Home Game

How money, urgency and creativity are changing the outlook for affordable housing in Santa Fe

Even though Santa Fe battled high COVID-19 case rates over the last year, not a single outbreak of the virus has been reported in any of the city's congregate homeless shelters since the pandemic began.

For Mayor Alan Webber, that's a silver lining in a dark time.

"It's never right to talk about the upsides of COVID, in my opinion, but one of the things that has happened because of COVID is a sense of urgency and innovation in deploying our assets very strategically to address homelessness," Webber says in an interview with SFR, "and it's worked to help keep people safe."

This achievement is due to the city's swift response to the virus in the spring, when officials set up a socially distanced shelter on the Midtown campus and used a combination of federal relief dollars from the CARES Act and local funds to pay for 338 hotel rooms that have housed 520 people for extended periods.

Ironically, the urgency of COVID-19 brought the city's longtime goal of ending chronic homelessness nearer, even as thousands of locals who have never been homeless risk losing their housing due to the economic fallout of the pandemic and affluent newcomers drive home sale prices to all-time highs.

As with the city's solutions to address homelessness during the pandemic, many of the answers to Santa Fe's increasingly inequitable housing dynamic are actually fairly simple, immediate and obvious. They just require political will and a lot of money.

Housing advocates say the first step is to fully fund the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the pot of cash that pays for programs ranging from rental vouchers and mortgage assistance to construction of new affordable housing projects.

Santa Fe must also face the inequities caused by land-use codes that implicitly favor the wealthy, and lasting change will require a mindset shift as residents grapple with the city's future.

In last week's cover story, "House Rules," SFR went back 30 years through Santa Fe's inclusionary zoning history to a time when the city was considered a national leader in affordable housing to trace how we got from there to the current affordability crisis.

READ MORE: House Rules – Inclusionary zoning is one of Santa Fe's biggest affordability problems and one of its best solutions

This week, in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, we delve into some solutions that could help move the city forward.

Santa Fe Suites and the Built For Zero Approach 

Whether you're more likely to stare resolutely ahead when you hit a red light to avoid catching the gaze of the person at the median or to shuffle through your middle console in search of a dollar, driving past panhandlers at every major Santa Fe intersection can make homelessness seem inevitable.

It's not.

"Homelessness is solvable," says David Foster, director of real estate development for Community Solutions, a national organization working with more than 80 US cities—including Santa Fe—to reduce and end homelessness through its Built for Zero program.

"This is the best approach to social policy I've ever seen when it comes to an actual strategy and a methodology to follow," says Mayor Webber, who pushed the city to join the program in 2018. "Now we've got a real workable roadmap. It's worked in other places. We can do it, too."

He's talking about places such as Rockford, Illinois; Bergen County, New Jersey; and Abilene, Texas, where people rarely remain homeless for more than a year and special programs help homeless veterans get back on their feet. These locales have achieved "functional zero," where the total number of new people experiencing homelessness each month is less than the total number of homeless people who move into long-term housing and get the support they need.

Foster says the Built for Zero strategy takes fluid coordination between multiple entities and generous public investment.

A community must first work with shelters and other organizations to establish and regularly update a "by-name list" of every person who passes through the system, says Foster. Then the city must provide enough affordable housing to accommodate the entire homeless population and an integrated safety net to help them stay housed.

Santa Fe spent the last few years working with partner organizations to set up a "coordinated entry system" to keep track of people, says Anna Cale, a project administrator at the Youth and Family Division of the Community Health and Safety Department.

Before last March, the city seemed far from housing most of the people on the list. That changed overnight as officials took measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"With the pandemic, we put a lot of people in hotels very quickly," Cale says. "We set up shelters very quickly. A lot of people went into housing very quickly. And really, because we were forced to, we saw what we were actually capable of in terms of addressing homelessness as a collaborative group."

Kate Cleaver, a continuum of care manager with the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, tells SFR the new arrangement has helped many people who've spent much of the last year in motels. Many are revolving through the city's emergency rooms and jail far less frequently. Some have overcome addiction, found work and set goals for the future.

"We are seeing a huge difference from living in a communal setting or in the open to having their own space where they are able to stabilize their lives," says Cleaver.

This success proves something social workers have known for a long time: Access to stable housing is key to solving any number of other problems.

Now the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness and its city and community partners are scrambling to figure out how to keep these people housed once the pandemic ends and federal funds dry up, Cleaver says.

The permanent conversion from hotels to affordable housing is one way.

In December, Community Solutions helped the city purchase the Santa Fe Suites hotel off St. Francis Drive and convert it into a mix of affordably priced rental units. The city contributed $2 million in CARES Act funds to the project.

Webber says the city discussed this housing option long before the pandemic hit, but COVID-19 provided the necessary urgency and the funding to get it done.

Yet, not everyone in the neighborhood is pleased about the change. The owners of an adjacent shopping center filed a lawsuit against Community Solutions, claiming the conversion does not conform to city codes and would permanently damage surrounding property values.

Siler Yard: A Vision of What’s Possible

Let's say you're back at that intersection, staring at the cardboard sign in someone's hands that says, "Anything helps. God bless."

