Youth at the Edge of the Plaza

Despite incremental city policy change, Santa Fe’s housing crisis hits youth the hardest

Brandon Stewart stands inside the jammed City Council chambers, jabbing a protest placard toward the ceiling. It says "Fix the Housing Crisis."

The 17-year-old, a Southside teenager like some of the others protesting around him, gathers at City Hall along with about 100 others to say it again: The people in their part of town have suffered in Santa Fe, as affordable places to live increasingly escape residents' grasps.

They've come together June 26, to hold their signs through several long hours of deliberation, to watch the council vote on a highly publicized measure. The 8-1 vote, with only Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth dissenting, allows landowners to rent to different parties their main homes and ancillary dwellings—casitas, in Santa Fe-speak—in what they've billed as a small piece in the massive mosaic that is this city's longstanding housing problem.

"A lot of people can't afford a lot of things, and this is one thing that we need to tackle as a community," Stewart tells SFR. "We're trying to get into this housing program and it's all backed up. There's only so many spots."

At least for the last few decades, young, low-income and majority Hispanic Santa Feans have been pushed from the city's center, away from services, grocery stores and public transit—partly because of skyrocketing home prices and flatlining incomes. Housing restrictions in city ordinances have also favored home ownership and low-density zoning in the city's north and east sections and largely ignored renters' needs, activists say.

The passing of the casita amendment is a first step of sorts in a longer-term plan that Southside residents, youth and advocacy groups hope will reclaim their sense of home—any home—in Santa Fe.

So they land at City Hall as part of the March for Housing rally. Like Stewart, many of the younger marchers are here with YouthWorks, a program that operates on the Southside to help disenfranchised teenagers and young people with job placement, training, certificate programs, education and even housing—to a point.

Three other teenagers from YouthWorks are here for the same reason. They are proud of their work with Habitat for Humanity with the recently-funded YouthBuild initiative and want to contribute to the fight for more. And yet, those homes are still out of reach.

"None of us can afford one," Johnny Gee, a staff member at YouthWorks, says at the rally. "The staff can't. Nobody can, and that is low-income and affordable housing… We're chewing away at it. But it's a drop in the barrel."

It's a drop that is not likely to reach the youth gathered at the edge of the Plaza, and yet Gee wants them to have experience in civic engagement. What his students need are rent control, more local and federal dollars, and major housing projects, he says, to make up for generational poverty. Habitat's minimum annual income requirement is $15,400 for a single person and the organization is not accepting applications.

Oregon took a leap this week to allow for more housing outside of single-family homes, which are inaccessible to many. If the state's governor approves—and it's expected that she will—the law will increase potential for so-called "missing middle" housing to allow for triplexes, fourplexes, attached townhomes and cottage clusters on somelots in all residential zones. Basically, strict single-family zoning is a thing of the past for cities with more than 25,000 people.

Santa Fe's casita amendment is a beginning, but those coming from generations of poverty are still far from a true leg up to get stable housing and begin the climb out.

Daniel Werwath helped organize the Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition and works for a nonprofit housing organization called New Mexico Inter-faith Housing. He moved here to work on affordable housing in 2003 for the Housing Trust.

For Werwath, who organized the rally, the casita amendment is a sign that Mayor Alan Webber is sticking to promises to increase affordable housing.

Adding housing as quickly as possible is essential for families and young people in the city, Werwath says. According to the most recent census numbers from 2017, 73 percent of renter families who make less than $50,000 a year in household income are paying more than they can afford for housing.

He views opponents to the casita amendment and other community-led efforts for more affordable housing as older, majority-white people complaining about a perceived lack of parking and an increase in short-term rentals such as Airbnb infiltrating neighborhoods.

But Werwath thinks it's more an issue of north and east side residents fearing change.

"They are homeowners who don't want to see things change in their neighborhood," he says. "Are we going to let them choose a future for us that has huge impacts on the young people in this community, huge impacts on our role in climate change and how urban development impacts climate change?"

The lack of affordable housing is leading to a drain of workers, young people and cultural and economic diversity as people leave the city or even New Mexico altogether.

With YouthWorks, Gee has a chance to teach young people to speak up for themselves and to continue the fight for a place to live that won't cripple them economically.

Amanda Esquiba sits outside of City Hall surrounded by other teenagers, holding her phone and a sign that says "Help us out! Rights to Housing."

"Before, I lived in my mom's car for a while," Esquiba tells SFR, "and ever since I was in [YouthWorks] they've been really trying to do everything to go out of their way to help me."

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