A proposed city rule change that would ease rules on accessory dwelling units is nearing its critical vote.

Santa Fe's Public Works Committee and Planning Commission both approved the ordinance change, and its next and final stop scheduled before the City Council on May 29.

Next week, the Santa Fe Housing Action Commission is hosting public information sessions on Wednesday, May 22 at the Southside library (6599 Jaguar Drive) and on Thursday, May 23 at the main branch library downtown (145 Washington Ave.). Both events will be from 5:30-7 pm.

The issue has transformed from a story of one person's potential eviction this spring into a heated debate about affordable housing in a city that has precious little of it.

But what would the change actually do?

To really get the whole picture, you have to dig in to Santa Fe's building code. In that document, there is a line that allows rentals of accessory dwelling units (casitas) to only the same party that lives in the main house, or if the owner lives on the property full-time.

The proposal would replace that line with one that doesn't mention those restrictions.

To clarify, let's look at the situation that's most recently highlighted the drama. A Santa Fe resident, Mariel Nanasi, owns a home on Don Cubero Avenue. She rents the main house to a small family, and rents the casita on the property to Jamie Durfee. In March, Nanasi received a letter from the City Attorney's Office informing her that she was in violation of the city building code. SFR found that the city was notified of the violation after a petition was circulated on Don Cubero, but multiple residents said they signed without knowing what the petition was for, and regretted doing so. The city attorney later said it's the first time the rule has been enforced this way, at least that she's aware of.

Opposition to the proposal varies. Some argue that parking is an issue, and that with more rentals, narrow streets will become congested. Others fear an influx of short-term rentals (think Airbnb) that will turn their neighborhoods into hotels for the throngs of tourists that visit Santa Fe. The new ordinance does include a clause that would prohibit casita rentals for periods less than 30 days, but opponents say it's not enough, and worry about enforcement.

Encouraging casita usage was one plank of a September 2018 report from an advisory group formed by Mayor Alan Webber to find solutions to Santa Fe's affordable housing situation.

"This proposal will help add badly needed new rental units in nearly all parts of the city, while making more existing casitas legal for long-term rental, and most of all, will help organizations such as The Life Link better be able to create housing that meets our clients' unique needs," says Carol Luna Anderson, co-chair of the mayor's advisory committee and director of The Life Link, a nonprofit that focuses on affordable housing.

The Albuquerque Journal recently published three op-eds concerning the topic, one from Daniel Werwath, the chief operating officer of New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing; another from Miguel Chavez, a former city councilor and county commissioner; and one from Durfee herself. They provide a good cross-section of the arguments for and against.

The Public Works Committee, which is comprised of five city councilors, was a close vote, and councilors Mike Harris and Renee Villarreal abstained from voting. Whether they, Mayor Alan Webber and councilors Signe Lindell, Carol Romero-Wirth and Chris Rivera will join councilors Roman Abeyta, JoAnne Vigil Coppler and Peter Ives in supporting the ordinance change, remains an open question.