If handing out a few spare dollars to people on street corners every few weeks could miraculously solve homelessness in a matter of years, would you do it? What if you could solve the city's entire affordability crisis and ensure that every teacher and medical aid can also afford to raise a family here, just by spending what it would cost to take a neighbor out to coffee once a month?

"It could really and truly be that easy if everyone in this town who says they care about affordable housing pitched in and made a collective effort," says Daniel Werwath, director of New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing and the developer behind the 100% affordable live/work artist complex at Siler Yard.

Werwath has spent more than a decade fighting for this project. It's an example of the creativity and innovation that could characterize affordable housing if the city committed to it.

Each of the 65 units includes a large, open room that doubles as a studio and a living room/kitchen with a heavy-duty utility sink located nearby. The walls are constructed to muffle sound and are covered in an extra layer of plywood to make it safe and easy to hang heavy objects. The front doors are taller and wider than average to accommodate bulky materials, instruments or sculptures, and most units have north-facing windows to create the perfect lighting for painting.

Energy efficiency measures and solar panels will bring energy use to net zero. Outside, a central strip of open space is flanked by large community rooms that could be used as tool shares, studios or galleries, depending on the collective will of Siler Yard's future residents.

This kind of collaborative decision-making is at the heart of the Siler Yard vision, says Werwath, explaining that each element of the design was born out of community planning sessions with local low-income artists and neighbors who were paid a stipend to participate.

The units will all be rented at affordable rates to people earning between 30% and 60% of the area median income. Housing is defined as affordable if does not cost more than a third of a qualified household's income.

At the bottom end of the scale, this means a one-bedroom apartment will go for as little as $400 a month to someone earning an annual salary of $15,400.

Werwath says if the city dedicated $3 million a year to its Affordable Housing Trust Fund and used its resources strategically, a new affordable development just as appealing as this one could be built every year.

Siler Yard is on 5 acres of land donated by the city and was funded by a complex mix of money from the city and state and federal affordable housing tax credits.

The trust fund contains nearly $1.3 million at present and has brought in $100,000 to $700,000 a year over the last decade in development fees. These fees-in-lieu that depend on the whims of the real estate market are not a stable source of funding, says Affordable Housing Director Alexandra Ladd.

The Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition, a nonprofit that focuses on housing policy research and advocacy in Santa Fe, released a report detailing 11 strategies for stable revenue streams in January. These include short-term rental fees, a cannabis tax, a real estate transfer tax and surplus public utility revenues.

Werwath thinks one of the most promising strategies is for Santa Fe residents to pass an affordable housing bond, similar to the "workforce housing" bond passed by Albuquerque residents in 2006 and renewed every two years.

A $4 million bond, for example, could be used to pay for an affordable housing project over the course of two years and would be paid by city residents via a small increase in property taxes over the course of 20 years—an estimated $4 a year on the property taxes for a $300,000 home.

If the city went on to make this a recurring source of revenue by issuing a new bond every other year for the next two decades, officials could raise $40 million in affordable housing funds in 20 years.

"In total, all those bonds would add up to an average of $40 a year on people's property tax….That's about $3.50 a month per homeowner to fix affordable housing," says Werwath. "It's like buying your neighbor a monthly cup of coffee."

Every city councilor, Mayor Webber and the majority of past mayoral administrations have pledged to prioritize affordable housing. Yet the city has dragged its feet for years on building the trust fund.

In June, Anchorum St. Vincent, Enterprise Bank and Trust, and housing nonprofit Homewise invested $10 million in Homewise's new Community Catalyst Fund for affordable housing.

Michael Barrio, director of the Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition, says private sector funds can make an important short-term impact, but alone that's not enough. The Affordable Housing Trust Fund, he says, is a more reliable source of funding for long-term solutions and is "one of the best tools that the city has to address affordable housing, because those are dollars that can be leveraged three or four times."

When projects like Siler Yard are able to secure city funding, that opens the door for other state and federal tax credits and grants. According to Barrio's presentation at a January Quality of Life Committee meeting, every $1 in the trust fund could bring in an additional $10 from outside sources.

Barrio says cities like Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, have succeeded by dedicating diverse streams of revenue to their affordable housing trust funds.

"We've literally led the horse to water," he says. "All you have to do is drink."

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The Potential of Public Land

The city already has one valuable resource that could be an affordable housing game-changer: public land.

Donation of city owned land to an affordable housing project like Siler Yard instantly increases the project's likelihood of winning some of the most heavily subsidized and highly competitive affordable housing tax credits out there, says Werwath.

Last year, the city began a new initiative to sell vacant and under-utilized land. Using those sales to bolster the Affordable Housing Trust Fund is among Housing Action Coalition recommendations, and City Councilor Signe Lindell tells SFR she plans to soon introduce an ordinance that would earmark half the proceeds for that purpose.

Santa Fe's greatest impact on housing through the use of public land was arguably its decision to invest in Tierra Contenta, says Justin Robison, director of the Santa Fe Community Housing Trust.

The city bought the 860 acres on the Southside out of foreclosure in 1993 and created a nonprofit to manage the property and develop a master plan that required at least 40% of new homes on the land to be affordable.

