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Santa Fe’s ‘scarlet letter’

SANTA FE, N.M. — In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel that everyone used to have to read in high school, “The Scarlet Letter” was an ‘A,’ meant to shame a woman forced to wear it on her dress after being found guilty of adultery.

Santa Fe, circa 2017, has its own scarlet letter A. In this town and in this time, the letter stands for “apartments.” The presentation of a proposal to build apartments typically is considered, per se, shameful, even corrupt,

Witness the attacks on City Councilor Peter Ives, a lawyer for the Trust for Public Lands, on Wednesday night over his suggestion that the city donate vacant land at Yucca Street and Zia Road for development of apartments under a federal low-income housing tax credit program. Some neighborhood critics suggested he was receiving a “kickback” for proposing the idea.

No, it couldn’t be that Ives really was trying to take a crack at Santa Fe’s dire lack of affordable rental units. A city housing analysis showed a shortage of 2,400 units for families earning below 80 percent of the area’s median income level. Vacancy rates are microscopic.

There were valid concerns about the Ives idea – it’s hard to gain support for a project without specific development plans on the table, leaving too many unknowns about the building itself and who would be involved. The full council, including Ives, and the mayor ended up voting down the proposal. But the insults hurled Ives’ way show anew just how hard it has become to build rental units in Santa Fe.

A growing list of apartment proposals have been rejected by the City Council in recent years – only a Railyard project has gotten the OK. The council on Wednesday decided, after turning down the plans for the Yucca/Zia intersection for now, to develop a process for considering the viability of city-owned properties throughout town as possible locations for multi-family residential use.

Councilor Renee Villarreal also called for an “open house”-style meeting to invite broad public input on the topic.

Here’s a safe bet. The broad public input will be: “There shall be no apartments anywhere near the single family house that I own.”

The local homebuilders association has come up with a plan for public financing to promote development of affordable apartments, similar to a program in Albuquerque. But public money won’t do a thing until someone can find a politically acceptable place to build apartments.

The issue has become a hot potato. It’s not realistic that feared hordes of apartment dwellers would ever be imposed on the city’s affluent north and east sides. And city councilors representing the south side of town have in response fought against simply pushing all new development that the rest of town doesn’t want into their lower-income neighborhoods.

In some cities in the early and mid-20th century, apartment buildings were considered normal and desirable in nice neighborhoods, standing in the same block as fine single family homes, and built to blend in. But the United States in general, and Santa Fe in particular, have abandoned this notion of residential diversity. Apartments now are too often designed as giant clusters that fit in better with shopping centers than homes. But even a small building with a few units isn’t likely to be accepted, either.

Now, there are fears that the powers that be are lining up to turn much of the city-owned campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design into high-density apartments once the school shuts down next year.

One way to lessen that possibility would be the development of apartments elsewhere, through some combination of political will on the government side, and concessions over density and design from developers.

Somehow, there has to be compromise on this issue.


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