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Benjamin Spillman

Convention parking deal may displace short-term renters

17 September 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- A $50 million land purchase will add valuable parking and exhibit space to the Las Vegas Convention Center but will also send residents of short-term housing scrambling to find new homes.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board of directors recently voted to buy 8.4 acres of land at Sierra Vista Drive and Swenson Street for $5.9 million an acre, land that is now home to weekly rental apartment complexes with about 400 units.

The deal, which is expected to close in January, calls for the current owners to demolish the apartments and clear the lot before handing it over to the convention authority.

That means tenants in the Blue Harbor apartments, most of whom have little money, must find new places where they can afford to live and still have access to jobs around the Strip.

Sam Ventura, who owns the apartments and several others around town, said that through attrition the complex is down to about 250 residents and that he will offer assistance to those who remain.

Departing residents, however, say relocation is daunting for people with little cash, marred credit and little or no access to personal transportation to work.

"Once you have had an eviction, none of them will even talk to you," said Jolene Thomas, who had just been evicted from Blue Harbor along with her three kids and mother who uses a wheelchair. "It doesn't matter if you have enough money. It is hard."

The family was on Swenson Street on Friday afternoon looking for a new place to live. Thomas said she needed to find someplace close to her kids' nearby school and to jobs, which makes looking to the suburbs a stretch.

"You can't go real far at first," she said.

Thomas and other former Blue Harbor tenants said there had been rumors the complex would be sold but no official word from the owners. They said units they lived in were plagued with bugs, broken appliances and plumbing problems.

Ventura said there are plans to inform remaining tenants about the deal on Sunday. Managers of other nearby apartment buildings will be present then to talk with people who wish to move.

Vacancy rates are high in the area, Ventura said, because the slumping real estate market means many single-family homes are for rent. That leaves more room in the types of weekly rental units that are common east of the Strip.

"They would love to take the tenants because they have vacancy," Ventura said.

Ventura, a Las Vegas real estate developer for 21 years, said he has about 210 units not far from Blue Harbor and would be willing to help people move there, even if it means free rent or moving assistance.

Assistance is important because even people with jobs are at risk of becoming homeless when their housing arrangements fall apart, said Linda Lera-Randle El, director of the Straight from the Streets program for homeless people.

"We can't afford to turn any housing into a parking lot," she said of the impact of the booming Las Vegas resort economy increasing property values and making it harder for people with low incomes to live close to their jobs. "We are just running out of places to stick people."

Although weekly rental apartments are often more costly than places with longer-term leases, they serve an important function, she said. The apartments are often furnished and include utilities, which makes it more convenient because the costs of housing are rolled into one bill.

While the convention center deal, if it closes, will displace people from affordable apartments it is also expected to be a boost to the local economy. Conventions and trade shows, such as the ones at the Las Vegas Convention Center and other meeting spaces like it, generate an estimated $8.2 billion in nongaming economic impact for the area.

Convention visitors per capita spend about twice as much as tourists, which means more tips, hours and opportunities for people with few job skills to get a foothold in the work force and build a career.

The newly acquired land will provide space for staging and parking during construction of an $890 million expansion project for the Las Vegas Convention Center. When the expansion project is complete in 2011, the space will be available for parking or exhibition.

The parking alone will save the authority more than $20 million by eliminating the need to find off-site parking and provide construction workers transportation to and from the convention center.