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Editorial: Santa Fe needs more options for renters

The San Isidro Apartments on San Ignacio Road are among the newer apartments in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The San Isidro Apartments on San Ignacio Road are among the newer apartments in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Santa Fe needs to make development of good apartment housing a priority.

As a report in last week’s Journal North by reporter T.S. Last shows, market surveys indicate that even small studio apartments in Santa Fe now go for more than $600 a month, on average, and three-bedroom units have rents between $900 and $1,000.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s getting hard to find an apartment at any cost. The average occupancy rate is more than 97 percent this year, up from about 90 percent in 2010. City government says no new apartment complexes have been built in a decade.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when apartments were part of the mix in many residential neighborhoods. Around the country, you can drive through now-desirable neighborhoods developed in the mid-20th century, with wonderful houses with Craftsman style details, and often see small- to medium-sized apartment buildings scattered among the single-family homes. Renters weren’t always segregated or considered undesirables.

But the American way in the past several decades has been to build apartments in big complexes, usually along busy streets at the edge of town, away from the houses.

Santa Fe has just gone through a major community fight over the proposed 399-unit El Rio apartment complex near the Santa Fe River on Agua Fria that was said to be aimed at young professionals (although it seemed like boomers would have been just as attracted to amenities like Wi-Fi and access to good biking trails). The plan was rejected unanimously by the City Council, after extensive public debate, mainly on grounds that it was out of scale with the surrounding and still semi-rural area.

El Rio’s developers described it as affordable housing. The projected rents of $750 per month for a 500-square-foot studio apartment and $1,295 per month for a two-bedroom unit, while not in the stratosphere, didn’t seem particularly cheap and were above the averages in the recent survey.

But the experienced builders who were ready to put big bucks into the project clearly believed there was a market for attractive apartments in this price range for people who are not interested in or financially capable of buying a house.

Maybe “affordable” in this case meant available for people not ready to make the commitment and come up with the down payment needed for a house anywhere near the center of Santa Fe.

El Rio was too big and probably too much too soon for old Santa Fe. Still, as one of the proposal’s developers told Last, the rejection of less expensive housing options “sort of pushes Santa Fe toward being a tourist/retirement community versus a ‘people who live and work here’ community.”

Coming up with nice apartments in a nice location that neighbors will find acceptable – or at least can live with – will be a challenge in Santa Fe. Developers say land costs mean they need higher densities to make plans work; homeowner groups don’t want the traffic and other bothers that huge numbers of living units would bring or change the traditional feel of their neighborhoods.

Well thought-out smaller apartment buildings of 10 or 20 units could be good options for in-fill, but in this day and age, anything that’s not a single-family home in an established neighborhood is anathema, and such projects wouldn’t provide very many new units anyway.

Maybe the more creative among those championing the causes of making Santa Fe more friendly to millennials and denser housing development can find cheaper space in the LSD – the partly industrial “Lower Siler District” that’s starting to attract pubs and clubs near the big Meow Wolf art installation funded in part by author George R.R. Martin – for their projects.

Maybe the city can play a role in finding ways to encourage development of good apartments at certain desirable locations and finding ways to buffer them somewhat from the backyards of single-family neighborhoods.

The lack of attractive apartment options is one of the corners that Santa Fe has painted itself into as an attractive but relatively high-cost place to live that’s well-suited to an increasingly aging population and affluent retirees. It will take a lot of creative juices from both the public and private sectors, and open minds on all sides, to find a way to paint our way out.