Casita Conclusion

City Council approves rule change on renting accessory units 8-1

"We're going to lay down some ground rules," Mayor Alan Webber told a packed house at Wednesday's City Council meeting. No booing or hissing, comments must be limited to one minute, and listen.

What followed—after nearly three hours of questions, public comments and deliberations between councilors—was the approval of the controversial amendment to Santa Fe's building code that would allow greater access to renters in accessory dwelling units, better known to locals as casitas.

The crowd, for the most part, followed the rules. Older residents, many of whom were members of the Neighborhood Network, an organization that opposed the rule change, showed up early and claimed seats, while the heavily millennial group supporting the change held a rally in front of City Hall before the meeting, eventually streaming into the council chambers and taking seats on the floor in the back.

The last in a series of contentious meetings stretching back as far as April, Wednesday's public hearing brought to an end to the debate—for now.

Only Councilor Romero-Wirth voted no on the rule change, after unsuccessfully proposing a different version that would limit the number of ADUs each owner could have. Romero-Wirth also unsuccessfully requested that the issue, already delayed a month longer than intended to allow for a study into short-term rentals to be considered, be sent back to a lower committee for further amendments.

The public hearing, in broad terms, pitted a variety of different groups against each other: old versus young, homeowners versus renters, newcomers versus longtime residents.

"I support this," Romero-Wirth said Wednesday night. "I just think that some of these people who expressed concerns need to be heard, and we need to do some things to address the other side as we go forward with this."

Councilor Roman Abeyta, one of the rule change's cosponsors, disagreed.

"I think part of the problem is that we've been listening for years and years and years to this other side," Abeyta said. "To one side as opposed to the other."

Many of the concerns raised by opponents of the rule change related to short-term rentals, provided by apps like Airbnb. A recent study commissioned by Homewise, a housing nonprofit, and carried out by Kelly O'Donnell, a Santa Fe economist who worked in the Bill Richardson administration, found unregistered short-term rentals and millions of dollars in lost revenue plagued the city.

"In listening to everyone tonight, the interesting thing to me is that it seems like I heard as much about short-term rentals as I did about [accessory dwelling units]," Councilor Signe Lindell said. "That's the next tough issue that this council is going to have to take on. And we've been working on it and there's some ideas already floating around."

Lindell also took a moment to point out what she saw as a misconception about the proposed ordinance.

"This ordinance was never about affordable housing," she said. "Affordable is a specific type of housing. This is about housing."

Webber also explained that he sees the rule change as just the beginning of a strategy to address the broader issue.

Jamie Durfee, the lifelong Santa Fean whose potential eviction from her rented casita brought the accessory dwelling unit issue to many locals attention, was, unsurprisingly, pleased with the result.

"I feel fantastic," Durfee told SFR Wednesday night. Ironically, Mariel Nanasi, the owner of the property on which Durfee's casita sits, is in the process of selling the home, and the new owner, who plans to live on the property, invited Durfee to stay in the casita when the transaction is finalized. Once that happens, Durfee would not be in violation of the old rule. Still, Durfee said that even though the rule change no longer affects her housing situation, she's glad that she was able to play a role in the process.

"Thankfully I was put in this position, and was able to get some change happening in Santa Fe," Durfee said after the vote.

Residents of Santa Fe most impacted by the housing crisis in the city met before the meeting to talk about the community's needs.

They gathered over a shared belief: that they have a right to affordable housing and that the casita amendment is a first step in the right direction.

Among the adults were scattered teenagers sitting on the sidewalk and talking among each other, wearing blue T-shirts on the front lawn of City Hall. They're part of Santa Fe YouthWorks, a program that helps the teens with earning their GED while they get job training and, ironically, build Habitat for Humanity houses they can't even afford to live in.

Amanda Esquiba, Evelyn Villegas and Angelina Muniz are among them, and told SFR they attended the March for Housing because YouthWorks is trying to help them find places to live. Now they want to give back.

"Before I was living in my mom's car for a while. And ever since I was in this program, they've been really trying to do everything to go out of their way to help me," Esquiba said.

With the amendment now passed, other Southside residents like Esquiba and her mom could have a slightly greater chance of finding reasonable housing.

"A lot of people in the program struggle with housing. And a lot of kids that go there get help with housing through YouthWorks also. … Housing should be a right for everybody. We're out here showing that," Angelina Muniz said.

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