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Guesthouse changes don’t reflect SF history

Miguel Chavez

Some people are claiming that the proposed guesthouse ordinance is just bringing back the way Santa Fe used to be.

As someone whose family has lived here for generations, I think some people misunderstand the history of Santa Fe. (I wasn’t born here; I was born in Las Cruces while my father was attending NMSU, but we moved back when I was 2).

Over the centuries, Santa Feans did build additional homes on their property or expanded existing homes. This was done to accommodate extended families using limited resources. Many families dug the dirt from their property to make the adobes that built those additions.

As families became smaller, some families continued to live on their property but rented out unused space. The city acknowledged this change by allowing property owners to legally rent out a guest house on their land IF the property owner also lived there.

This was a compromise that allowed families to achieve some financial benefit while making sure the property owner still had a stake in maintaining the neighborhood.

Recently, however, the influx of second homes, short-term rentals, and real estate speculation has caused some people to try to change the rules about guesthouses.

The proposed new rules still allow a guesthouse on any residential property, but now the property owner could rent out both units and does not have to live there, or even be living in Santa Fe. This will lead to more out-of-town buyers and real estate speculation, draining the neighborhoods of real residents.

The rules are designed to increase neighborhood density but may also increase height and will allow on-street parking for tenants (if they can find it).

Supposedly, the reason for these changes is to allow more affordable housing for the local population. However, there is no requirement that ANY of these units be affordable or that they be rented to local people. They will rent for whatever the market will bear.

And many will become second homes or short-term rentals because the “highest and best use” for real estate is often defined as what brings in the most money, not what is best for the community as a whole.

The city claims that absentee owners will not be able to operate short-term rentals, but the city has not been effective in enforcing existing laws on owner-occupancy and short-term rentals. There is no guarantee that it will do any better in the future. As an example, unlike other small businesses, many owners of rental properties do not pay GRT.

The city has amended the land use code before, sometimes on controversial issues. The most successful of these amendments have come after extensive discussion with the whole community, not the fast-track we’re seeing here.

Take the Home Occupation Ordinance, which faced many of the same problems and questions when it proposed allowing small businesses in neighborhoods. What was acceptable? What would protect the neighborhoods?

The answers to these questions were achieved through consensus, and this ordinance has been very successful using an open process of evaluation that has led to more neighborhood affordability and safety. As an example, it helped me build a woodworking shop behind my home.

If the purpose of this amendment is to provide affordable housing for Santa Fe residents, let’s make sure that it does and that there are no unintended consequences that benefit a few at the expense of the many.

And while we’re at it, let’s look at other code, general plan and enforcement changes that might achieve the desired result without negative effects on existing neighborhoods.

Miguel Chavez is a former Santa Fe city councilor and former Santa Fe County commissioner