This week celebrates anniversaries of impossibilities. Man on the moon in 1969. The great New York City blackout of 1977 (and the huge spike in the northeastern birthrate nine months later). And the election of Reno Mayor Barbara Bennett in 1979 after she convinced the city council to vote for rent control.
Last week came word that the median stick-built home in RenoSparks has topped $400,000 for the first time. The bad news is that apartment vacancies have fallen to a six-year low of about three percent here in Tesla Valhalla. The Barbwire never forgets.
The opening of the MGM Grand (now the Grand Sierra-Reno) in 1978 spawned uncontrolled growth like today. Six new casino properties opened within a few months of each other. People flocked to the boomtown from everywhere. White and blue collar workers pitched tents by the river. (I still have the film.) Rents skyrocketed if you could find a place at all.
Speculators from California were driving around with suitcases full of cash or cashier’s checks, snapping up any property at any price.
No less than Bill Harrah hisself wondered how many casinos this area could handle. The prescient Harrah died on a Mayo Clinic operating table that same year. Not long thereafter, six clubs had closed, a painful push.
Not only were apartment landlords gouging like today (see Rentvolution.org/) but mobile home dwellers had it worse, if that’s imaginable. You can pick up your stuff if evicted from an apartment. Alas, there is nothing mobile about a mobile home. Barbara Bennett’s landlord skyrocketed her rent not long after she became mayor. Not enough rate of return on his precious investment, or so he said.
Mobile home salesmen were bribing park owners to evict their tenants. “A space is worth a deal,” one dealer said. (He eventually moved to a nonmobile home. Prison.)
Today, tenants can still be evicted at landlord whim although a few Band-Aids were passed by this year’s legislature.
The short grandma with the smoky voice and little yellow Volkswagen started to organize. She created such a groundswell that the Reno City Council had to listen.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Bennett said. “We’ve had it up to our ears with a system which not only permits but actually encourages gouging.”
I was at City Hall on Nov. 13, 1978, when a very business-oriented council voted 4-3 for “rent justification.”
Like today, city officials denied having the legal authority to place any kind of leash on the voracious dogs. Future Washoe District Judge Mark Handelsman drafted a “rent justification” ordinance. If availabilities dropped below five percent, an independent board would demand documentation of actual increased costs before rents could be raised.
Then the council made a fatal mistake and forwarded the ordinance to Washoe District Court for “judicial review” before implementation.
Back in the rule of law era, people still followed the now-defunct US Constitution which mandates that courts rule on actual cases. Non-binding legal opinions are the function of other branches. In February of 1979, Judge James Guinan bounced the request and rent control died with it.
Bennett was not without success. Judge Peter Breen stopped a notorious LA doctor from skyrocketing rents in attempt to empty his Verdi riverfront mobile home park so he could build condos. Breen termed it innovative “judicial rent control,” noting that the tenants would be deprived of the substantial improvements they made to the property.
That took balls. The Sparks City Council even passed the area’s first apartment to condo conversion regulation in 1980.
Barbara Bennett entered a multicandidate primary in May of 1979. Prior to that, mayors were elected among councilmembers. She beat several incumbents in the primary, finishing second to then-Mayor Bruno Menicucci and defeating him a month later in the biggest upset in Reno political history.
The late great Barbara was the only mayor named to the Reno Gazette-Journal’s “100 who made a difference in the 20th Century” list in 1999. A downtown Reno park bears her name.
Time for a fitting anniversary celebration at city hall. Volunteers needed. Contact me.
HAVING IT BOTH WAYS. By mid-century, the Reno Evening Gazette and Nevada State Journal had the same ownership but retained separate editorial staffs. The Gazette’s longtime lineage was conservative Republican. The Journal leaned moderate Democrat. On Nov. 20, 1978, the Gazette endorsed Bennett’s proposal. The Journal got around to opposing it on Feb. 3, 1980. Go figger.
POETIC JUSTICE DEPT. Two wealthy local landlords were among the worst of Barbara Bennett’s many foes. Both went bankrupt and died as men of humble means.
The game’s afoot. Stay tuned.
Be well. Raise hell. Esté bien. Haga infierno.
Andrew Barbano is a 50-year Nevadan and editor of NevadaLabor.com/ E-mail Additional references for the above will be added to the expanded web edition of this column at Barbwire. US/ Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Tribune since 1988.