Cover Stories

Bottom Dollar

Santa Feans grapple with cost of living that continues to outpace minimum wages, with no citywide rule change on the horizon

(Anson Stevens-Bollen)

On Santa Fe’s Southside, a teacher rents out a room in her house to defray the monthly mortgage payment. A recent high school graduate earns just enough money to pay rent and wishes she and her boyfriend could afford to go out for dinner. In Midtown, a security guard lives paycheck to paycheck and wonders if he’ll ever be financially stable enough to have kids.

For many in Santa Fe, the cost of living in a city with an increasingly tight housing market has far exceeded what they’re earning.

To narrow the gap, a growing chorus of politicians and workers’ rights advocates in Santa Fe and around the nation has emerged to raise the minimum wage. The figure many have settled on: $15 an hour.

Candidates in the upcoming election are keen to campaign on the issue, often receiving endorsements and applause from progressive groups for supporting workers.

Two months before this year’s municipal election, Mayor Alan Webber and three city councilors—all of whom are on the Nov. 2 ballot—introduced a resolution that would set $15 an hour as the floor for city employees.

But in interviews with SFR, Webber and others say it’s not enough to keep up with ever-rising cost-of-living expenses in the city. And besides, it wouldn’t affect workers not on the city’s payroll, whose mandated minimum wage within the city limits remains at $12.32. (That’s the current floor for city workers, too.) Officials aren’t making any commitments about addressing the broader rule.

When the living wage ordinance was enacted in 2004 with a rate of $8.50 an hour, it made Santa Fe the first city in the US to set a minimum wage higher than what’s mandated by the state. For almost a decade, as the standard grew in conjunction with a federal labor statistic to which it is tied, Santa Fe led the nation in terms of wages but, since 2012, the city has fallen behind.

California, Massachusetts, New York, Washington and Connecticut now have minimum wages that exceed Santa Fe’s rate, a tracker from the nonprofit thinktank Economic Policy Institute shows. Cities including Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, DC, have minimum wages higher than $15 an hour.

Meanwhile, in Santa Fe, housing costs have soared.

Over the past four years, the average monthly rent in the city has increased by 40%. In late 2018, the average for one-bedroom apartments was $954, according to an assessment by real estate group CBRE’s Albuquerque office. Now, the average is $1,358 for the same type of apartment.

Home prices also continue to rise, coupled with low inventory.

Billy Eagle, senior vice president at CBRE, says that’s forcing more people to rent, straining an already limited market that was short 7,300 rental units as of the Santa Fe Association of Realtors’ 2020 housing report.

“A lot of working-age people are unable to afford homes, so they’re forced to stay put [in rentals] longer,” Eagle says. “So the supply stays relatively the same but the demand increases substantially for rental units.”

Others—namely those working in industries that generally pay low wages, like leisure and hospitality—are being priced out of the city entirely and incurring additional costs stemming mostly from transportation and childcare, says Michael O’Donnell, acting director of the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

The Economic Policy Institute maintains a budget calculator that measures the income needed to attain “a modest yet adequate standard of living” by factoring in housing, food, transportation, health and childcare, along with other necessities like household supplies. Punch in the numbers for Santa Fe, and they don’t add up: A single adult with no children needs $3,051 a month. That means full-time work at an hourly wage of about $19.

For a single parent with one child, monthly costs jump to $4,616, necessitating a wage of nearly $29 an hour.

At a City Council meeting in early September, Mayor Webber introduced a resolution—sponsored by councilors Signe Lindell, Carol Romero-Wirth and Roman “Tiger” Abeyta—that, if passed, would raise the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour. The proposed change would impact 217 positions across nine departments, including parks maintenance workers, library technicians and custodians, according to the resolution.

The Quality of Life Committee last Wednesday advanced the resolution without discussion. The City Council is set to potentially take a final vote on Oct. 13.

“It’s a reflection of what’s going on in the economy and in the country and in our community, which is that people simply need to make more money to live on,” Webber tells SFR. “Secondly, we need to pay people more to attract and retain the talent that we have available to us.”

Graham Miller has worked at the Santa Fe Fire Department for 17 years. He’s a captain making $25.50 an hour but with three young children, Santa Fe is unaffordable so he lives on the west side of Albuquerque with his wife and kids.

He commutes once a week and works 56 hours, sleeping at the fire station during his shift like the rest of his crew.

“I definitely feel with the work that we do, the hours we put in, what we’re asked to do day to day, we are underpaid significantly,” Miller tells SFR.

In their first year out of the academy, firefighters earn $14.85 an hour, according to Matthew Martinez who, along with Miller, is an executive board member of the Santa Fe Firefighters Local 2059. When fast food restaurants are offering wages higher than that, it makes sense that the fire department has had trouble both recruiting and retaining employees, Martinez says in an interview with SFR.

