Cover Stories

When Landlords Make the Laws

With property owners well represented among lawmakers, tenant protections sputter at the Capitol

GALLUP—The Chamisal Trailer Park looks a lot like the others around here, with dozens of trailers lined up in rows along a road on the outskirts of town.

Residents SFR interviewed had only a few complaints. They say no one has done anything about junk cars, for example, or that snow doesn’t get plowed often. A local ordinance says city officials should inspect every mobile home park in this city of about 20,000 on the edge of the Navajo Nation twice a year to ensure landlords are keeping the properties up to code. But the city’s spokesman tells SFR no one conducts those inspections anymore.

Still, rent hasn’t gone up much over the years and everyone seems to know the landlord by first name—George.

George Muñoz, that is, the Democratic chairman of the powerful state Senate Finance Committee, which wields tremendous power over New Mexico’s budget.

SFR found about a dozen legislators are also landlords, like Muñoz, who owns this mobile home park in Gallup and another nearby. While few lawmakers are known to be renters themselves, “landlord” appears to be one of the most common jobs among New Mexico legislators.

Some who work on housing issues at the Capitol say the representation of landlords and the relatively few renters among lawmakers creates a sort of bias in the Legislature, making it all the harder to pass laws that could limit rent increases or provide protections for tenants against unscrupulous property owners.

“I wish I could say this was a partisan issue but it isn’t,” says Rep. Angelica Rubio, a Democrat from Las Cruces sponsoring a bill to bolster tenant protections. “That’s our biggest challenge. We have good public policy but there’s a lot at stake for some making the decisions.”

Not all legislators who double as landlords are fighting against the ideas; some have voted for bills that could take money out of their own pockets. Yet, they aren’t the only ones representing landlords at the Roundhouse. Several trade groups have a small army of lobbyists pushing the views of landlords, realtors and mobile home park owners.

With just a couple weeks left before the session ends on March 18, several bills to bolster tenant protections are dead or face uncertain futures, suggesting lawmakers are again putting the issue in the backseat.

Muñoz refused to talk to SFR for this story. He told a reporter who approached him with questions at the Capitol on Monday to make an appointment. He didn’t respond to a subsequent voicemail message or questions sent to him at two different email addresses.

The legislators who double as landlords include Democrats as well as Republicans. Some, including Muñoz, chair committees and in turn have power over how bills flow through the Capitol. Some rent out just a residence or two, like Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo. Some lease dozens of units, including Rep. Harry Garcia, a Democrat from Grants.

Understanding how much real estate legislators own, and where, is not exactly easy. SFR combed through the financial disclosures legislators must file each year. As part of these disclosures, lawmakers are required to list any real estate they own in the state besides their primary residence. But they are only required to provide a “general description” of the property they own and list the county where that property is located. The description can be as vague as “rental property,” with no hint of whether it’s a commercial or residential property, a single family home or a sprawling trailer park. While lawmakers are also required to disclose any sources of income over $5,000 a year, such as rent from homes they lease, they may provide few details.

Legislators and Landlords - 
SFR reviewed the financial disclosures filed by legislators and noted the lawmakers who reported owning residential rentals. 
Rep. Bobby Gonzales (D-Taos): Seven residential rentals and seven commercial rental properties;
Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup): Real estate;
Sen. Steven Neville (R-Farmington): Rental properties;
Sen. William Soules (D-Las Cruces): Rental property, residential;
Sen. Pat Woods (R-Grady): Rental property;
Rep. Art De La Cruz (D-Albuquerque): Four rental properties;
Rep. Harry Garcia (D-Grants): 10 commercial properties, 1,330-acre ranch, 11 houses, eight vacant lots, one mobile home park and one house;
Rep. T Ryan Lane (R-Aztec): Single family rental;
Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo): Townhome rental;
Rep. Luis Terrazas (R-Silver City): Residential rental;
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Albuquerque) Four rental properties

The lawmakers listed in this story were either clear about their holdings in financial disclosures or have property listed in county assessors’ offices. Others may own residential rental properties but are not clear about their holdings. More own commercial properties.

Meanwhile, about 30% of homes in New Mexico are occupied by renters, according to the US Census. It’s harder to calculate with certainty how many lawmakers are tenants. By all accounts, though, it’s not a big caucus.

“I’m one of a few people who still rents. I’ve been renting my whole life. I like being a renter,” Rubio says.

But at the Capitol, Rubio finds a certain perception of tenants.

“There’s just this idea of the type of person that rents and so it’s a really challenging issue,” she says.

Tenant protections have long struggled to gain traction at the state Capitol. In 1991, for example, lawmakers voted to bar cities, counties and towns from limiting rent increases, ensuring no community could enact rent control.

Senate Bill 99, a proposal this year to repeal that law and let local governments adopt rent control policies, was shot down in the first weeks of the session. The bill’s backers argued it would have merely given local governments one more option for responding to a worsening, statewide housing crisis. Communities could adopt rent control policies, or not.

