of Reno fell. The motels, decades past their prime, had served as housing of last resort for hundreds of people with extremely low incomes and few other options. Jacobs was clearing the way for what he said will be a $1.8 billion entertainment district anchored by his two casinos.
Jacobs’ property manager called a meeting of the Nystrom House tenants one day in mid-2018. She served free barbecue and told them they would need to find new places to live. She said she’d help.
Block, like hundreds of others in motels and boarding houses bought by Jacobs in the last five years, was thrust into Nevada’s brutal affordable housing shortage — a crisis that is among the most severe in the country for extremely low-income renters, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
A ProPublica investigation found that local policies and federal tax breaks have accelerated demolition of motels and other properties where extremely low-income residents live, while doing little to help those who have lost their homes. Unlike some cities, Reno has no policy to deter demolition of affordable housing, and no requirements to replace lost units. Once such housing is gone, it often stays gone.