Renters seek city assistance amid soaring costs - Albuquerque Journal

Renters seek city assistance amid soaring costs

This apartment complex in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights has advertised for tenants. (Albuquerque Journal File)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

When Mia Augustson’s landlord raised her rent by more than $200 earlier this year, the financial fallout rippled throughout her life.

Since the hike far outpaced the increase that Augustson and her spouse – both disabled – saw in their incomes, the couple had to start cutting expenses to make their $1,046 base rent. Augustson said they have given up their car, put off some health care and called off a planned 20th anniversary celebration.

It was difficult but doable.

Now, though, they face another challenge: upcoming renovations at the complex will displace them once their lease expires at year’s end. Augustson said she’s trying to find a new place that is both suitably appointed to meet their physical needs and within budget. Right now, she said, they have “no place to go lined up and really no means to get there because we’ve emptied our savings to pay the rent.”

The couple has sought assistance through a number of programs, she said, but their dual disability income is considered too high to qualify for many programs.

Augustson is among those who have pushed city leaders to do something to provide relief, saying she is not sure they fully understand the housing hardships many in the city currently face.

“We’re talking about people who personally are pretty well insulated from these kinds of catastrophes,” she said. “They don’t know what it is to literally be struggling for survival in a first world country.”

The city has ample evidence of a problem.

Two years ago, it funded research that found Albuquerque was 15,500 affordably priced units shy of meeting the need of its poorest residents. An Albuquerque housing official says that gap has only widened since that study.

According to Rent.com, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom in Albuquerque has gone up 42% during the pandemic. It’s now $1,155, compared with $1,064 a year ago and $812 at the pandemic’s outset, according to the online listing service’s data.

City’s efforts

While there are new indications that rental price growth is slowing after some unprecedented increases, prices remain a burden for many in Albuquerque, and leaders have faced growing criticism for perceived inaction. During a recent City Council meeting, one public speaker compared the city’s efforts to provide relief to using band-aids to treat an amputated arm. Another told the council “there is a humanitarian crisis happening on your watch.”

So what is the city doing?

While some citizens are pushing for rent control, councilors and other city officials have stressed that state law bars local governments from enacting such a policy.

But they contend they are trying to address the problem from multiple angles.

Lisa Huval, the city’s deputy director for housing, said the city partnered with the state last year to get millions of federal rental and utility assistance dollars into the community. City government also has bolstered spending on rent subsidies, or vouchers. There is over $23 million in city and federal voucher funding available, including $9.8 million extra in ongoing annual funding added to the budget this year. It also has increased legal and other supports to those facing eviction.

However, Huval said the city sees the chief issue as an overall housing shortage. The city simply needs more housing at all price levels.

“One of the big reasons that housing prices are going up and all of us are feeling an impact is there is not enough housing – there’s not enough apartments and not enough home ownership units,” she said. “From our perspective, solving the housing issue for everyone – not just folks (with incomes low enough to qualify for most assistance) – is really about increasing the supply of housing.”

The city’s newest initiatives include buying and converting hotels into affordable efficiency apartments, something made easier by a recent zoning change. The city plans to start with one property and “scale up,” Huval said. It currently is working toward buying the Sure Stay Hotel at 10330 Hotel NE, but the deal is not done and a city spokeswoman said she could not yet provide additional details about the plan.

The City Council also this spring approved borrowing $20 million as part of a $100 million gross receipts tax bond package for affordable housing, which Huval said can go toward creating new units or acquiring and rehabilitating property.

CORA

Officials say they also are doing more to stop people who are presently housed from plunging into instability or homelessness.

The city now has staff inside eviction court as part of a diversion program, attending over 6,000 hearings in the first half of 2022. The employees are part of CORA, or the Court Outreach for Rental Assistance program, and can provide real-time information to renters about how to apply for support or the status of their cases if they already have. Judges hearing eviction cases can send landlords and tenants into a meeting with a CORA staffer.

“Because of the information provided by CORA staff at these hearings, the judges often delay making a final determination,” city spokeswoman Katie Simon said in written answers to Journal questions, though she said the city is unable to track final outcomes.

The city also has inside and outside legal assistance for renters.

The city’s Office of Civil Rights fields housing complaints, offering occasional legal representation. The city’s OCR has received 68 housing complaints so far in 2022, according to records provided to the Journal. Callers report issues like landlords not keeping units up to code or discrimination based on disability, race or other factors protected by the city’s Human Rights Ordinance. Those complaints have generated two “extensive” city investigations – meaning the government drafted or filed a legal complaint – and, in one other case, the office researched the matter. The rest were either handled with one or two phone calls or referred to another agency such as other city departments or outside agencies better suited to assist, the city reported.

The city presently is also funding three outside housing attorneys through contracts with New Mexico Legal Aid and the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.

Efforts at prevention

Riley Masse, the managing attorney for housing stability at New Mexico Legal Aid, said the state also is currently paying for extra housing support attorneys in the organization, which specifically serves people with low incomes – that generally means up to 125% of the federal poverty level but in some cases up to 200%. The federal poverty level is currently $13,590 for a one-person household.

She said the agency attorneys have been opening as many as 20 new cases a week across the state, up from as few as five earlier in 2022. The growth, she said, has coincided with the expiration of pandemic-related eviction protections. The New Mexico Supreme Court had in 2020 placed a moratorium on eviction cases related to nonpayment of rent but phased it out this spring.

“There are probably more cases we could (assist with),” she said. “We just don’t have the capacity to represent as many people as call in and would fit within the priorities for representation.”

Legal Aid also runs a landlord-tenant helpline paid for by the city – 505-273-5040. It provided housing-related information to an estimated 1,413 callers during fiscal year 2022, according to the city.

A Legal Aid spokesman said all are encouraged to call, regardless of income.

“If we cannot take your case due to federal financial restrictions, we will work with you to find the specific programs or nonprofits that can offer assistance,” spokesman Paxton Patrick said.

Mia Augustson said the efforts afoot in Albuquerque and around the state are still leaving behind many people who fall outside the income requirements but are still struggling. She said she hopes there is political will to do something more.

“(More housing) production is a step in the right direction, but this does absolutely nothing for somebody who is in danger of being out on their butt or who may be already,” she said.

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