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Even with plans to open a new homeless shelter and services center later this year, Albuquerque officials continue seeking new ways to aid the city’s growing unhoused population.
And they say two potential amendments to Albuquerque’s zoning code hold promise.
The proposed Integrated Development Ordinance update heading to the City Council includes a provision that would enable “safe outdoor spaces” – organized campsites where people can sleep and tend to personal hygiene – and another that would make it easier to convert existing hotels into housing units.
“This is a huge opportunity for our community to help unhoused folks and to have more options,” said Carol Pierce, director of the city’s Family and Community Services Department. “We need more options.”
In most instances, the encampments would be set up and managed by churches or nonprofits. The mayor’s proposed 2023 budget also includes some funding for encampments.
The city is currently readying its first Gateway Center at the old Lovelace hospital site in Southeast Albuquerque. The emergency shelter and services hub is slated to provide overnight beds for 50 women by year’s end, and could eventually host up to 100 adults and 25 families at a time. Pierce said the city will also continue working to build more traditional affordable housing, such as new apartments for low-income tenants.
But those efforts often take time – it’s already been 2½ years since voters approved $14 million for the Gateway Center – and leaders say the current situation demands more immediate answers.
Pierce said that includes safe outdoor spaces and converted hotels.
“We just need different kinds of tools in our tool belt,” she said.
Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley and former Albuquerque City Councilor Diane Gibson began beating the drum for safe outdoor spaces – sometimes known as sanctioned encampments – last year, with Gibson working to include money for them in the city’s 2021 bond package.
Several other leaders are advocating for them now, too. Mayor Tim Keller included $750,000 for the first phase of sanctioned encampments in his proposed fiscal year 2023 budget – money Pierce said the city could use to contract organizations to run them.
Meanwhile, City Councilors Isaac Benton, Brook Bassan, Pat Davis, Tammy Fiebelkorn and Trudy Jones all sponsored or co-sponsored proposals to make safe outdoor spaces allowable in the city’s zoning code. A council committee decided this week to advance Davis’ version, which restricts the number of such campsites citywide. It is now part of the IDO update legislation that the full City Council could vote on as early as May 2.
The proposal would allow safe outdoor spaces in Albuquerque but limit the size to 40 tents, cars or recreational vehicles. It requires each campsite to have a certain number of water-flush or composting toilets, hand-washing stations and showers based on occupancy, plus a surrounding wall or screen at least 6 feet high for those using tents. Operators, which could include churches and nonprofit organizations, would have to provide the city with a management plan or security agreement proving the site has 24/7 on-site support and also offer occupants some form of social services and support facilities.
The proposal generally prohibits safe outdoor spaces within 330 feet of low-density residential areas, though religious institutions would have more flexibility for locating them.
They would be permitted in certain commercial, business park and manufacturing zones and also in some mixed-use zones after a public hearing.
A separate IDO amendment heading to council would relax the rules when converting nonresidential properties – such as hotels or offices – to residential use. The proposal, sponsored by Benton, essentially eliminates a requirement that each unit have a full kitchen – namely an oven or cooking stove. It would permit a microwave or hot plate as an alternative, but only if the city is involved in the conversion project by providing affordable housing money.
Some members of the public cautioned councilors about allowing safe outdoor spaces and such hotel conversions, with several specifically asking for rules to restrict their proliferation in certain areas.
Davis said his safe outdoor space proposal addresses some of those concerns by banning more than five sanctioned campsites in any one of the city’s nine council districts.
Other citizens said they worried the city was creating unsuitable housing options.
“This amendment (easing nonresidential conversions) would create a new problem for those who cannot afford market-rate rent,” Greg Weirs of the Nob Hill Neighborhood Association said at Wednesday’s council committee meeting. “We’re concerned that if passed this amendment will incentivize substandard affordable housing, which will entrench the challenges faced by those it purports to serve.”
But Bassan challenged the argument, noting that she used to cook on a hot plate and did not consider it “substandard or a punishment.” She said the city must attempt new solutions – and that even her own Northeast Heights council district should be willing to shoulder some of the burden – because the status quo is problematic.
“We have to do something, and these are ideas. Let’s try it – let’s try it, because we’re already mad (about the situation). We’re probably going to get a little bit madder,” she said. “Then if we don’t try anything, it’s just going to continue getting worse, but if we try something, we’re going to start seeing something else better happen.”
Councilor Louie Sanchez cast the lone vote against advancing the safe outdoor spaces proposal to the full council, urging the city to allow them only on a “trial” basis and saying any such campsite should require at least three security guards.
“We need to really, really be cautious when doing this,” the West Side representative said.