The Senate Health & Public Affairs Committee voted to block the bill in a hearing last month. Committee members acknowledged the state’s rising rents and rising number of unsheltered people, but argued that allowing local communities to limit rent increases wouldn’t help the problem.

Renter Protection Proposals -
Lawmakers have introduced several bills to bolster tenant protections. Here’s where those bills stand now, about two weeks before the session ends. None of the bills has passed a floor vote in either chamber. 
Senate Bill 99 - Status: Dead
Local governments are currently barred from enacting rent control policies. This proposal would have changed that by allowing cities, towns and counties to limit rent increases.
Senate Bill 298 - Status: In committee
This bill would limit rent increases for New Mexicans who live in mobile home parks. It would also require park owners to give residents advance notice if the park is to be sold.
House Bill 6 - Status: In committee
Landlords would have to give residents 11 days, instead of three, before filing for eviction due to unpaid rent. The bill would also clarify protections for renters against retaliation when lodging complaints about poorly maintained properties.
Senate Bill 375 - Status: In committee
Rent increases would be limited to 5% a year plus inflation up to a total of 10%.
House Bill 414 - Status: In committee
New Mexico would get a Department of Housing to coordinate housing policy under this bill.

“We would have a patchwork quilt of policies around the state,” Chairman Gerald Ortiz y Pino, a Democrat from Albuquerque, told the committee as he joined Republicans in blocking the bill.

Only two members—Democratic Sens. Brenda McKenna and Antoinette Sedillo Lopez—voted against tabling the measure.

Ortiz y Pino argued the solution to rising rents and rising homelessness will involve putting more money into building homes.

“And we have money,” he told the committee.

A budget approved by the House and now wending through the Senate would put millions of dollars from the state’s general fund into residential housing. And it would use $2 million from a settlement with drug companies to house people with opioid use disorders.

There’s interest from the top floor of the Capitol, too.

In her inaugural address, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said that “building serious momentum on affordable housing can be a hallmark of the next four years” and that she looked forward to putting a new focus and new funding into fighting homelessness.

Proponents of tenant protections argue the state needs to both build new housing and prevent people who already have homes from ending up on the streets because of skyrocketing rents.

Serge Martinez likens the situation to a common saying used by an arborist he knows: The best time to plant a tree is five years ago and the second best time is right now. The same goes for housing, argues Martinez, associate dean of experiential learning at the University of New Mexico School of Law and an advocate for tenants’ rights.

Putting more money into new housing will be great for the people who can move into those homes when they are constructed years from now. In the meantime, tenants need help, he says.

“There is no silver bullet. There is no one thing that’s going to automatically fix it. These are all parts of the puzzle,” Martinez says.

Martinez, who is also the president of Amparo, a housing assistance and eviction prevention program in Albuquerque, has been pushing for House Bill 6—a package of tenant protections.

Similar proposals have see-sawed through several iterations over the last few sessions as backers have negotiated changes they hope will get the measure through the Legislature and on to the governor’s desk. At perhaps its most ambitious, the bill would have prohibited landlords from refusing to take housing vouchers, removing a major obstacle for those who manage to obtain much-sought assistance.

That provision is gone, though.

This year, the bill would change the timeline for landlords to file for eviction when a tenant is late on rent. Instead of being able to file only three days after providing a tenant notice of a missed payment, a landlord could only go to court after 11 days.

Supporters argue the bill would also better protect tenants from retaliation by landlords for raising concerns about poor maintenance or other problems with a property.

The bill passed the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee last week along party lines—with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans in opposition—and is awaiting a hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee.

Some lawmakers have been blunt that their experiences as landlords inform their view of the issue.

Garcia, the Democratic legislator from Grants, voted against a version of the bill last year, citing his experience as a landlord during a debate over the measure. According to his financial disclosure, Garcia owns several houses and a mobile home park in Cibola County. He says he tries to be understanding of tenants, particularly if one loses a job and can’t pay rent. But he doesn’t like the idea of the Legislature imposing limits on rent or some other rules on landlords.

“That’s not fair to the people who have to pay the bills,” he says, referring to landlords with mortgages and repairs to cover.

Rubio, though, is worried about the renters who may end up with an eviction on their records forever—following them around as they are required to disclose it on future rental applications.

While a previous iteration of HB6 passed the House last year, Rubio says it’s unclear if it can make it through the Senate this session. Other housing legislation has already sputtered there.

Senate Bill 298 would update the Mobile Home Park Act, which covers New Mexicans who own their own mobile home but lease the space where it is parked. The bill would limit rent increases in mobile home parks and require owners to notify residents before selling a park. Residents would also be given a chance to make an offer for a park before any sale is finalized.

Maria Griego, a staff attorney working on the legislation at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, says the protections are key because mobile home parks provide a crucial segment of affordable housing in the state.

