Our House

The impacts of COVID-19 on renters is dire, but the city is looking for solutions to Santa Fe’s housing problem

Santa Fe does not have enough housing to meet the needs of all of its workers and residents.

This was true even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but now thousands more people are facing housing insecurity, says Tomás Rivera, director of the Chainbreaker Collective, a nonprofit community organization.

His stark comments and the reality behind them came Wednesday evening at a city Quality of Life Committee meeting. 

According to Rivera's presentation, nearly half of Santa Fe renters could be at risk of eviction due to the pandemic's financial crush.

The city, however, has short- and long-term options to help Santa Feans most at risk of losing the roof over their heads and to create more housing stock to alleviate the pressure on Santa Fe's tight market.

In the course of four presentations, officials and community leaders laid out how COVID-19 has exacerbated Santa Fe's housing inequality and discussed why fully funding the city's affordable housing trust fund is its best bet to get ahead of the problem.

All parties expressed a general consensus that the city must act swiftly.

"Anyone who is from Santa Fe, anyone who works in Santa Fe should be able to live here," said Daniel Werwath, executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Housing and one of the presenters at Wednesday's meeting. Werwath stressed that families who are priced out of Santa Fe now may never move back.

Rivera summed up the sobering consequences of nearly a year of lockdowns and illness: As of December 2020, half of Santa Fe renters are cost burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income on rent; and 22% are severely cost burdened and spend more than 50% of what they earn on rent. Across the state 31% of low-income households have fallen behind on rental payments, and 87% expressed difficulty paying for essential expenses such as groceries and transportation.

"People are choosing to pay their rent instead of paying for things like food and healthcare" said Rivera, emphasizing well-documented correlations between housing insecurity and decreased physical and mental health.

Meanwhile, many people have been unable to pay rent at all. Data based on court filings indicates that as many as 5,700 renter households in Santa Fe could be evicted when the local, state and national moratoria on evictions end, Rivera said.

City councilors said they have spoken to constituents facing this situation.

"I've spoken to some people in my district who have put their high school students to work in order to help pay the rent or pay for food," said Councilor Chris Rivera, worrying that the high school dropout rate will likely go up due to the economic pressure of the pandemic.

Tomás Rivera of Chainbreaker noted that Santa Fe has historically acted as a statewide housing solution leader and was the first city in New Mexico to push an eviction moratorium when the pandemic began last spring.

Yet he also worried that the city would see a flood of evictions once the moratorium is lifted because it does not eliminate the debt and fees owed on missed rental payments.

Councilors suggested keeping the eviction moratorium in place even after the health crisis becomes less acute and allocating more resources toward rental assistance to stave off the expected flood of evictions. In the long-term, Councilor Renee Villarreal suggested licensing or regulating landlords to help better protect tenants—a strategy other municipalities around the country have recently adopted.

The next two presentations of the evening focused on solutions the city could use to permanently fund its affordable housing trust to the tune of $3 million annually.

Werwath emphasized that money in the trust can bring in huge sums of state and federal grant dollars. He said a $3 million investment from the city could bring in as much as $30 million annually from other sources, making it one of the most effective tools the city has to create more affordable housing.

Short-term suggestions included dedicating surplus gross receipts funds, profits from the sale of city owned property and a portion of capital improvement funds that normally go to infrastructure projects to affordable housing.

A related proposal by Councilor Signe Lindell—to dedicate 50% of profits from sales of city property to the trust—is already making its way to the Council, other councilors said.

Mid-term solutions involve more complicated measures such as creating a general obligation bond or a real estate transfer tax to fund affordable housing, both measures that would need to be approved by a majority of Santa Fe voters.

Many of the long-term strategies would require changes to state law, such as removing the 3% property tax cap for second homes that prevents second homeowners from paying taxes on the full value of their property. This was a law initially promoted by the city of Santa Fe to prevent displacement of local families from the east side of the city, said Wertwath.

"We created this law in the '90s to protect long-term homeowners from being displaced due to rising property taxes" he said, but "what we inadvertently have done has been to subsidize the property taxes of people who deeply disrupt our housing real estate economics."

Werwath also said money alone won't solve Santa Fe's housing problem.

"Just the funding isn't enough—we have to think about goal setting, we have to think about land use reform," he said.

In the final presentation of the evening, city Land Use Department staff addressed some of these issues, saying the city will need to streamline its permitting process and change its land use codes to allow for denser development in order to promote a more affordable city for all.

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