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An Albuquerque city councilor is apologizing to her constituents for supporting safe outdoor spaces and says she is now working to fix her “mistake.”
Councilor Brook Bassan says she will introduce legislation to undo the council’s recent adoption of safe outdoor spaces – organized sites where people who are homeless can legally live in tents and vehicles.
Bassan, who represents the Northeast Heights, was among the “yes” votes earlier this month when the council voted 5-4 to approve safe outdoor spaces as part of Albuquerque’s annual zoning code update. She had voiced support for giving people who are homeless another option, saying both on the council dais and in a Journal op-ed that it was worthwhile to attempt something new because the current situation is untenable.
But on Tuesday she announced she is planning bills to repeal the safe outdoor space language the council incorporated into the Integrated Development Ordinance. Since that is a lengthy process, she will also propose a separate one-year moratorium on any safe outdoor space approvals.
She said her backtracking is due to public outcry combined with her growing concern that the plan was not fully formed and that it would not lead the city – as some had hoped – to step up enforcement of illegal camping and trespassing.
“I have always promised that, if I ever made a mistake such as this, I would apologize and work to correct my action,” she said in a written statement sent to constituents. “I am sorry for not registering your opposition to this idea sooner.”
Bassan met strong community opposition to safe outdoor spaces last week during a neighborhood meeting in her district. She said people who live around North Domingo Baca Park were under the false impression that an encampment was planned near the park. Though the zoning regulations the council had approved would have enabled a safe outdoor space in that area, she said none was planned or even discussed.
She did, however, acknowledge that community blowback helped change her mind.
“I’m not saying safe outdoor spaces are bad and we can’t do it, but – and I wish I would’ve come to this conclusion a lot earlier – it’s definitely something that needs more answers, like what the other councilors have mentioned. Clearly the public is not ready for it as it stands, and it’s my job to listen to them,” she told the Journal Tuesday.
But one of the city’s most ardent safe outdoor space champions says the backlash is unwarranted. Brad Day, a local businessman who has spent months advocating for the new land use, said people do not understand what they are fighting.
“People act like what’s going to happen is the city is going to create Coronado Parks all over town, and the people are scared to death,” Day said, referring to the Downtown-area park where a large, illegal encampment has operated for years.
Day said safe outdoor spaces have standards for who can live there; have occupancy limits; maintain rules; offer storage space for people’s belongings; and provide people the “dignity” of toilets and showers. As written, Albuquerque’s code also would require each operator to have an operations and management plan or security agreement and submit it for the city’s Family and Community Services Department to review.
Safe outdoor spaces, he said, are a far cry from what is happening at Coronado Park. In fact, he sees them as a solution to places such as Coronado Park in that, by giving people who are homeless other alternatives to illegal camping, the city has the leverage to enforce trespassing and other ordinances.
Mayor Tim Keller said last week that to clear Coronado Park the city must be able to provide other options, specifically citing the long-awaited Gateway Center shelter and services hub.
Keller’s office did not directly answer Journal questions Tuesday about whether safe outdoor spaces would better legally position the city to enforce trespassing and other laws or if it intended to ever enforce those laws when, or if, the city had enough suitable alternatives for people who sleep in Coronado Park and other uninhabitable sites.
But in a statement, Keller spokeswoman Ava Montoya criticized a potential council flip-flop.
“Vacillating by passing legislation and then immediately repealing it doesn’t help anyone,” Montoya wrote. “Council is the land use authority for our city and we need them to put forward solutions. Right now, when Coronado Park is cleared every two weeks, people have nowhere to go except right back to the park, and that won’t change without solutions from Council.”
Plan sparked fierce debate
Day’s safe outdoor space advocacy grew from his frustration about the number of people sleeping illegally on his commercial properties, including buildings at San Mateo/Copper and Lead/Interstate 25.
He went looking for answers.
He talked to police. He said they told him their under-staffed department was too busy with higher-priority calls to focus on trespassing.
He talked to the campers. They told him they did not want to stay in shelters, particularly the city’s existing emergency housing center on the far West Side because they must leave behind most of their belongings to take the 20-mile bus ride to the site.
He spoke to faith leaders who had been trying to provide camping opportunities on their properties. They told him they could not get needed approval.
Eventually, he talked to planning experts.
With their help, Day developed a zoning code amendment to allow safe outdoor spaces. He submitted it to the Albuquerque City Council office for consideration.
Three city councilors – Bassan, Isaac Benton and Trudy Jones – co-sponsored a version of it, introducing it as an IDO amendment.
It sparked months of debate and some community outrage.
Day spoke at meeting after meeting, encouraging the council to push it forward.
The council ultimately voted to enable safe outdoor spaces by narrowly approving the IDO update, despite fierce opposition from some councilors who said constituents were overwhelmingly against the idea.
Day said the proposal underwent several changes along the way that will make it difficult to actually start one. That includes reducing the number of zones where they are automatically allowed. The council also limited safe outdoor spaces to a “temporary” use, restricting them to 24 months of operation with a potential 24-month extension.
Even Bassan said the council had put so many “barriers” in the zoning code that safe outdoor spaces may have been more of an idea than a reality.
“I would be surprised if these ever actually came about in the first place because Albuquerque has a really strong tendency to get in (its) own way,” she said Tuesday.
But Day – who said he has financing lined up to build a safe outdoor space and other businesspeople willing to contribute materials, like fencing – said he has identified some workable sites in commercial areas around north Downtown and the International District. He said he intended to establish a new nonprofit to run the sites, and would model it on the 11-year-old Camp Hope tent city in Las Cruces, a place he has visited and studied. He said he expected the city or Bernalillo County would want to support it via lease payments, estimating it would cost about $200 per month per resident, which includes operations and paying back upfront costs.
“We’ve been working our ass off to try to get this done, because it is the only way we’re going to get these people off the street,” he said.
Doing ‘the right thing’
Under the council-passed legislation, safe outdoor spaces are possible in some nonresidential and mixed-use zones. They must be 330 feet away from certain zones that include low-density residential development, though that restriction would not apply to religious institutions.
They can include up to 40 spaces for tents or vehicles, hosting a maximum of 50 people at a time; when tents are used, the lot must have a 6-foot fence or screen.
The code would require sites to have toilets, hand-washing stations, showers, plus social services and support facilities for residents.
Day brought the idea forward several months ago, but it was not entirely new. Former City Councilor Diane Gibson and current Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley have pushed the concept for more than a year, calling safe outdoor spaces an alternative for people already sleeping on the streets who are too fearful or otherwise uninterested in traditional shelters.
O’Malley said she has spoken to Day and is impressed with how much of his own time he’s spent on the idea, saying he has taken the initiative rather than waiting for government to act.
“We’ve got somebody from the private sector interested in doing something. … I thought ‘This is a very positive thing,'” she said, adding that she believes he has sincere interest in helping people. “I believe he wants to do the right thing.”
But Day said Tuesday he worried he may never get the chance.
“If we don’t educate the public (about safe outdoor spaces), then guess what? We are never going to solve this homeless problem,” he said.
“This is just going to go on and on and on.”