“It’s often a very attractive option for retired New Mexicans who live on a fixed income, so they really need that predictability,” she says of the limit on rent increases that the proposed law would impose.

If a property owner raises rent drastically or an investor swoops in to buy a park and force out the residents, it can be a devastating financial blow, Griego adds.

“It’s very difficult for tenants to move their homes out of their parks. It’s extremely cost prohibitive,” she tells SFR. “They often have to leave their home, and what we see is the parks will step in and offer to buy it and they’ll offer pennies on the dollar. It makes them lose their most valuable asset.”

The bill didn’t even get a vote during its first hearing in front of Senate Health & Public Affairs—the same committee that killed the rent control legislation. Instead, Ortiz y Pino asked one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, to work with opponents on possible changes to the bill. The legislation is not scheduled for another hearing.

Another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 375, would limit rent increases to no more than 5% a year plus inflation. Sponsored by McKenna, a Democrat from Albuquerque, it is also awaiting a hearing in the Health & Public Affairs Committee.

Backers of tenants’ rights are a little more optimistic about House Bill 414, which would create a state department of housing to coordinate policy and assistance.

“It’s coming together as a good conversation,” says Rep. Andrea Romero, a Democrat from Santa Fe cosponsoring the measure.

Romero acknowledges it’s a bit late in the session for the bill to get a first hearing in front of a committee. But the lawmaker says she is finding more interest in the issue of housing this year.

“The feedback is a bit different. It’s not just ‘no,’” she says.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat who has disclosed owning commercial property in the city, says the lawmaker supports tenant protections and argues it’s too soon to count anything out.

Still, while there is no big-spending advocacy group for renters, the organizations lining up to oppose some of these bills are formidable.

The New Mexico Association of Realtors, for example, has lobbied against rent control. It spent nearly $500,000 during the last election cycle, including on donations to lawmakers. The New Mexico Manufactured Housing Association, which is lobbying against the bill to expand protections for mobile home park residents, gave tens of thousands of dollars to candidates and political committees last year. And one of the lobbyists for the Apartment Association of New Mexico–which has also lobbied against rent control–gave $30,000 to legislators’ campaigns in the last election. This spending has flowed to Republicans and Democrats, but particularly to legislative leaders who can control which bills get a vote. So far this year, the association has also reported spending more than $500 on a dinner for leaders in the Senate.Meanwhile, the New Mexico Association of Realtors was a major donor to the governor’s inaugural committee.

Even if these pieces of legislation are moving slowly or not at all, housing dominates conversations at the Capitol in a way that the issue hasn’t in years.

“Everyone knows that there is a housing crisis. Everyone is aware rents are skyrocketing, people are becoming unhoused at a high rate. It’s heartening to see people are paying attention,” Martinez, the UNM professor, says.

Much of that is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, says Rubio.

In early 2020, officials recognized it was impossible to ask people to stay safe at home and curb the spread of the disease if many New Mexicans had no home. The New Mexico Supreme Court put a moratorium on evictions at the time. And while that policy has ended and assistance programs have scaled back, the pandemic has still forced even reluctant lawmakers to grapple with housing policy.

Backers of bills like HB6 argue the Legislature should take the conversation spurred by the pandemic and use it to prepare housing policies that can help New Mexicans weather the current crisis as well as future housing crises.

“We were already experiencing the housing crisis before the pandemic. What we are trying to say within our legislation is that the pandemic isn’t over and there will be challenges we face in the future,” says Rubio. “There will be changes in the market, changes in our economy. There’s all these different factors that we as consumers don’t have control over. The protections we are trying to implement won’t solve all the problems but it can provide some long-term stability for families.”

But lobbyists aren’t spending tens of thousands of dollars a year to influence lawmakers on behalf of renters. The voices of landlords are often so much louder than the voices of renters at the Legislature, Martinez says. That so many legislators are also landlords is somewhat inevitable, too, he adds.

Legislators are unpaid, making it hard for anyone who doesn’t have a flexible job or some passive stream of income to run for a seat, Martinez notes.

A proposed constitutional amendment wending through the Legislature would give voters a choice of paying lawmakers in the future and potentially—as proponents argue—make it possible for more New Mexicans without means to run for seats at the Roundhouse. The current setup presents a challenge for many to take two months off for the legislative session and still pay rent.

“If you’re going to be a legislator and go up to Santa Fe for 30 days or 60 days, you can’t have a 9-to-5 job. You need a source of income,” Martinez says.

While some lawmakers hold down full-time jobs (there is a glut of lawyers at the Capitol), there are also many who are retired or rely on income from sources like real estate. The result, as Martinez sees it: “We’re narrowly focused on landlords as if the renters don’t matter. Because of the prevalence of pro-landlord lobbyists and advocates, everything gets spun this way.”

Editor’s note: An early version of this story mischaracterized the purchase opportunity clause of Senate Bill 298 as a right of first refusal.

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