Santa Fe council, mayor get blunt talk about housing crisis

Advisory group says city needs to execute plans to create livable community, raise $3 million a year

"Even though we can feel good about this work," Mike Loftin told the mayor and Santa Fe City Council, "what's happening is that the real work is just beginning."

Along with 22 other people, the Homewise CEO spent the past five months crafting an outline for the city to address what many believe is a housing crisis. The numbers the advisory group gave to the governing body Wednesday night are disturbingly familiar to anyone who's been following Santa Fe's housing problems: More than 6,300 households pay more than half their monthly income toward rent, more than seven out of 10 people who work in Santa Fe but don't live in the city do so because it's too expensive, more than 2,400 affordable homes are needed to catch up.

More. More. More.

"I grew up on West San Francisco Street, the 700 block," Edgar Vergara of the Chainbreaker Collective told the mayor and council. "It was a safe place for me and my family…because of the opportunities Santa Fe [public] housing offered my mother. But to be honest, I'm currently struggling to find a home."

Underscoring the need for improvements across the housing spectrum, the 23-year-old who was once helped by the city said he was currently couchsurfing.

For a precious hour during Wednesday night's meeting of the governing body, many of the members of the Advancing Affordable Housing and Livable Neighborhoods Advisory Group summarized the group's conclusions.

Santa Fe must concentrate on providing pathways out of homelessness, on increasing the availability and affordability of rental housing, and on making homeownership more accessible, the group said in its 13-page report. And it needs to ensure plans get executed, not just adopted and then forgotten.

This for a city that has long been dealing with the growing chasm between those who can live comfortably and those who are struggling to get by.

"These are things we're already funding now pretty substantially," City Councilor Renée Villarreal told Loftin, ticking off a list of city-sponsored housing programs. "So, are you all suggesting that we would fund more at a higher level? … I want to understand this better."

"I think that's a really good point," Loftin replied. "When you're trying to get better and do more, sometimes you forget about what you've already done."

Santa Fe is considered a leader across the country in trying to address housing problems, he told Villarreal, but the recession has dampened construction of multifamily homes both market rate and affordable.

"The short answer to your question, councilor is yes. The recommendation is that we need to do more," Loftin said.

Santa Fe should provide a reliable revenue stream for its Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the group said, to the level of $3 million a year.

The city has broad choices for generating that money, Los Alamos National Bank's Dion Silva told the governing body, but being able to build the trust fund and count on its growth to provide more robust rental assistance and down payment help was a key suggestion.

Normally, councilors are rather reluctant to openly ponder new revenue streams through taxes or fees, but Councilor Mike Harris told his colleagues there "needs to be a hard discussion throughout our town about the use of property tax as a source of revenue to help solve this problem and develop a consistent funding source."

The group said the city take a focused, transparent approach to donating city land for affordable housing projects. That includes, potentially, a portion of the Midtown campus that used to house the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Harris, Vigil Coppler, Councilor Peter Ives and others worried about the problems the city has faced consistently with residents who claim they want affordable housing, just "not in my back yard." The issue of NIMBYism may be one of the hardest to surmount, Ives said.

The idea of literally providing back yard housing options for property owners in town was widely discussed. The city would change its accessory dwelling unit regulations to let more people build smaller second homes on their property, while at the same time encouraging or requiring homeowners to rent them out on a long-term basis instead of turning the new structures into vacation rentals.

More is needed from the city's inclusionary zoning ordinance, the group said, which requires developers to provide 15 percent of multifamily units at an affordable rental rate. But it hasn't spurred construction of more affordable units. Instead, as the economy dragged, no one was building, and the city fell further behind.

Affordable Housing Office Director Alexandra Ladd told the council that while the zoning ordinance is forward-thinking, the city has only seen new building since it allowed developers to pay a fee instead of constructing the affordable apartments.

Even if the city could get developers to build affordable units alongside market-rate apartment homes, Ladd said, her office doesn't have the support structure it needs to make sure anyone renting such an apartment could thrive. Her office and its two full-time staff aren't qualified to provide the social services that many say are vital to ensuring stable housing situations for vulnerable residents.

"Rather than just, 'Here's your rent-restricted unit. Good luck.'" Ladd told Councilor Joanne Vigil Coppler.

There is no shortage of ideas, the group told the council and the mayor, but what the city needs most is leadership and action.

The housing crisis has become a major concern to employers in Santa Fe, many of whom banded together with nonprofit community organizations, service providers and educational instituions to form the Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition earlier this year. Several of the coalition's members served on the advisory group.

"There is no more urgent issue facing Santa Fe," the coalition said in a statement Wednesday night. "The report must not be allowed to gather dust on a shelf and will require commitment and resources. A larger Affordable Housing Trust Fund is essential, as are additional resources for the Offices of Affordable Housing and Land Use to effectively implement new policies that make more accessible housing options a reality."

This story has been updated to clarify the membership of the Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition.

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