Housing in the Balance

Siler Yards experiment in affordable housing for artists highlights challenges in balancing cost, quality

Photographer Holly Wilder was overjoyed when she was approved for a first-floor apartment in Siler Yard Arts + Creativity Center, but the high dropped quickly to a deep low. She and other neighbors have noticed a litany of problems with moisture and noise, and when they’ve gone to management, nothing’s happened.

Developers conceived Siler Yard as an affordable, net-zero-energy, multi-family-unit project for artists and creators who make less than 60% of the Area Mean Income (just under $34,000 as of this year). US Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM, has lauded the development and recently toured Siler Yard, which won an “Innovation Award” at the American Institute of Architects Santa Fe 2019 Design Awards. It’s been held up as a model for an affordable, live-work community—but some residents tell a different story, and it isn’t quite what the community’s creator envisioned.

The fits and starts marking Siler Yard’s early days spotlight the wobbly balance between providing a reasonably-priced place to live in a city beset by soaring housing costs and the difficulty in ensuring high-quality living conditions.

The week of Aug. 8, monsoon rains flooded the property’s parking lots, running off from Siler Road and the Acequia Madre, causing sections of asphalt toward the back of the site to buckle. The area is now under construction.

“We are currently working with our contractor to complete the drainage system as designed and specified by our architects and engineers,” reads an email sent to residents on Aug. 12 by New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing Corp., the nonprofit that owns Siler Yard.

That’s just the most recent in a series of hurdles. From a rocky beginning, residents have reported extreme noise, problems with management, mold and structural problems.

Siler Yard hasn’t gone the way Daniel Werwath—executive director of Inter-Faith Housing and prime mover of Siler Yard—hoped, either. The complexity of balancing cost, quality, tenants’ wishes and a many-layered management model has led to something “very different from what I envisioned trying to create,” Werwath says. What he describes as “a small minority of residents and their consistent and persistent attempts to poison the well” has been “actually very deeply disappointing.”

Wilder, Santa Fe Poet Laureate Darryl Lorenzo Wellington (an SFR contributor), performer Stephen Jules Rubin and others all cite the noise among their chief concerns.

When SFR meets with residents the week of the flooding, we sit at a slanting, rickety table.

“This table is like our building,” Wilder says with a rueful laugh.

Werwath says the buildings were designed to exceed sound insulation requirements. He points to various bells and whistles: VCT flooring, gypcrete on the second floor, sound matting and regular insulation.

“Whatever’s transferring through is contact noise, but it has nothing to do with how the project was designed or constructed,” Werwath tells SFR.

His solution was to buy area rugs for the second-floor units and “encourage people to talk to their neighbors if they’re being noisy.”

“The irony of this is that [Siler Yard] is in the middle of an industrial district where we’ve been warning people about noise from the outset,” he says.

But for some residents, the noise level goes beyond anything they’ve experienced or expected.

“They had 10 years to plan this out, to think about what an artist needs,” Wellington says. “But it doesn’t even meet the requirements of people, let alone artists.”

Werwath started working on the idea for Siler Yard in 2004. Since then, it’s hit snag after snag—the 2009 economic collapse, the Trump election (which “really messed up affordable housing,” Werwath says) and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s sort of a miracle that this project happened,” he says.

Construction costs increased by more than $1 million within a few months, Werwath says—more than a 10% increase in total costs. And now, with the parking lot cave-in, the project still isn’t closed out of construction and continues to incur late fees and interest to the tune of roughly $40,000 per month.

The 65-unit, $18.8 million project was funded by a roughly $9.4 million competitive low-income housing tax credit and a $5.4 million, 40-year, Section 221(d)(4) mortgage—both US Department of Housing and Urban Development programs.

The City of Santa Fe chipped in about $2.2 million in permit and fee waivers, a grant and the 4.3 acres of land upon which Siler Yard was built.

New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing received a $650,000 Affordable Housing Program subsidy from Century Bank and FHLB Dallas.

Werwath’s woes didn’t stop at construction.

Since its inception, the property has gone through three different management companies. The current one—40i Property Management—has been there since June. Werwath says Inter-Faith hired a couple of employees from Monarch Properties, Inc., the former management company, to “create continuity.”

New Mexico’s first nonprofit property management company, 40i, aligns with Inter-Faith’s values, Werwath says.

“For us, it was about trying to find a manager that shared our nonprofit mission and would be able to give the level of service and responsiveness to our residents that we felt they deserved,” he says.

But he admits management has been a challenge, and that neither of the previous management companies was up to the task.

“It’s been a huge issue,” he says, citing the project’s complexity as a stumbling block—balancing preferences for artists and New Mexico residents with three different income levels and three different unit types made the model unwieldy.

Alexandra Ladd, the city’s affordable housing director, acknowledges the model’s complexity, but says it’s necessary to meet tenants’ needs.

“I think that’s the hard piece,” she says. “You’re trying to accommodate a whole range of needs and requirements that don’t naturally fit together.”

For Werwath, Siler Yard is a lesson.

“I think there is a real opportunity for a model around community-based design and public support of projects, particularly land donation, which I think is really important for what the city is hoping to do with the Midtown campus,” Werwath says.

But for residents, his experiment is their home and their livelihood.

“The only thing this is a model of is how not to build an artists’ compound,” Wilder says.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Siler Yard creator Daniel Werwath’s disappointment with the project stems from his objections to residents’ complaints about living conditions, not the project as a whole.

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