The Santa Fe Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of an amendment to the building code that would allow property owners to rent both the principal dwelling unit and an accessory dwelling unit, or casita, to different tenants.

The amendment sparked two and a half hours of testimony from the public and discussion among commissioners. Every seat was taken in the City Council chambers, where the public hearing was held on Thursday, and many stood in the back and along the sides of the room or sat on the floor.

The amendment is next set to appear before City Council on May 29.

The ordinance caught Santa Feans' attention last month when a young professional, Jamie Durfee, faced eviction when the obscure rule was invoked against her landlady, Mariel Nanasi. Nanasi rented a primary residence on Don Cubero Avenue to one group of tenants and an accessory dwelling unit on the same property to Durfee. Neighbors circulated a petition to other residents on Don Cubero, many of whom told SFR they didn't know what they were signing at the time.

Nevertheless, the petition made its way to the city attorney, who then served a notice of code violation to Nanasi. City Attorney Erin McSherry told SFR at the time that it was the first instance of the code being used since she had taken the job last summer.

Durfee took to social media to make her case and ask for support from friends, and late in March, four city councilors introduced the amendment, although it was announced on Thursday that Councilor Signe Lindell was pulling her sponsorship of the amendment, telling SFR that she had some unanswered questions about the amendment. Durfee continues to contest her case, but tells SFR that she's making a backup plan.

"I think the intention is to ask for a stay in decision until this is actually seen through," Durfee says. "But in the meantime I'm prepared to move into the front house."

A fairly even split of public commenters made the trek to City Hall on Thursday night. Some argued that the amendment would cause an influx of out-of-staters renting properties to short-term visitors. They often mentioned Airbnb, the popular hospitality app that connects property owners with tourists looking to rent a house instead of a hotel.

Their number included Karen Peterson, one of the Don Cubero residents who circulated the petition to her neighbors, and upon whom a police report was filed for hitting Durfee's car in order to push it out of the way of Peterson's front door.

Proponents of the amendment, ranging from affordable housing advocates to casita tenants, including Durfee herself, say that the rule change could activate more housing opportunities for an overstretched renter pool, potentially alleviating some of the pressure on those searching for living accommodations within their budgets.

A full house gathered at Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting to sound off about the proposed rule change.
A full house gathered at Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting to sound off about the proposed rule change.

"Santa Fe has a well-documented and understood affordable housing crisis, and this antiquated city ordinance is continuing to reduce the amount of available and affordable long-term housing on the market by adding unnecessary restrictions on casita construction and housing," Durfee told the commission during the public comment portion of Thursday's hearing. "Casitas are inherent to Santa Fe's culture and present a unique opportunity for young professionals to have a separate accommodation that feels like a home."

Daniel Werwath, an affordable housing advocate in Santa Fe, also testified in favor of the change.

"Most of all tonight, I want to speak for people who I don't see represented in this room," Werwath told the Planning Commission. "There are 5,900 families, according to this year's census, who rent more than they can afford to pay for housing in this town," Werwath says. "That's 73% of the renter families that earn less than $53,000 a year. Think about that."

Members of the commission said they worried about the implications of the proposed amendment as it related to parking along Santa Fe's already congested streets, as well as how the ban on renting accessory dwelling units to short-term renters, defined as those who plan to stay less than a month.

"I recommend that we approve moving this forward with our recommendation that enforcement and parking are two issues that we think need to be revisited," Commissioner Pilar Faulkner said. "There needs to be more attention put on those as it relates to how this will roll out."

"I feel good," Durfee said after the hearing. "I feel optimistic. I don't want to speak to soon, but I was stoked about all the people who were actually in favor of passing this amendment. We've got a lot of great people in our corner."

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the incorrect date of the City Council meeting that will hear the accessory dwelling unit amendment. Additionally, while four city councilors originally introduced the amendment, Councilor Signe Lindell removed her name from the introduction, citing unanswered questions.