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Councilor Pitches Affordable Housing

By Jim Ludwick
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    City Councilor Debbie O'Malley says Albuquerque must improve its supply of affordable housing and should do so by setting aside 8 percent of its public works program.
    "It's going to be a huge challenge, but I think it's very important," said O'Malley, a former leader of the Sawmill Community Land Trust, which developed housing for people with low and moderate incomes.
    Generally, programs that promote affordability want families to use no more than 30 percent to 33 percent of their monthly income for housing. In Albuquerque, 17,000 low-income households spend more than half of their money on housing, according to city estimates.
    O'Malley wants the city to create a strategy for encouraging affordable housing based on an assessment of needs, housing conditions and resources.
    She wants to create a fund for housing that would get 8 percent— currently about $5 million a year— of the city's capital program, which uses general-obligation bonds to pay for street improvements, parks and other projects.
    Under O'Malley's proposal, the city would seek additional money from foundations, banks and other sources. She wants housing projects to get 80 percent of their money from sources other than the city.
    She also wants to establish a "land banking" program— buying land before prices get higher so it will be available for future city-backed housing development.
    The legislation already faces criticism from the Mayor's Office.
    Bruce Perlman, chief administrative officer, said housing affordability is not a crisis in Albuquerque.
    A recent report from the National Association of Home Builders ranked Albuquerque in the upper fourth for housing affordability in the region.
    The legislation "is well-intended, but it may be a solution in search of a problem," Perlman said. He also said there's no reason for taking 8 percent— rather than 7 percent or any other number— from the capital program.
    Other capital-program set-asides already earmark money for public art, energy conservation and $1 million apiece for councilors to use at their discretion. Earmarking still more money would reduce the city's options for other needs, Perlman said.
    Councilor Isaac Benton, who says he will likely co-sponsor the legislation, is an architect with experience on affordable housing projects, including the Sawmill Community Land Trust.
    Benton said it's not just a question of single-family homes: He sees a need for more affordable rental housing in places where public transportation is available.
    Jim Folkman, of the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico, said he's supportive of the legislation but is waiting for the final details.
    In Folkman's view, homes are reasonably affordable in Albuquerque. The bottom of the market for new houses is around $90,000, he said.
    However, he said, the situation has worsened recently, because of the cost of land and construction materials.
    Folkman said city government can have a useful role, "but the structure and elements will be the issue."
    John Bloomfield, executive director of NewLife Homes Inc., said Albuquerque's challenges include rising prices, diminishing federal funds and a loss of housing stock due to gentrification and demolition of substandard properties.
    NewLife provides affordable housing for the elderly, homeless and people with mental illnesses.
    Some areas of town have been hit harder than others.
    In Barelas, prices have risen amid Downtown revitalization and talk of ambitious possibilities for the old railyard property, said Ron Romero, board member of the Barelas Neighborhood Association.
    According to Romero, typical homes were selling for $80,000 a few years ago, but the cost has roughly doubled. He said the area is a target for gentrification and real-estate speculators.
    "What we're seeing all over the Downtown area is high-end development. ... The housing that's being done by private developers is far beyond what is affordable," Romero said.
Special meeting
    The City Council will hold a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday to discuss legislation intended to promote affordable housing. The meeting will be at council chambers in City Hall.
Four-point plan
    Proposed affordable-housing legislation would:
  • Create a fund to pay for land and housing subsidies.
  • Establish a "land banking" program to accumulate property for future projects.
  • Set aside 8 percent of the city's capital program for affordable-housing efforts, while also seeking money from other sources.
  • Prompt a review of city programs and strategy.