New Santa Fe-area housing coalition aims to act, not just talk
Plenty of talk surrounds the housing crunch in Santa Fe. The numbers move around — a several-thousand-unit shortage sometimes fluctuates depending on who’s citing the gap — but the conversation, and the shared recognition of a community issue, is consistent.
The Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition, a broad collection of activists and stakeholders, wants to make something of all that talk.
It’s the only way we’re going to fix it, members said, and forestall a deterioration of the city’s essential fabric.
The newly formed coalition, an analogue to similar urban livability advocacy groups in other U.S. cities, seeks to build a firewall of community support for local policies that will ease the Santa Fe housing crisis and facilitate an equitable march of new development.
Among other items, organizers want:
• Tweaks to the city’s inclusionary zoning program, to make sure affordable is available alongside market rate.
• Land-use code changes to promote high-density infill and zoning changes to provide incentives for developers.
• A way to make it easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units like casitas.
How they plan to get there — unifying diverse community blocs into one voice — hinges first on flipping that talk about housing on its head.
“When these individual development proposals come up, it’s about that neighborhood, that corner,” said Jennifer Billig, the coalition’s director. “But part of this public conversation we want to have is bringing it up a level to say, ’Here are the real consequences of not having enough housing for teachers, police officers, people working at our hotels downtown. There’s a huge opportunity to create a conversation about what kind of community we want to be going forward. It can be a more positive message.”
Once the tone changes — once they can establish how fundamental the crisis is to the city’s future — moving the ball upfield should come easier, various members said.
“You can’t even find accurate numbers,” said Daniel Werwath of the affordable housing advocate New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing Corp. “I see a huge opportunity for us to come in and fill the void of this missing data so we can have actual arguments — building housing has the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions this much, or increase local spending that much.”
The coalition will conduct surveys and compile numbers to balance “counterfactual narratives” about how new development actually affects neighborhoods. Members plan to convene residents at roundtables and other events to source the needs of different segments of the population, then advocate for those needs before regional city and county governing bodies.
The moment is right for committed action, coalition members said, as two dynamics converge.
Fresh faces on the City Council and in the Santa Fe Mayor’s Office could bust up the scattered, amorphous — and often powerful — NIMBY coalitions that seek to forestall the various brands of development in the city.
In addition, the urgency of the crisis has begun to boil over, leaking into other aspects of the community and economy at a time when some sectors of Santa Fe are taking off.
“We have a new hospital; we have companies like Descartes Labs and Meow Wolf; we’ve got five senior centers being built, all of which are hiring; the labs are hiring,” said Simon Brackley of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce. “Our economy is very strong. We have retirees — all of these things are coming together in a sort of imperfect storm of demand.
“If we don’t have homes for our teachers and police officers, we don’t have a community,” Brackley said. “Those folks need to live in Santa Fe. It’s a real obstacle not just to economic growth but to sort of maintain the system we need.”
The steering committee comprises almost 20 community organizations across a wide spectrum.
“We couldn’t have done this five years ago,” Billig said. “This issue has reached a new level of urgency that all these groups are willing to come together, and folks are not at the table just to talk about this.”
Observers inside the coalition and out likened its prospective work to that of the Santa Fe Affordable Housing Roundtable, a public-private partnership begun in the early 1990s with the goal of ensuring the city’s economic and racial diversity were not lost to gentrification and retirees.
“It’s the idea that there can be a one-stop resource for the community,” said city housing projects manager Alexandra Ladd.
The new coalition could have its first good chance to prove its advocacy chops. The soon-to-be-released final report from Mayor Alan Webber’s housing transition working group, a team of local experts and stakeholders who have continued their work beyond the initial deadline, will include a bevy of actionable policy proposals.
Some members of that working group overlap with the new coalition. Carol Luna-Anderson of The Life Link, co-chair of Webber’s working group and a member of the coalition steering committee, said she envisions the coalition taking up the baton of education and advocacy to deliver on the working group’s proposals.
“At the end of the day, I think everyone is really committed,” Luna-Anderson said. “It is not the typical little comment about, ‘Yes, we need more housing.’ It’s a plan: What can we do to bring about that?”
Coalition members offered a handful of concrete, short-term goals. They said they want to be accountable to more than the typical little comment.
Members said the “low-hanging fruit,” like clearing the way for more casitas, could lead to improvements while also keeping an eye on big-ticket items such as trying to ensure across-the-spectrum housing is developed at the former Santa Fe University of Art and Design campus and more money is made available for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
More than 1,900 units across the city were at some stage of the development pipeline as of July, according to a map produced by the city’s Land Use Department. Almost all of the 1,487 multifamily units are market-rate developments, said Ladd, and chose to pay a fee in lieu of earmarking 15 percent of their units for affordability tenants. It’s a trend that has driven some market-rate development — but at the expense, some observers say, of more affordably priced units.
While the market rate is steered by Santa Fe’s present short supply and high demand, more units are needed up and down the income spectrum.
Still, Werwath said, “Building market-rate housing alone will not solve all our problems. We need to relieve pressure, but that only trickles down so far.”
The fee-in-lieu-of program is scheduled to expire at the end of 2019 and its future is unclear. Ladd said it could be succeeded by more of a “menu.” That could include an option for a developer to partner with an agency such as the Housing Trust that has the know-how to manage an affordability project on site, an option to pay a partial fee and some others, all aimed at making sure affordable units come into play.
“We can be a lot more creative,” Ladd said.
Whatever comes of it, members of the new coalition say they want to be out in front.
As they aim to position themselves as a sort of bulwark or resource center for housing solutions “across the income spectrum,” Billig said concerns about potential displacement of low-income and vulnerable Santa Fe residents will stay front and center.
“We very intentionally have a diverse table,” she said. “So we want to try to surface innovative ideas about housing and new ways of doing inclusive development, because we have to figure out how to do multiple things at once. There’s no silver bullet.”
Organizations that make up the Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition
Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center
Communities In Schools of New Mexico
New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness
New Mexico Interfaith Housing Corp.
Santa Fe Association of Realtors
Santa Fe Habitat for Humanity
Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association
Santa Fe Art Institute
Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce
Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority
Santa Fe Community College
Santa Fe Community Housing Trust
Santa Fe Community Foundation
The Life Link