Santa Fe’s tight rental housing market keeps Kyle Fulton on the move.

The 28-year-old has a full-time job at the Meow Wolf interactive arts collective near Siler Road, but he and his girlfriend, a student at St. John’s College, live in downtown Albuquerque. Both commute — he in a car, and she mostly on the New Mexico Rail Runner Express.

The couple pay $880 a month to live in a refurbished studio apartment with their two cats in what is known as the old Albuquerque High School building. They have a new dishwasher, range and a full refrigerator.

There is nothing comparable in Santa Fe, Fulton said, even at up to $1,100 a month, the higher end of their price range.

“A lot of places we looked had a mini fridge or a one-burner stove. You don’t get a kitchen, rarely a dishwasher. Almost no place we looked allowed pets,” Fulton said.

The tight rental market in Santa Fe has always been an issue with those looking to work in the city or relocate here. But today, with more homes, casitas and spare rooms being converted to vacation rentals and the paucity of any new housing construction projects, the issue has reached a boiling point — particularly as the city seeks to attract more young professionals, who prefer rental housing to homebuying.

Santa Fe’s current rental occupancy rate for large apartment properties is between 95 percent and 98 percent and may well be the tightest in the country, according to a survey by CBRE, a property management and development firm with an office in Albuquerque.

“What’s the point of bringing workers in here to work if you’re going to put them in a barn [to live]?” asked Amanda Tara, who previously lived in Ohio and Florida. She now works as a manager at Meow Wolf and pays $900 for a studio apartment with no insulation.

As the labor market tightens across the U.S., that question is being asked more and more in Santa Fe — not just by workers, but also by the business owners who hire them and government leaders who spend millions of dollars a year to help businesses expand and create jobs.

“It’s a huge economic straitjacket on the city,” said Todd Clarke of New Mexico Apartment Advisors Inc., a housing research firm. Clarke spoke last week at a workforce housing conference sponsored by the Santa Fe Association of Realtors, which is concerned about the rental housing shortage.

“If you can’t provide the housing,” he said, “you can’t provide the jobs.”

Clarke has used national benchmarks — one new worker in 10 will be an apartment dweller — as well as current population numbers to estimate that Santa Fe County needs 6,480 new apartment units to meet current demand. That doesn’t take into account older homes that may no longer be suitable for renters or the depletion of additional rooms to the vacation-rental business.

It also doesn’t take into account the many people paying more than one-third of their total income on housing and utilities, the standard housing advocates use to measure affordability. On top of all that, his estimate is based on 100 percent occupancy — the number of new units with a more workable 95 percent occupancy rate is closer to 6,800.

“In the 30 years I’ve been doing apartment survey work in New Mexico, I’ve never seen a number this big,” he told a group of Realtors last week.

Clarke said the biggest market for apartments in New Mexico and elsewhere are young professionals in their 20s and 30s. Unlike their baby boomer parents, they don’t want a large house with a big yard in a suburban neighborhood. They want close-in neighborhoods and don’t require as much space for vehicles.

Instead of a swimming pool, they want Wi-Fi-connected common areas with coffee. Instead of a jetted bathtub, they want a dog wash. Instead of a big-screen TV, they want a place to charge devices and electric vehicles. Clarke said when he was growing up, the swimming pool was the place young adults could safely gather and meet.

“Today’s swimming pool is a coffee shop,” he said.

Younger generations are more likely to be self-employed and work several jobs, he added, a concept known as gig work. They may even want to live in different locations as they move along in a career and may never settle down and buy a house, like their parents.

The majority of this demographic group earns between $50,000 and $75,000 a year and can afford to pay monthly rent between $1,388 and $2,083, including utilities, he said.

“This is a whole different deal,” Clarke said. “They will not be settling down.” What that means, he added, is that most communities should be prepared to provide “twice as much rental housing as the last generation.”

The challenges of meeting this housing demand in Santa Fe are huge, according to many experts who spoke at the conference last week. Foremost is the lack of flat, buildable land with access to adequate roads and utilities.

The city of Santa Fe is trying to promote more condensed urban projects in places such as the Santa Fe Railyard and along the St. Michael’s Drive corridor.

Last year, the City Council unanimously passed what is called an overlay zone for the St. Michael’s Drive corridor, including the Santa Fe University of Art and Design campus, to allow for four- and five-story buildings with less of a setback from the road and flexible parking requirements.

Matthew O’Reilly, a city planner and property manager, said the idea is a change from the large concrete projects now in place along St. Michael’s Drive that put vehicles front and center. He said almost three-fourths of the land along St. Michael’s is dedicated to parking cars. “When you drive by a lot of those shopping centers, except for a few days a year, they are mostly empty.”

Under the new rules, he said, the city can require as much or as little parking as a project demands. And if a property owner submits a project that meets the qualifications, most fees will be waived, and the project can go straight to the permit phase without needing approval from the appointed Planning Commission.

Many projects in and around Santa Fe that have tried to propose a higher density have been met with resistance — and will continue to do so because land that is available inside the city is likely going to be in-fill and surrounded by existing neighborhoods.

Josh Rogers, the director of multifamily projects with Titan Development in Albuquerque, said that even an innovative project that tries to conserve land by using a denser footprint will be a challenge in the city. Titan is one of the companies interested in building mixed-use residential and commercial projects at Garrett’s Desert Inn on Old Santa Fe Trail and in areas along St. Michael’s Drive.

“We have huge shortage in Santa Fe of quality building sites,” he said. “It’s really challenging to find a good site, and it takes a lot of creativity to make some of these projects work.”

Both the Santa Fe Association of Realtors Association and the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce have said they want their members to be stronger advocates for more multifamily housing where it is appropriate and attend public hearings to speak for people who might someday be residents of Santa Fe.

The alternative, according to Clarke, is a city with older, low-quality housing that is out of the price range for many who need it, or a community left behind.

“If they can’t get it in New Mexico, they will go to Denver,” Clarke said.

Contact Bruce Krasnow at brucek@sfnewmexican.com.