In a town with a housing shortage for everyone but especially for the quickly encroaching "silver tsunami" of soon-to-be retirees, the expansion of independent and assisted living facilities for seniors is desperately needed. But city councilors question whether a new development planned by  El Castillo will actually benefit everyone or just Santa Fe's wealthy upper echelon.

El Castillo is a Santa Fe owned and operated senior services organization that manages several facilities in the downtown area that include "senior living communities" of independent residential units, assisted living, and nursing beds. The organization plans to build a new facility with 68 independent residential units on an empty lot at 401 Old Taos Highway, across Paseo de Peralta from the downtown post office. Its leaders have asked the City of Santa Fe for financial help to issue $80 million in industrial revenue bonds, to be paid over 30 years. The governing body voted Wednesday to move the proposal forward to a public hearing in about six weeks.

El Castillo is eligible for an IRB because it is incorporated as a nonprofit providing health-care services. The bond would allow El Castillo to forgo property taxes, but the organization will be required to make payments "equal to the amount of property taxes owed" to Santa Fe Public Schools and the Santa Fe Community College, according to city documents.

Yet at a City Council meeting Wednesday, councilors were hesitant to go forward with a plan that would take a significant historic district property out of the property tax revenue stream for 30 years. The city has already missed out on more than two decades of property taxes on the land, which belongs to the Presbyterian church and was formerly the site of Ghost Ranch's Santa Fe conference center.

The property slated for the development is the former Santa Fe Ghost Ranch center.
The property slated for the development is the former Santa Fe Ghost Ranch center.

Councilors Renee Villarreal, District 1, and JoAnne Vigil Coppler, District 4, both declined to support a resolution for the  bond over concerns about equity for low income senior residents.

"I would call [El Castillo] the country club of assisted living centers," said councilor Vigil Coppler, calling out the organization for its exclusively high costs. "Let's face it; there's only so many people who can afford to go there."

Villarreal agreed, voicing the concern that the city's affordable housing regulations—which require a percentage of all new developments to include affordable housing options—would not apply to the new senior living facilities.

"I still want to look at a certain percentage that would be preference for low-income tenants. Because we have a great housing need but we have an even greater housing need for low-income residents and especially those that are elderly," she said.

Costs for the new El Castillo units will start at around $98,000 a year.

Also at issue at Wednesday's meeting were the number of jobs potentially created by the project. Numbers presented by El Castillo to councilors and committees at various times over recent months vary from 200 to 1,000 temporary jobs created— but ultimately come down to 17-22 permanent positions.

Other members of the City Council, however, such as Councilor Signe Lindell focused on the sheer lack of options for seniors in general and the need to start somewhere. Already, the new El Castillo development has a waiting list of 200 people for the 68 units that CEO Allen Jahner tells SFR should be completed and ready for move-in within two years.

The Finance Committee postponed a decision on an IRB ordinance for the project at its last meeting on July 15, demanding clarification on both financial questions and on jobs created. These issues are on the agenda for the next Finance Committee meeting on Aug. 19.

On Wednesday, the City Council voted 5-1 to move the issue forward to a final vote at a public hearing on September 11.

Councilor Lindell, along with Carol Romero-Wirth, Mike Harris, and Roman Abeyta as well as Mayor Alan Webber, voted in favor. Vigil Coppler voted against, and Villarreal abstained from the vote. Councilors Peter Ives and Chris Rivera were absent.