Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
For many, finding an affordable rental in Taos County can be a brutal experience. Paloma Villalobos knows that better than most.
When she came home to Taos during academic breaks from New Mexico State University, she had to stay in a converted train caboose she bought on her parents’ property.
It was cramped, had no running water and was freezing cold in the winter – but it’s what she could afford.
“I’ve had to make it work, because I didn’t have a place I could come home to,” Villalobos said.
Her story is not unique. For many residents in Taos County, a rural area of 32,000 people in northern New Mexico, finding and affording a place to live can be an arduous process that forces out many residents.
Taos has long been known for its skiing and easy access to vast swaths of open wilderness. As a result, thousands of tourists annually flock to the county and its various communities. Many end up deciding to purchase property in the area.
Around 42% of all housing units in Taos County are vacant, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with nearly half of them classified as homes used for seasonal and recreational use.
Such a high rate is not uncommon for northern New Mexico, where a lack of jobs and the decimation of such industries as mining have led many people to leave the region for places such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe; nearby Rio Arriba County has a 37% vacancy rate.
But what distinguishes Taos County from other areas is the high number of vacation and second homes, as well as its status as a large attraction for tourists. Only 13% of vacant homes in Taos County are available either to rent or buy, according to the Census Bureau.
Villalobos now manages properties for owners of second homes in the Taos area. She said many owners of such properties refuse to rent out their units when they’re away.
“They don’t want to share or make those properties available for people who live here on an affordable basis,” she said. “They’re sitting empty.”
The exact impact of the high number of vacant homes is still unclear, but Taos County Association of Realtors President Brian Stenum said Taos locals do feel an impact.
“With people coming in and buying second and vacation homes in the area, it not only inflates the pricing for the locals, but also does create some housing shortage,” Stenum said.
Adding to the number of vacant homes are short-term rentals, which have become increasingly common with the rise of such web services as Airbnb and Vrbo. The town of Taos reported in August 2020 that short-term listings accounted for around 6% of housing, but that number could be even higher.
“There is clearly an impact when many units of Taos’ housing stock are taken off the local market for use as vacation and second homes, and short-term rentals,” the report states. “The impact is largely felt in the form of increasing rents because, with less supply, landlords can charge more.”
The number of vacant homes has not gone unnoticed by local residents. Carlos Valdez said his home in Valdez, New Mexico, is surrounded by multiple vacant homes.
This includes his great-grandmother’s home, which has sat empty for 12 years since the family first sold it. He said he sees the home, which underwent an extensive remodeling, sitting empty every day as he drives to work.
“It’s kind of sad, because a lot of younger people are leaving Taos when they could be here,” he said. “But there are no jobs here.”
And the data shows rising rents are placing a tremendous burden on local residents. It’s often considered burdensome for someone to spend more than 30% of their monthly income on rent – in Taos County, 60% of renters exceed that threshold.
The town of Taos and other communities typically rely on tourism to support much of the local economy, where high-salaried jobs are few and far between. A 2018 economic study of the county found that the tourism industry accounted for 40% of jobs in the area over the past 20 years.
However, the same study found that those working in the tourism industry make less than $20,000 a year, putting many local real estate options out of reach.
And lower-salaried workers are more likely to have grown up in the area, with residents born outside New Mexico earning 41% more on average than those born in state, data from the bureau shows. Those born in New Mexico are also far more likely to be Hispanic.
As a result, many residents such as Villalobos have had to adopt creative, usually temporary, solutions to their housing needs.
One listing on Craigslist shows an old bus that’s been converted into a tiny house near Taos. The owner, who identified herself only as Rachel, said it’s aimed at short-term stays by those visiting for ski season, but that many locals have enquired if they could live there on a more permanent basis.
Annette Gano told the Journal it used to be easier to rent in Taos, but that it’s gotten hard over the 17 years she’s lived in the area. She said she’s lived in a dozen or so different units during that time, often having to leave if the landlord raises the rent or due to mold, which she’s allergic to, in a building.
Unable to afford another place, Gano and her husband have been living in an Airbnb since August, keeping their extra items in a storage unit. She said they don’t know where they’ll go once they have to leave.
Taos County Commissioner AnJanette Brush said the need also goes beyond just low-income housing – with fewer than 300 units constructed over the past decade, they take what they can get.
“We need all kinds of housing, from low income to middle-income to the perfect first home that you can afford to buy,” Brush said. “What you have is this real bottleneck.”
Until that happens, though, many locals have opted to move to larger urban areas where both jobs and housing are much more plentiful.
From 2010-15, the senior population in Taos County grew exponentially, with many moving into the area for the first time, according to the town’s economic study. Meanwhile, every other age demographic saw a decline in population as residents moved out of the county.
In short, Taos County’s population has gotten older and its workforce much smaller.
It’s unclear what kind of impact, if any, the availability of housing is having on the area’s homeless population. However, annual counts of homeless people in Taos County show the population has doubled to 100 as of 2019, according to the town.
A Housing Needs Assessment conducted by the town of Taos noted that a housing shortage can exacerbate a town’s number of homeless people.
As for Villalobos, she’s hoping to renovate her caboose so she can one day rent it to someone who needs it. It’s a need she still knows all too well.
“I don’t want to be renting a place when I’m starting a family,” she said. “It’s really hard to even get established.”