“People can make these wages somewhere else with less risk,” Martinez says. “It’s getting more and more public that there are risks when it comes to the occupation. Cancer is an increased risk, psychological effects from the job, all of these things are becoming more and more present.”

Does the mayor consider $15 an adequate minimum wage for the city’s employees? Webber says it’s what the city can afford, adding that it’s “a point of departure.”

“It’s never going to be a perfectly calibrated calculation that actually matches the real world…This is by no means an indication that we think $15 an hour is somehow the right number for paying people,” Webber says. “But it is responding to both the national discussion, obvious needs highlighted by COVID and the opportunity that we can do this because of our strong recovery.”

Webber and the City Council could increase the citywide minimum wage, which the mayor says he supports in theory. But in an interview with SFR last week, Webber did not offer a timeline to take action.

“Historically Santa Fe has been a leader on this issue with the living wage and I think we ought to lead in strengthening and increasing it,” Webber says. “What that actually looks like, we ought to begin the process of talking about, whether it’s through a task force or sitting down with different interest groups and getting their input.”

Asked when residents might expect progress, Webber says it would be “a little premature if I started announcing things right now.”

“Help us. Join in this discussion,” Webber says, addressing non-government workers. “Add your own voice. Give us your experiences to work with. Also, if you are employed, sit down with your employer and talk about—start your own local conversations about the reality of work and workload and pay.”

Councilor Lindell—who, like Webber, is in a contested race—says she and other councilors have been discussing the resolution for some time. Lindell agrees it’s a starting point or, in her words, “a floor not a ceiling.”

Asked how the city landed on $15 an hour, Lindell says it’s “the number that seems to get talked about nationally quite a bit.”

The so-called “Fight for $15″ began in 2012 when fast food workers in New York City walked off the job to demand a minimum wage of $15 an hour and union rights.

Since the movement began, about 26 million workers have benefited from wage increases passed at all levels of government, amounting to over $150 billion in additional annual income, according to a National Employment Law Project report.

Despite those victories, there’s still a lot of ground to cover.

“It’s been almost a decade since this fight began,” says Yannet Lathrop, a senior researcher and policy analyst who co-authored the report. “Back then, $15 was a pretty solid number. Now, I would say it’s still a good number to pursue but it’s something that should be seen as a bare minimum and we should understand a living wage to be higher than that.”

The federally mandated minimum wage has been stagnant at $7.25 an hour since 2009.

In March, every Republican senator and eight Democrats voted down a minimum wage amendment to President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that would’ve raised the federal rate to $15 an hour.

In 2019, the Legislature approved the New Mexico Minimum Wage Act, which raised the state rate from $7.50 an hour through a series of incremental increases that will top out on Jan. 1, 2023 at $12 an hour.

During the last legislative session, a bill that would’ve bumped New Mexico to $15 an hour died in committee. Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, an Albuquerque Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, brought forth similar legislation the year before, and plans to do the same during the upcoming session.

“Those that are in control of committees and in control of what gets heard and what doesn’t, have to have the political will to move this forward,” Roybal Caballero tells SFR. “We’ve heard more and more from constituents around the state how important it is to address a higher minimum wage.”

Absent city officials ratcheting up the living wage ordinance, some local businesses have opted to raise wages as a way to fill staffing shortages.

Presbyterian Healthcare Services, for example, raised wages statewide to $15 an hour and $19 for employees in Santa Fe. The change took effect Oct. 3.

“It’s hard to find staff and particularly in Santa Fe for staff to either commute in or find a home because of the cost of housing or fuel,” Jon Wade, hospital chief executive at Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center, tells SFR. “It’s also been a tough 18 months for the staff that we rely on very much to be clean and safe and get people in and out through the facilities.”

The raise impacted about 70 employees in Santa Fe, Wade says, including security guards and medical assistants.

Last week, more than 50,000 film and television workers authorized one of the largest union strikes in Hollywood history, and Kellogg’s cereal plant workers also went on strike. Thousands more workers around the country, in industries from healthcare to academia, could follow them in the coming weeks, with demands centering around higher wages and better working conditions.

What it takes to get by in Santa Fe isn’t just fodder for city news releases, candidate forums and political ads. There is real struggle around the city. SFR spoke with three residents about their experiences trying to make a living here:

Joelle Nolting is an eighth grade teacher who lives and works on the Southside. (Anson Stevens-Bollen)

Joelle Nolting, 39

Southside, teacher

To help make her mortgage payments, Joelle Nolting rents out a bedroom in her Southside home to a couple who moved to town over the summer.

Nolting has lived in the house since 2013, when she and her then-wife moved in under a mortgage in the other woman’s name. Nolting had student loan debt at the time, so the decision made sense. In 2019, the couple divorced, and Nolting bought the house from her ex, barely qualifying for the mortgage because the property value had increased significantly.

An eighth grade teacher at El Camino Real Academy, Nolting earns a little over $3,000 a month and makes payments on her house that run about $1,000 a month.