Robison says that number is closer to 55%.

"That was a big success, and I think that is a big part of why Santa Fe was looked upon so favorably back in the '90s and early 2000s was there was this thing going in the background that was a city-generated project creating real mixed-income neighborhoods," says Robison.

The Santa Fe Community Housing Trust took over the Tierra Contenta Corporation in 2010. The nonprofit also helps low-income residents with mortgage assistance and homebuyer education programs partially funded by the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Just over 2,300 homes were built in Tierra Contenta over the last 25 years in the first two phases of development. Robison says the corporation intends to get started on the third phase later this year with plans to build about 1,100 more homes on the final stretch of land.

The Community Housing Trust started out in 1994 as a community land trust with about 150 homes in the neighborhood, but began moving away from that model within a decade.

Land trusts preserve affordability in an area by maintaining ownership of land while selling houses at low prices to low-income residents under an agreement that they will be resold at an affordable rate to the next buyer.

Land trusts in other cities—such as the Sawmill Community Land Trust in Albuquerque—have made homeownership accessible to people who otherwise would never be able to afford it.

However, Robison says he doesn't think the model works for Santa Fe because land trust homes don't increase in value at the same rate as surrounding properties. Homeownership is a primary way Americans generate and accumulate wealth, and it's one of the best ways to close the gap for low-income families in a place like Santa Fe where home values rise much faster than income, he says.

"The full benefit of being an owner, being able to generate wealth, being and becoming financially enfranchised is handicapped by the land trust model," says Robison.

The Heart of the Problem 

Good policy, active nonprofits and enough money could do a lot to make Santa Fe more affordable. Still, two of the greatest obstacles to equitable housing are the city's land use codes and the residents themselves.

"Affordable housing is an example of something this community says it values, but that it has not clearly supported, prioritized, or sacrificed for," says city Senior Planner Carlos Gemora.

He says the problem stems from our collective inability to prioritize between a whole host of conflicting values.

An ongoing debate about a proposal for a new 384-unit development at the intersection of Zia Road and St. Francis Drive exemplifies the problem.

On a late-February night, project manager Jennifer Jenkins spends nearly an hour convincing the Planning Commission that the development fits the values expressed in the city's general plan and land use codes, and mirrors the recent trajectory of development in the area.

If approved, it would be the first new apartment development in the city to include affordable and market-rate units on site since Santa Fe passed affordable housing requirements for rental apartments in 2005.

The mixed-income and mixed-use development is located next to the Rail Trail and the Rail Runner Zia Station. It would include townhomes, apartments and commercial space.

The plan maximizes access to alternative modes of transportation, plus offers high density, ample open space, sustainability, and generous improvements to sidewalks and bike lanes, Jenkins says. Each level will be set back in a contemporary take on Santa Fe historic style.

Outraged neighbors see things differently. They point to numerous planning documents that espouse just the opposite set of values: low-density development away from major roadways, minimum height to protect mountain views and low traffic congestion.

Of the 83 people who signed up for the public comment period, almost all speak against the project, and the president of a nearby neighborhood association claims 96.8% of members oppose the project.

In reality, says Gemora, the neighbors and the developers are both right.

The tension is baked into the very foundations of the land use code and the city's 1999 general plan document, which begins with a summary of the kind of city residents hope Santa Fe will become. Two lists presented side by side rank residents' top priorities and concerns.

Under priorities, affordable housing comes first, followed by opportunities for youth and economic development. Top concerns start with uncontrolled growth and development, loss of tradition, culture and open green space and traffic.

At a presentation as part of the Friends of Architecture Santa Fe ReVisioning Series in June, Gemora said these concerns translate into opposition to nearly every major development proposal that comes before the city. The general value of affordable housing often gets overrun by the specific concerns of surrounding neighborhoods.

"We see this a lot in…neighborhood opposition to projects. The preservation of character is the top priority, and the value of housing is a secondary priority.…It's only allowed if it does not create any negative impacts," Gemora said.

To make things even more difficult, the majority of the city's zoning actually discourages affordability, he tells SFR.

Over half the city is zoned at no more than two units per acre. This is an example of what housing advocates call "exclusionary zoning," because the combination of the cost of land, complex requirements such as landscaping and design standards, and density restrictions make construction so expensive that new working-class housing is extremely unlikely. Whether intended or not, this can effectively segregate a community by race and class.

"Our land use code encourages luxury," says Gemora. "And again, I don't want to say that that's always bad—it just depends on what the community values. We have really good zoning laws if what we're looking for is nice development and expensive development."

It's considered industry best practice to update a city's general plan every five years, says city Planning Manager Noah Berke. Because Santa Fe hasn't drafted a new general plan in 20 years, amendments are adopted in a haphazard manner each time a new development asks for an exemption to existing rules or officials create a new zoning overlay for a specific city district.

It's also been years since the department had the budget to hire long-range planning staff to do that work.

"It's like staff is running around putting out fires and trying to fix leaking pipes all the time because the piping is so old and we haven't spent the time to put in a new modern system," says Gemora. "The community needs to have some hard conversations about what it values and wants to prioritize. That's really the heart of it."

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