A May 2020 report commissioned by the city government found that Albuquerque lacked enough affordable housing for the growing number of renter households at the lowest end of the income spectrum. In fact, while the number of “extremely low-income” households increased, the supply of units they could live in shrank.
Authors of that Urban Institute study estimated the city needed 15,500 more affordable housing units to bridge the gap, while warning that the then-nascent COVID-19 pandemic was likely to make the situation even more precarious.
The report’s opening line: “The City of Albuquerque is at a critical moment in its efforts to provide affordable housing and reduce homelessness.”
Advocates are imploring city leaders not to waste what they call a key opportunity to act on the issue: the city’s 2021 infrastructure spending plan.
They say the plan — which goes to voters in general obligation , or GO, tax bond questions this fall — should include $10 million for affordable housing. That was the standard allotment to the city’s Workforce Housing Trust Fund just a decade ago, and advocates say the city should return to that level.
Mayor Tim Keller has, however, pitched a plan with only one-third of that amount.
His $139 million proposal for the 2021 bond cycle includes $3.3 million for affordable housing. That would be the lowest allotment since 2013 and the second-lowest in the 15-year history of the city’s Workforce Housing Trust Fund.
One appointed city commission has already recommended he raise the amount, though it is unclear whether he will do so before formally advancing his plan to the Albuquerque City Council. The version he sends to the council should be available later this week, a spokesman said.
The city has also secured money from the Legislature for affordable housing, including $2.5 million last year, Keller spokeswoman Jessica Campbell said in a statement.
“We always want to do more for housing, so we are currently evaluating the final amounts for the 2021 G.O. Bond package and pragmatically evaluating how much money can be spent in a given bond cycle,” she added. “Our community doesn’t benefit from allocating money if it is tied up in red tape waiting to be spent.”
Whatever the mayor proposes is subject to council amendment. The bond package, once completed by the council, goes to voters in November, and affordable housing advocates have already begun making their case.
“Whether you think about it in terms of dollars, long-term social impact, community health or equity, the return on investment through the Workforce Housing Trust Fund will be unsurpassed,” said Beth Goldman of Greater Albuquerque Habitat for Humanity, one of multiple speakers who advocated for $10 million in funding during a council meeting earlier this month.
The bond program covers a wide range of expenses, from police cars and community center renovations to computer software and library materials.
Councilor Isaac Benton, who represents the Downtown area, said balancing all needs can be tricky, but that he will push for more affordable housing money. He calls it “critical to the social fabric,” saying housing instability is a health concern, making it harder to tackle issues related to crime and education.
“It’s an important foundation to solving those problems,” he said.
The city established its Workforce Housing Trust Fund in a 2006 ordinance. It has typically helped fund new apartment developments with affordable rental units, though the funding could also go to rehabilitating existing properties and aiding home ownership.
The city’s bond program — which goes to voters every two years — initially designated $10 million to the fund. That continued through 2011, when the city had a $163 million bond package.
But when the city’s bonding capacity shriveled in 2013, affordable housing support plummeted to $2.5 million.
Although bond capacity has trended upward since, affordable housing support has not again approached $10 million.
Some say it is time. They cite last year’s study, Albuquerque’s rising homeless population and the instability wrought by COVID-19.
Affordable housing is “critical infrastructure,” said Aaron Moore of the Albuquerque Affordable Housing Coalition. A stable living situation contributes to public health and makes it easier for people to keep jobs and for kids to focus on school, he said.
Advocates also contend that affordable housing ripples positively across the economy. Reducing low- and moderate-income residents’ rent burden means they have more money to spend elsewhere, while the projects often create new construction activity and bring together multiple sources of funding. The city’s contribution to most projects is typically just a piece of a larger funding puzzle that may also include low-income housing tax credits and private money. The Workforce Housing Trust Fund “generated over four times the city contribution in private investments” and supported almost 1,500 construction jobs between 2007 and 2019, according to city ordinance.
“It’s one of the No. 1 investments we can make to increase the prosperity and viability of our community,” Moore said.
$3.3M won’t meet needs
The city has helped subsidize an average of 116 affordable units each year since 2015, according to city data. The current fiscal year will have the fewest in that stretch, at 68.
The newest units are part of the Nuevo Atrisco development near Unser and Central that opened in September. The apartments, offered at a range of prices, include 24 units specifically for “extremely low-income” households, which means households at 30% or lower than the average median income.
The city also contributed funds to the Luminaria Senior Community, which should begin construction this year and be completed in 2022, according to Lisa Huval, the city’s deputy director for housing and homelessness. It includes 77 affordable units.
The city’s participation in a project often involves $1 million to $4 million in Workforce Housing Trust Fund dollars, according to past city reporting.
That means the $3.3 million in bond funding currently contemplated by Keller might be enough to assist with only a couple of projects in the two-year cycle.
“That’s really not a big commitment measured against the need,” said former city housing planner and retired consultant Kate Hildebrand.
She agrees that the city should return to the $10 million affordable housing allocation, saying that a declining pot limits the city’s ability to leverage outside money, such as federal tax credits. Also, the money goes to creating what she considers fundamental community assets.
“I understand there’s always going to be competition for the (bond) funds, because there are a lot of projects that have value to the community,” she said. “But we’re talking about how people live, how neighborhoods function. We’re also talking about a public health issue in this round.”