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SF wrestles with where to build affordable housing

SANTA FE, N.M. — A proposal to prepare 5 acres of city-owned land for possible donation to a developer so that roughly 100 apartments for what was described as affordable or low-income housing could be built there was soundly defeated by the City Council last week, amid heavy opposition from area residents.

Councilor Peter Ives

But City Councilor Peter Ives, a candidate for mayor in next March’s municipal election, who brought the proposal forward isn’t licking his wounds; he’s licking his chops.

“That’s one where I say we lost the battle, but the pathway to winning the war has been defined,” Ives said in an interview this week.

He sees that pathway as both a way to elevate what has been characterized as Santa Fe’s affordable housing “crisis” and a route to significantly improving the local economy.

What the council did instead of approving the proposal was to have the city’s Community Development Commission develop a process and set criteria to identify and evaluate public properties or other sites all over town that could be suitable for affordable and low-income housing.

Councilor Renee Villarreal, who heads the commission, said she’d like to start the process by holding an “Open House” on a date to be determined to invite public input.

One major complaint about Ives’ proposal for apartments at Zia Road and Yucca Street, just south of Santa Fe High, was that neighbors weren’t notified ahead of time and there was a lack of transparency in the process. They also had concerns over increased traffic at a congested intersection, property values and crime.

Ives says he understands the concerns of his constituents – the property at the northeast corner of the intersection of Yucca and Zia is within council District 2, which he represents – but he was just following the normal process for introducing such a measure.

In addition, what the council was considering wasn’t action that would have OK’d a development, but to have staff conduct a plat survey, start the process to change the zoning from “park” to “residential,” and to conduct a traffic study.

Answering complaints that the proposal lacked detail, Ives said there was no detail to be had because there were no plans to present, though the proposal did call for staff to identify a qualified developer to build under the federal low-income housing tax credit program. And once there was a plan for the property, there would have been another process to include Early Neighborhood Notification meetings and public hearings, providing opportunities for the public to chime in.

Some of his colleagues on the council defended Ives, noting that he agreed to have a public hearing at last week’s council meeting when it wasn’t required. He was also commended for taking on what’s been a tough issue for the city to solve and proposing to build affordable housing at a site within his own district, potentially raising the ire of the very people he represents and whose vote he wants in March.

Council members also defended Ives’ integrity following a suggestion by one speaker that he would personally profit from a “kickback” on some back door deal.

High demand, low supply

Several other non-single-family-home residential proposals in recent years – most notably the MorningStar assisted-living facility proposed to be built off Old Pecos Trail and the El Rio apartments on Aqua Fria Street – have been met with staunch opposition from neighbors who raised many of the same concerns as those in the neighborhood of Yucca and Zia had.

Ives said he’s willing to take on the issue because he recognizes Santa Fe’s housing situation in general, and affordable housing in particular, is a serious problem that needs addressing. He cites several statistics from recent studies, including the city’s 2016 Affordable Housing Report, which identified a shortage of 2,435 affordable rental units in the city, “affordable” defined as being priced below $625 per month.

The good news is that it’s a decrease from a shortage of about 3,000 in 2011, which Ives attributed to a rebounding economy coming out of the Great Recession. But the bad news is that there was actually an increase in the shortage, from 715 to 800, for units affordable to renters earning $15,000 to $20,000 per year – those priced between $375 and $500 per month.

Ives also notes that occupancy rates have steadily exceeded 95 percent in recent years, reflecting a high demand and low supply.

That shortage has a huge impact on the city’s economy and the city suffers, Ives says.

This time, he cites a study done by affordable homebuilder Homewise, which, although undertaken 10 years ago, remains relevant to his point. It showed an estimated 9,000 former residents have moved outside the city limits and now commute to jobs in the city.

If they lived here, “that would be an extra $5 million to $7 million in tax revenue,” Ives said. “When we talk about tight budgets and jobs in Santa Fe, not having sufficient and reasonably priced housing results in a huge economic loss for the city.”

Lack of transparency

During last week’s meeting, Councilor Mike Harris cited a different set of statistics he said were provided by the Land Use Department that showed that, as of last month, there were 1,453 housing units “being processed at some level,” either through scheduled ENN meetings or all the way through to approval, that could help put a dent in the housing gap.

