City Council Candidates Take the Stage

At a panel discussion Thursday, most questions asked of candidates pertained to housing and environment

City council candidates took questions and offered answers Thursday night at an event hosted by the Santa Fe Neighborhood Association at the Midtown Campus.

Districts 2 and 4 feature competitive races in the Nov. 5 municipal election.

Twenty-year year District 2 resident and archaeologist Alysia Abbot is running against Michael Garcia, a born-and-raised Santa Fean with bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of New Mexico and a career in community development.

In District 4, all three candidates are from Santa Fe. Xavier Anderson has spent decades working in public safety around the state. Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez, who recently moved back to town  with her husband and their 1-year-old child, has a background in public health and views all government policies through that lens. Gregory Scargall worked at the Veteran's Resource Center at the Santa Fe Community College before taking a job as a fourth grade teacher.

Also on the panel were current city Councilors Renee Villarreal from District 1, and Chris Rivera from District 3. Both are up for reelection and are running unopposed.

Four of the eight questions posed to candidates focused on housing and development—the overarching themes of the evening.

The candidates largely agreed on several underlying principles in terms of housing: Yes, we need more stock, and fast—preferably as soon as possible. No, the current short-term rental laws aren't working as well as they should. And yes, absolutely, community involvement is crucial in determining how and where new developments get built and what the Midtown campus will look like.

More specific responses drew some separation among the City Hall hopefuls.

When asked which two steps they would take to address the city's housing problem, Garcia gave the most detail. He emphasized developing city-owned plots in a way that is specific to the differing needs of each district and neighborhood, and suggested simplifying codes and lowering the costs that can make building prohibitive. He suggested taking cues from other communities who have successfully addressed housing shortages  with tiny-house communities and other solutions.

Garcia emphasized the need for a sustainable development plan that includes natural resources such as available water supplies. The city needs think "seven generations" ahead in its decision making, he said.

Villarreal promised the audience that she will work to make sure any new developments on city-owned land are primarily affordable housing. This perspective came through again in her response to the question about Midtown campus. Advocating for a mixed range of housing, Villarreal proposed building a homeless shelter on the campus or turning it into a community land trust.

Abbott gave the strongest argument for making sure that the heart of the campus remains a higher education institution, while moving quickly on the development of the surrounding empty land belonging to the campus for housing and businesses. In other parts of the city, her emphasis was on preservation of historic districts and making building easier not by eliminating restrictions but by clarifying codes and providing more funding for the Planning and Land Use Department to do its job.

When it came to short term rentals, Xavier Anderson emphasized enforcing current regulations.

"If you are going to be a business, let us treat you like a business … we need to make sure we are collecting those taxes," he said as he talked about cracking down on property owners who profit from multiple short-term rentals that are unregistered.

Even the questions that weren't directly about housing turned back toward the subject. When asked whether the city should raise taxes and, if so, which ones, Cassutt-Sanchez said the city should go for the "low hanging fruit that we are not taking care of." That includes pressuring the state to change property tax codes so that second homeowners who live out of state have to pay more than locals for owning luxury homes or investment properties.

When asked what elements of Santa Fe's 25 year Sustainability Plan candidates would want to try to implement right away, Greg Scargall advocating beefing up green building codes, suggesting the city require every new unit to have solar panels or thermal solar.

Scargall says this isn't just about protecting the environment, but about lowering long-term utility costs for tenants and homeowners. He also suggested the city take a more active role in helping individuals adapt their homes to become more water efficient through rain barrel collection systems and other measures.

After housing, sustainability was the other underlying theme of the evening. And here, again, Garcia pushed his vision. His sustainability goals, he said, include pushing the state to pass community solar legislation in the next session, and preparing the city to become a leader in community solar as soon as the law gets passed.

"Santa Fe needs to head in a direction where future generations know they can live here," said Garcia, making it clear that he's running for City Council to enact policies that address the uncertainties of climate change for the sake of future generations.

Yet other candidates were more practical in their approach, if also less ambitious. Rivera and Villarreal offered small steps that the city can take immediately such as solarizing and replacing light bulbs in public buildings, and making public transportation more accessible.

Anderson, with his background in forest management and public utilities, emphasized protecting the city water supply by making the watershed more resilient to wildfire and flood.

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