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Tensions ran high, temperatures ran hot and debate ran long past standard meeting hours.
But by the end of a convoluted, seven-hour session in an uncomfortably warm meeting chambers Monday, the Albuquerque City Council had voted to open the door to safe outdoor spaces.
The approval came via the annual zoning code update, which the council passed on a 5-4 vote around midnight.
Also known as sanctioned encampments, safe outdoor spaces are managed sites where people who are homeless can sleep in tents or automobiles and have on-site restrooms and shower facilities. The Integrated Development Ordinance update the council passed adds safe outdoor spaces as a new use in certain nonresidential and mixed-use zones.
The concept sparked significant community interest and vigorous council discussion, including some contentious moments during Monday’s marathon meeting.
Council President Isaac Benton said the safe outdoor spaces debate had overtaken the larger IDO discussion. He argued that the angst may be much ado about nothing, saying he does not believe such camp sites will proliferate because he knows of only one organization – “a small religious congregation” within his Downtown-based district – that has expressed interest in attempting one. While he supports the sanctioned camps on a temporary basis, he noted they may only have a “small niche of viability and helpfulness.”
“I really think we’re arguing over one little aspect that has sort of commandeered this code. Really qualified (homeless services) providers don’t even like this idea,” Benton said of safe outdoor spaces. “I like it as a possible test, and that’s the only place I was coming from with it.”
But some councilors’ vehement opposition to safe outdoor spaces nearly killed the entire IDO update. The bill, which contains many other zoning code changes, initially failed on a 4-5 vote during Monday’s meeting.
Councilors Dan Lewis and Louie Sanchez – who have vocally opposed safe outdoor spaces in recent meetings – joined Councilors Renee Grout, Trudy Jones and Klarissa Peña in voting against the bill.
Grout called the concept “inhumane” and said the city instead should be sending people to standard emergency shelters.
“I know the answer we’ll get from the (Mayor Tim Keller) administration is not everyone wants to go to a shelter, and I get that. There’s accountability in shelters,” Grout said. “(But) I’m accountable to the constituents who write and call me and tell me to stop this madness. We shouldn’t be doing this.”
But the bill got a second life when Jones – who has said she sees merit in trying safe outdoors spaces – motioned to reconsider the larger IDO update. The Northeast Heights councilor ultimately reversed course, and her changed vote clinched the bill’s narrow 5-4 victory.
Benton, Brook Bassan, Pat Davis and Tammy Fiebelkorn also voted in support.
Jones said in an interview that updating the IDO is an essential process that must get done every year even if the result is not everyone’s ideal.
“We’ll work on the other stuff later,” Jones said.
The IDO update affects numerous parts of the code. It makes some sweeping changes, like replacing the city’s Development Review Board process. It also tackles smaller matters, like tweaking how bicycle parking requirements are calculated for private charter schools.
But its addition of safe outdoor spaces generated the most council debate.
Critics and supporters within the council have spent the past few months attempting to alter the safe outdoor space language, a process that continued until just minutes before the final vote. The flurry of proposed amendments – some of them conflicting – created confusion and strain.
At one point, Benton banged his gavel and told Sanchez he was “out of order” during discussion of Davis’ proposed amendment to a Sanchez proposal. Sanchez wanted IDO language prohibiting any safe outdoor spaces in his district or in Lewis’ and Grout’s districts. Davis responded by suggesting language to ensure the city’s first safe outdoor spaces went in those very districts.
Both Sanchez’s proposal and Davis’ failed.
But the council did approve some changes. Whereas the proposal entering Monday’s meeting would have allowed up to five sanctioned camps per council district, the legislative body passed a new cap of two per district, though the limit would not apply to religious institutions.
Councilor Bassan, who has said safe outdoor spaces are worth a try as the city grapples with rampant homelessness, reiterated that setting a maximum is not the same as imminently approving 18 safe outdoor spaces.
“This does not mean we will put 18 out there right away, if at all,” she said.
The council also approved a Benton proposal to set a two-year limit, with a possible two-year extension, for safe outdoor spaces and Sanchez’s amendment to ban registered sex offenders from using them.