For the last 15 years of working in the non-profit housing sector I’ve heard just about every excuse why we can’t do the right thing for affordable housing. And we’re doing it again with the current debate about reforming our casita regulations.
Neighborhood organizations are spreading misinformation. They claim that we need more time for input, to find consensus, while shunning opportunities to meet with the affordable housing and community groups that put forward these common sense recommendations. This is nothing new, but the time where we listen to this misinformed fearmongering to the detriment of the thousands of renter families needs to end.
This Accessory Dwelling Unit proposal is an incremental step. The changes to the land use code will make it easier and less costly for homeowners to build casitas and allow two units on a property to be rented long-term. It is just one of the solutions we need to begin to close the rental housing supply shortage that now exceeds 5,000 units.
These changes are also a critical first step to be able to launch innovative programs that can make new casitas rent-controlled and truly affordable.
In other cities, there are proven examples of similar initiatives that show how we can use casitas to make real community impacts. A program in Los Angeles provides financing for homes set aside for Section 8 voucher holders, and one in Multnomah County, Oregon, will build a guesthouse for free if you make it available for homeless families for five years, after which you own it outright. But if we don’t make them easier and less costly to build, we can’t do any of that.
During the past 15 years, I’ve always worked to represent the needs of our most economically vulnerable neighbors. The people who can’t show up at lengthy public hearings because they work at night, have second jobs, or can’t afford child care. The people who don’t have councilor’s cell phone numbers or host house parties during election season. People like this also don’t complain to their city councilors or write op-eds when their rent shoots up $200 at the end of their lease. They just leave town.
I have the amazing privilege of doing affordable housing work all over the country, and the truth is, what we do here is not normal, and it is not sustainable.
As we watch the federal government’s commitment to a social safety net crumble; as we chant “We Stand with Immigrants;” as we march, saying we want to systematically deconstruct racist colonial patriarchal systems; as we say we want to fight climate change; we have to also act locally, and at the scale of the problem. We need to be the example that we want our country to be.
If you want to help immigrants, support local affordable housing funding that isn’t bound by federal exclusions for the undocumented. If you want to deconstruct hundreds of years of institutional racism and patriarchy, make sure that your most economically vulnerable neighbors are housed. If you want to fight climate change, stop pushing critical new housing to the greenfield sprawl at the edge of town.
And to those who quietly whisper accusations of capitalist conspiracy and malintent behind this advocacy work, I ask them why is it so hard to believe that we sincerely have the best interest of the community at heart?
The truth is that I’m more of a socialist. Sadly, when I propose truly radical housing ideas – the solutions at the scale of the problem – that’s when I get the real political pushback. (Seriously, let’s raise property taxes, tax second homes and short-term rentals to fund affordable housing. Heck, let’s ban all non-owner occupied short-term rentals in town!)
The truth is that we are at a crossroads as a community and cannot abide our legacy of indifference any longer. The statistics are dire. Nearly three-quarters of renter households that earn below $50,000 a year are paying unaffordable rents, and the census says we lost nearly 300 families in that income bracket in one year between 2016-2017. Per capita GRT has been flat for 17 years. When we lose working families, we lose so much more, including the funds to operate our city.
It’s time to do the right thing for the people who are fighting for their most basic right: the right to decent housing. We owe it to them. Let’s regulate the hypothetical problems if they actually happen, not hobble people’s opportunity for new housing for made up fears stoked by the well-housed elites.
Daniel Werwath is chief operating officer of New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing.