13 Investigates


Officials in Nevada demolish tiny homes built for homeless in Las Vegas

Group-intended hut-like structures to fill a gap for some forced on the streets
Posted at 4:29 PM, Aug 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-20 13:32:30-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Home means Nevada. It's our state's official song.

Still, many people in Las Vegas have no place to call home, living instead on the streets, under overpasses, or in washes and tunnels. But 13 Investigators uncovered how local leaders are bulldozing an approach that could provide shelter for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

PART TWO: Dozens of cities embrace tiny homes for the homeless; officials in Southern Nevada bulldoze them

On any given night, about 5,000 people are living on Southern Nevada streets.

The homeless crisis has been compounded by the pandemic, skyrocketing rents and a lack of affordable housing. So, you'd think any help to solve the problem would be embraced especially if it's already working in other cities.

But we've discovered officials in our valley are rejecting one group's solution, hurting the very people state law says they're supposed to help.

"It hurts. I'm sad and angry. All in all, one ball of confusion on... why? I want to know why?" asks Angela.

Darcy Spears asked, "What did they take from you when they took your—?"

"My life!" Allen shouts. "Now I sleep on the damn sidewalk because of this!"

"Take everything but my hope, you know," says a man who goes by the name Savage. "And it's beginning to dwindle."

Angela, Allen and Savage are used to having little hope. But they got a glimmer in this undeveloped lot in North Las Vegas near M.L.K. Blvd and Cheyenne.

Darcy: "What did you see it as a stepping stone toward?"

Allen: "Independence. Getting your own and passing it on to people less fortunate."

"For once, I was like, yes, I can do this," says Angela. "I can stay clean and sober. I can create. Draw. I can become anything I want to be at that moment."

These three have been homeless for years. They credit Joseph Lankowski for trying to change that.

"Right here was the entrance. There was a big swinging gate," says Lankowski.

Lankowski bought this parcel of land with a vision: to create a community of tiny homes with help from volunteers through an organization called New Leaf.

"So there's three pieces to these tiny homes," says Lankowski. "Here's a floor and then there's a front wall that has a door and there's a rear wall with the window."

By tiny, we're talking about 50 square feet. A small space offering something immeasurable: peace of mind.

"So now they had a place to call home," says Lankowksi. "They had a tiny home where they could lock the door, so then they could actually go out and get services without having to worry about getting your things stolen or anything like that."

A great idea that met a hard reality. The parcel is zoned for a single-family home. According to North Las Vegas code, the minimum size is 1,200 square feet.

The tiny homes wouldn't meet that requirement, but there's a catch.

"There is no zoning for what we're trying to do," says Lankowski.

New Leaf decided to move forward, hoping to ask forgiveness instead of permission with a new state law to pave the way.

Senate Bill 150, passed in 2021, requires large cities and counties to create a new set of building and zoning codes to allow for tiny home communities in certain places. Officials have until 2024 to make that happen.

Lankowski argues the folks living on the streets don't have two years to wait.

"We don't have time to be sitting on our hands when we have these resources and the ability to help people," Lankowski explains. "You know, we don't have time to be waiting for politicians' inaction. So we just went ahead and started building."

The city of North Las Vegas could have embraced the effort and the opportunity to put the new law into practice. Instead, they tore it down.

"The only thing that mentioned a demolition on anything they posted was actually something saying this is not a demolition order," says Lankowski.

On April 12th, North Las Vegas bulldozed the huts where Angela, Allen and Savage were beginning to rebuild their lives, turning their new beginning into the same old story.

"It's been like this my whole life," explains Savage. "Everywhere I go, I'm not allowed to be there."

In the aftermath, Angela visits the site where she hoped to find a home.

"One of my shoes and a lot of my clothes and stuff were still, like in this rubble right here," says Angela. "It's like... like I was nothing."

The trio says they've lost that glimmer of hope. And the very things they need to get out of homelessness.

"Social Security card. Birth certificate," says Savage. "It took me forever to get these things. You know, I was going to get my ID on a certain date."

It's important to note, there was no complaint filed by nearby residents or businesses about the tiny homes. Instead, North Las Vegas Code enforcement took action after a city employee saw a fence made from recycled pallets and reported it.

North Las Vegas acted on a search warrant that allowed code enforcement to, "remove, demolish and dispose of all non-permitted or deteriorated structures."

Despite multiple requests for an interview, North Las Vegas city officials declined to speak on-camera. Instead, they provided the following statement:

The City of North Las Vegas' top priority is providing a safe and livable community for all residents. The ramshackle arrangements located on the property were non-permitted structures that violated both Uniform Housing Code and Municipal Code regulations, and significantly increased the dangers of death from building collapse, fire and exposure to extreme temperatures. By flagrantly ignoring codes and regulations, the property owner created an unsafe, unsanitary condition on the property, to the extent that it was deemed uninhabitable.

Since December 2021, the City has attempted to work with the property owner to correct violations on the property. Rather than correct the violations, the property owner increased the pace of non-permitted construction and brought individuals to live on the property without access to fresh water, heating, cooling or adequate sewage disposal, all of which are required by SB150.

The City's Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement Team worked multiple times successfully to engage those on site and provide services including outreach, transportation and relocation services.

On multiple occasions, the City served formal notices of violations and abatement on the property and issued civil and criminal citations to the property owner. The owner never completed any appeals within the timeframes outlined in the various notices.

Lankowski says his group was bringing some issues into compliance and appealing others within the 30-day time period noted on the civil citations. But city officials sent 13 Investigates other violations with a 10-day window to appeal, which they claim the group missed. They also say the appeal process for a civil citation is independent of the process for appealing abatement orders.

Lankowski says it's important to know why New Leaf bought land to build on. He says that's what they were told to do when a previous effort was demolished. He points to a video that shows the destruction of tiny homes at the wash near I-15 and Owens.

It was November 30, 2020, the height of the pandemic when "shelter-in-place" was a government mandate.

An encampment of makeshift structures had been there for years but officials bulldozed the 28 homes New Leaf built. It is against the law to build on public right-of-way property. Lankowski says he was told to do it on private land.

First, New Leaf tried building tiny homes on trailers, parking them in places where everyone has a right to park. But police tagged them as abandoned and towed two of them away.

"So after that happened, we were able to raise funds to buy a plot of land," says Lankowski. "And because their whole argument was property, you know, 'This is our property. It's not your property.' And we said, 'Okay. We'll buy our own property.'"

As we said earlier in our story, they did not get permits for these huts, but the structures are based on a design proven to work and be safe.

Erik de Buhr is with Community Supported Shelters in Eugene, Oregon.

"We chose the Conestoga hut because of the cost-effectiveness and its ability to be built by volunteers with little to no construction experience," de Buhr explains. "It's kind of like a Lego set."

New Leaf consulted with Erik's group which established its first tiny home community nearly a decade ago.

"If code enforcement's whole premise is safety, what's safer? Being in a tiny home on private property or being out on the streets?" asks Lankowski.

de Buhr says criminalizing and running off the homeless isn't doing anyone any good.

Lankowski agrees saying, "It's just a constant game of shuffle. Shuffle them around, move them around. Don't let them get too comfortable."

There's much more to know about this solution for some caught in the homelessness cycle. Our special report continues Tuesday with a look at how tiny homes are working in many other cities.

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