He pointed to progress in that area, mentioning the Rancho Viejo community just south of town, the forthcoming Ross’ Peak subdivision that will add 192 new units on the city’s south side and the pace of construction by Pulte Homes at Las Soleras in the same area.

Not surprisingly, 94 percent of them are in council districts 3 and 4 on the city’s south side.

But few, if any, of them qualify as “affordable” housing. Many builders these days choose to forgo city requirements to designate 20 percent of units built as affordable, instead opting to pay fees “in lieu of” building affordable units. It was one of several incentives for builders put in place by the City Council in 2011 in an effort to stimulate construction.

Rick Martinez, former president and now board member with the Santa Fe Neighborhood Network, thinks that’s a problem.

“My big concern is the fees in lieu of is taking away from true affordable housing,” he said. “If we can get rid of that, it would help a lot.”

He suspects builders take advantage of the option because it helps their bottom line. But while that may help close the supply and demand gap for housing in the city, it doesn’t do anything to alleviate the affordable housing problem. He says none of the nearly 1,453 housing units Harris referred to as being in the pipeline, including apartment developments, are affordable housing.

Harris, who has a background in construction management, was traveling out of state and couldn’t be reached for comment. City officials in the Land Use Department and Office of Affordable Housing did not return phone messages from the Journal this week.

Martinez’s biggest complaint regarding Ives’ proposal was that the public wasn’t let in on it at the start.

“It was done completely wrong. They didn’t go to the neighborhood first and make sure transparency is right up front. When they don’t do that, they make the neighbors who come out look like NIMBYs,” he said using the term for those who say they aren’t opposed to development, but “Not In My Back Yard!”

Several of the 35 speakers at the public hearing last week prefaced their opposition to the proposal by saying, “I’m all for affordable housing, but … .” Martinez said notifying residents and starting the dialogue even before the ENN process begins could go a long way toward alleviating neighbors’ concerns.

Asked about the outcome of last week’s meeting and the decision to start a planning process for where to locate homes, Martinez said, “That’s the right approach. If the community works together – with city planners, developers and everyone else – neighborhoods can get behind it and get in on the right track. Everyone needs to sit at the table at once. If you don’t have everyone at the table, you’re just spinning your wheels.”

Martinez says there are a lot of places around town where affordable housing could be built – including the campus of Santa Fe University of Art and Design, which is vacating the city-owned property next year, locations along Cerrillos Road and maybe even the location of the former Whole Foods store on St. Francis.

“If there’s land here in Santa Fe, let’s pick it out, put it on the table and look at it,” he said.

‘It’s discrimination’

The property Ives proposed at Yucca and Zia was selected from a list of 20 city-owned properties identified by the city’s Asset Development Office as potentially suitable sites for affordable and low-income housing. However, more than half of them are marked “Not Appropriate or Readily Developable.”

During last week’s discussion, ideas included looking at possibly converting some city parks into affordable housing sites, or trading or purchasing property owned by the county, state or Santa Fe Public Schools.

Villarreal, the city councilor heading the Community Development Commission, said she believes the panel can assist in helping identify possible properties, but it needs to be done with extensive community outreach and public participation. “It can’t be a listening session; it could be in the form of an open house where we create learning spaces where they can have conversations and look at housing from a broader perspective,” she said.

She said the discussion can be bolstered by some of the same studies Ives cited, “so we can look at population areas and look at what kind of housing is most needed.”

Villarreal envisions a series of open houses where there’s two-way communication between city staff and the public.

“A lot of people don’t understand what affordable housing is, what low-income housing is, and what it means for people,” she said. “Open houses could create … an opportunity to learn from each other.”

Part of the problem, she says, is when people hear terms like “low-income housing,” it needlessly strikes fear in them. It doesn’t mean property values will fall, it doesn’t mean it will bring crime. “People come from that place of fear,” she said. “They need to understand that people come from all different backgrounds and need housing. Housing is a right, and we shouldn’t be harboring those kind of prejudices. Really, it’s discrimination.”

Villarreal said she wants to have that conversation, too. But most importantly, she wants public participation, even to the extent of inviting concept designs for certain properties or neighborhoods.

The councilor said the first open house probably won’t happen until early next year, but it’s past time to take on Santa Fe’s affordable housing crisis.

“It’s a conversation that needs to be had,” she said.