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Affordable housing divides council

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Affordable housing dominated the Albuquerque City Council's debate over exactly how to spend an anticipated $140 million in infrastructure money, as some councilors' push for greater investment met resistance from others worried that the city has not applied all the resources it already has.

Even officials in Mayor Tim Keller's administration had seemingly different perspectives; a top city housing official said she was confident the city could invest millions more than what the council ultimately approved, while Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair warned it would be hard to get extra money out the door.

The debate comes less than a year after a city-funded study identified a significant affordable housing gap. Albuquerque needs 15,500 more affordable units for the growing population of “extremely low-income” renter households, according to the 2020 Urban Institute Analysis. The authors also warned that the city is at risk of losing 4,700 existing affordable units as subsidies expire over the next decade.

The gap is unlikely to close any time soon – at the city's current investment pace, it would take over a century. A total of 68 city-funded affordable housing units are coming online this fiscal year and the annual average is about 116, according to five years of data provided to the Journal.

At the same time, Albuquerque metro home prices are surging. The average sales price of a single-family home jumped 10.7% from 2019 to 2020, according to Greater Albuquerque Association of Realtors' data.

Affordable housing advocates pushed the City Council to include $10 million for such projects in this year's infrastructure package.

Keller had initially proposed $3.3 million, which would have been the lowest allocation since 2013. His office said the city had other sources for affordable housing money.

The council ultimately approved a plan that kept Keller's $3.3 million, but added $3.4 million from the city's COVID-19 relief money. The plan also set aside another $3.3 million in federal funds to help homeowners rehabilitate properties at risk of condemnation or other city action.

Councilors Pat Davis and Isaac Benton, however, had wanted even more, proposing a $10 million affordable housing allocation from the city's $114 million federal relief package. Davis said that's still far short of actual need, which he said “is probably about $80 million.”

But Councilor Brook Bassan questioned whether the city could spend what Davis and Benton proposed, given that it has not spent what it already has.

According to a city spokeswoman, Albuquerque has about $5 million in bond proceeds and federal grants available for affordable housing, plus a $2.5 million state appropriation for homeless facilities and/or affordable housing.

The city's deputy director for housing and homelessness, Lisa Huval, said she believed the city could spend extra money, noting the intense interest when the city puts affordable housing projects out to bid.

“I am confident we can expend the full $10 million or $13 million, or whatever it ends up being, within (two years),” Huval told the council, adding that the city could use the funds not only for new construction, but also to preserve existing stock, something it has not always done.

“I feel that, with this additional pot of funds, we really would be able to fund those types of projects and that would also really open up the pipeline,” Huval said.

But when Councilor Don Harris asked Huval's supervisor, Carol Pierce, if that was optimistic, Nair intervened and painted a different picture. She said city staff would make every effort to spend whatever is allocated, but “it would be stressing the tensile strength of department administration to spend all of that money.”

Benton disputed her assessment, saying that recent conversations with housing providers have convinced him of the need and interest. While he said previous mayoral administrations have not always expended available funding, he said it should not be hard to do.

“I totally disagree with the idea that we can't spend this money and I'm disappointed that's the position of the administration,” he said.

The council ultimately rejected the Benton/Davis proposal, with only Diane Gibson joining the sponsors in support.

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