“That mortgage is a dream in this town and yet it’s still barely affordable considering what actually hits my bank account,” Nolting says. “I’m in this position being a homeowner with very little money to put into the home should something go wrong, with very little safety net and no family to fall back on.”

Nolting often goes into her classroom early on Monday morning before her paid hours to do lesson planning in order to have weekends to herself. She usually works through lunch, as do many of her coworkers.

Many of her students live in crowded mobile homes and have parents who work overtime.

“I know that it affects my students because they have all these family obligations that are being put on them too young, in part due to the financial pressures their families are facing,” Nolting says.

She’s concerned that her students might feel as though they don’t belong in school, or that education won’t benefit them in the long run.

Nolting has lived in New Mexico off and on since 2004, when she attended the University of New Mexico. She moved to Santa Fe in 2012 and says she loves her community, but she worries that if things don’t change, people who were born and raised in the city will be forced to move away.

“We always say we need teachers and firefighters and police officers but we also need all the other people that are supporting everyone that’s in a so-called professional track,” Nolting says. “How are we going to keep our little society here in Santa Fe running when good people who work honest jobs can’t afford to live here?”

Jamilla Jaramillo graduated Capital High School in the spring and is working at a brewery while she attends college. (Anson Stevens-Bollen)

Jamilla Jaramillo, 18

La Cienega, brewery worker

As she neared graduation from Capital High School in May, Jamilla Jaramillo spoke with SFR about what it was like to finish school during the pandemic.

In March and April 2020, Jaramillo’s house didn’t have Wi-Fi so she mostly did her school work on her phone using the Wi-Fi at Boxcar, where she worked off and on as a hostess. In November, Jaramillo, her mom and her grandma all contracted COVID-19.

Since graduating, she’s moved into an apartment with her boyfriend and started a new job, which she says has opened her eyes to how expensive it is to live in Santa Fe. Jaramillo recently quit the downtown sports bar and restaurant because she wasn’t making enough money, and now works in the back of the house at Beer Creek Brewing Company near Lone Butte, outside the city limits.

She has had to ask her boyfriend to cover her side of the rent.

“We ended up figuring it out but it’s hard,” Jaramillo says. “Living wage is really high here and we don’t get paid enough.”

Jaramillo says it’s frustrating to struggle with rent and not have much money left over for anything other than the necessities.

“It’s stressful when you’re living like that,” Jaramillo says. “You need to work to be able to survive but you’re also not working enough to be able to go out and do stuff. It’s to where we can’t go out and just go to dinner. It’s always like, ‘Let’s just make it at home, it’s cheaper.’”

Growing up, Jaramillo says her mom helped her develop a strong work ethic, but that’s also another way to say that she worked two jobs and wasn’t able to spend much time at home.

Even as she switches jobs and works four days a week at Beer Creek, Jaramillo is studying business management at Central New Mexico Community College. After earning a degree, she plans to get additional schooling for information technology and eventually start her own business. She adds that her boyfriend wants to start his own business, too.

“I feel like we as a generation are a lot more motivated because things are more expensive than they were 30 years ago,” Jaramillo says.

Nich Quintero has lived in Santa Fe for nearly nine years and works at a security company with his partner. (Anson Stevens-Bollen)

Nich Quintero, 26

Midtown, security guard

In a city with an average rent that’s surpassed $1,400, Nich Quintero feels lucky to live in a two-bedroom townhouse with his partner that costs $800 a month. They want more space and amenities but, at that price, he’s unwilling to move.

Despite the relatively low rent, Quintero says he’s living paycheck to paycheck.

One of his biggest expenses is transportation. He doesn’t have a driver’s license or the money to go to classes and get a car and insurance. He takes the bus, walks or uses a car service to get to work, which sometimes runs up to $20 for a single ride.

“It’s frustrating because at the age of 26, I reckoned I would have started establishing savings but you get slapped in the face with the pandemic and it kind of just makes you start from ground zero all over again,” Quintero says.

For the past few years, Quintero has worked as a guard for Security Asset Solutions, a company that takes contracts for private events. In 2019, he got a raise to $15 an hour. Not too long after, COVID-19 forced the company to reduce hours, leaving Quintero unemployed for several months.

Security contracts picked back up this year and more often than not, Quintero works overtime.

“I feel like a lot of young professionals in Santa Fe and around the country are forced into this point of austerity where they have to devote so much of their lives to just maintaining their quality of life,” Quintero says. “A lot of young people here, unless they have some sort of foundational support like living with their parents, they don’t have the opportunity to do anything but work.”

He considers his job to pay well, but thinks a $20 minimum wage is closer to what people actually need.

“It just seems there’s no clear path forward to establish the ‘American dream,’ you know, having that nuclear family, having the house,” Quintero says. “It’s frustrating as a young person to be told what to expect and then just kind of being forced to put your life on hold. I can’t imagine having kids, maybe even ever, unless the economy changes.”

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