Lisa Tiger recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of closing the purchase of her house in the Vista Bonita subdivision on the southwest side of Santa Fe.
Tiger, 49, says the space in her new home and her walkable neighborhood allows for exercise, a vital weapon in her battle against AIDS and Parkinson’s disease. She qualified to buy the house through the Housing Trust of Santa Fe with the help of a city mandate. For Tiger and her 10-year-old daughter Crickett, the two-story, three-bedroom home has been a welcome departure from the one-room studio they used to live in.
“I walk around this house and think, ‘How did this happen?’” Tiger says.
But in many ways, Tiger’s story is an anomaly to what many other low-income aspiring homeowners experience here.
In 2005, the city started enforcing what’s known as an “inclusionary zoning” housing ordinance that required at least 30 percent of all new home developments to be sold at low price points.
For all the big talk from local officials who tout the rules as a progressive affordable housing program, only 27 out of 181 proposed affordable homes have been built and sold under the “Santa Fe Homes” ordinance in the last nine years, according to the city’s own numbers.
Builders say that’s because the bottom dropped out of the housing market and made already onerous rules impossible. However, the city reports that previous regulations and housing plans, including the subsidized Tierra Contenta development, have made more than 3,300 houses, townhouses and apartments available to low and middle-income residents since the 1990s.
And Mike Loftin, executive director of the nonprofit Homewise, criticizes the city’s numbers for leaving out 519 affordable homes that were proposed under annexation agreements and meet the 30-percent threshold.
Still, the city numbers are among evidence cited by councilors who last month quietly and unanimously made a permanent change to the amount of so-called “affordable housing” that must be built in each new development. Meanwhile, Housing Trust Deputy Director Nellie Martinez says between 200 and 300 people are waiting to buy an affordable home in Santa Fe through her organization.
The reason for the lull depends on whom you ask. Alexandra Ladd, the city’s housing special projects manager, mostly blames the gap on what the industry calls “the housing bubble.” When that lucrative cushion burst around 2007 and a broad economic downturn ensued, she says developers pulled the plug on building projects that weren’t predicted to earn much money.
But others contend that 30 percent affordable housing mandate was unrealistic from the start.
Daniel Werwath, a former housing trust program manager, argues that the passage of the homes program was the beginning of an “adversarial tone” between the city and the homebuilding industry.
“They crammed through the ordinance in 2005 without any developer input,” he says, noting that the city ordinance was written during “peak market conditions” in the housing industry.
The regulations required that for every three homes a developer built, one would have to be sold below its market value. A house with a market value of $175,000, for example, could be sold to a qualifying homeowner for $125,000.
But rather than subsidizing the remaining $50,000, the city requires the developer to simply eat the losses.
“[Profit] margins aren’t that high on most housing developments,” Werwath says. “I think the builders in town thought that was a punishment on some level.”
Ladd acknowledges the 30 percent number was modeled after similar ordinances in more expensive, higher density areas like San Francisco and downtown Chicago, where incomes are also higher than in Santa Fe.
But Loftin argues that the number wasn’t “pulled from the sky.” He adds that the requirement came from analysis of what it would take to maintain the city’s rate of home ownership.
The Santa Fe City Council responded to the stalled construction in 2011 by temporarily lowering the affordable housing requirement to 20 percent, set to return to the original rate in June. And last month, the governing body made the rule change in the homes program permanent.
The amendments to the ordinance also affect equity sharing between homeowners and the city. Under the old rules, a homeowner would have to repay a housing subsidy according to the percentage of the home’s value.
For example, if a homeowner originally bought a house worth $175,000 for $125,000, and its value jumped to $250,000 by the time of sale, they would owe the city $75,000 instead of $50,000. The new ordinance allows homeowners to repay only the dollar amount of subsidy they received when they first bought the house.
Many in the home-building industry testified in support of the changes at the city council meeting last month. Werwath, for his part, says he sees the changes as an evidence of “the city working as a partner rather than an overseer” of the housing industry.
But whether they have the power to revive a sluggish industry is another question. Sharron Welsh, executive director of the Housing Trust, says there has recently been “increased production for modest homes, but nothing like 2005.”
Loftin, who spoke against lowering the 30 percent requirement at last month’s City Council meeting, argues that the city can’t lose focus on giving low-income people like Tiger the opportunity to own homes.