Just a couple of weeks ago, Liberty Rose Adkins, 23, finally moved into her own apartment, a one-bedroom Santa Fe unit renting for $850 per month.
She had been living in her mother’s home, where she helped take care of her three younger siblings while working for $14 an hour at YouthWorks and interning at Guadalupe Credit Union.
But bright prospects are not exactly on the horizon.
“With trying to advance my life, it’s been a huge struggle because all the necessary things are so expensive,” Adkins said. “I’m not able to explore anything other than basic survival.”
Used to be, if you had a decent job, it wasn’t that hard to find decent housing in Santa Fe.
Nowadays, being a bank teller, a utility lineman, a police officer, a hospital worker or an office worker guarantees nothing.
Let alone being one of the 23 percent of Santa Fe workers earning minimum wage or less, or the nearly 40 percent earning $15 an hour or less, or the roughly 60 percent earning $20 or less, according to state labor statistics.
Census data shows 86 percent of Santa Fe renters who earn up to $50,000 a year are “cost burdened,” broadly defined as paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent.
Adkins falls squarely into the cost-burdened camp with 35 percent of her earnings swallowed by rent.
“I survive by not spending on anything,” Adkins said. “I don’t eat out. I don’t have any luxury items. I work full time and even more.”
The long-running issue of housing affordability in Santa Fe has drawn increasing attention in recent years. Now, with a financial boost from local funders, various organizations are jointly trying to tackle a community crisis that forces many workers to live outside the city and one that can only be aggravated by the economic shock from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Advocates who teamed up two years ago as the Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition are preparing to build a case that the city should inject millions of dollars into a trust fund that supports building and operating affordable housing projects.
“Everybody was doing their own thing, and we weren’t getting anywhere,” Edward Archuleta, executive director of St. Elizabeth Shelter, said of advocates’ decision to speak with one voice. “We can agree on one thing. We need more affordable housing.”
Take a $1,000 monthly rent — roughly the median apartment rental rate in Santa Fe but not all that easy to find in the current market. One would need to earn more than $40,000 a year, or $19.23 an hour, to not be considered “cost burdened.”
“Back in the day,” said Melynn Schuyler, executive director of YouthWorks, “nobody ever said ‘I don’t have a place to go.’ “ She was referring to what circumstances were like until a couple of decades ago for the people ages 18 to 24 that YouthWorks serves. “Kids [now] double up and triple up in very small units. The vision we used to have for migrant families is now happening to regular workers.”
The 20-member Housing Action Coalition says a step toward a possible solution would be for the city to add $3 million a year to its Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which has a balance of about $500,000. The fund has largely been fed by payments from developers in lieu of including affordable housing units in their projects, along with other development fees generated by real estate market activity.
Alexandra Ladd, director of the city’s Office of Affordable Housing, which administers the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, acknowledges it’s only a small part of the answer to the housing crisis.
“The point is that even $3 million per year wouldn’t fully support the construction of 3,000 units,” Ladd said in an email. “It’s an issue of leveraging funds so that the city provides the last-mile, gap financing and ongoing subsidy support for the [rental] units. That’s the issue of why it’s so difficult for market-rate developers to build affordable rental units — it’s the cost of operating the units that creates the barriers to financing the construction of the project.”
Ladd said Affordable Housing Trust Fund money is key to operating affordable dwellings.
“No bank is going to lend nor investor provide equity if 15 percent of the units won’t meet the rate of return needed to pay for operating costs as well as provide a profit margin,” Ladd said.
To accomplish its mission, the coalition convinced the Santa Fe Community Foundation, McCune Charitable Foundation, Nusenda Credit Union and Anchorum St. Vincent to provide a $330,000, two-year collaborative grant.
The coalition for the past year had been operating on $50,000, mostly from a planning grant.
“What’s great about this [$330,000] grant is we can stop spending so much time chasing money” to operate the coalition, said Daniel Werwath, chief operating officer at New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing, a Santa Fe affordable housing developer and property management firm that is a prime organizer of the coalition.
The grant will allow the Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition to hire its first director to give full-time attention to carrying out the mission. Werwath seeks “someone with experience with public campaigning, who can build a campaign.”
“The $3 million we are talking about really leads to broad prosperity,” Werwath said. “I want somebody who can tell that story well.”
The grant is designed to give momentum, said William Smith, CEO of the Santa Fe Community Foundation, which brought in McCune, Nusenda and Anchorum to create the grant.
“What we haven’t done is focus on the crisis and find a systemic solution,” Smith said. “It was clear to us that one of the ways we could catapult this was to fund policy, advocacy and community engagement.”
The affordable housing problem, boiled down, is low wages coupled with high housing costs. But the equation is more complicated than that.
“People are consumed by debt in a way they weren’t in the past,” said Laura Altomare, chief communications officer at Homewise, a leading Santa Fe affordable housing builder and financer. “That is a big barrier. Student debt, medical debt, consumer debt [credit card], car debt. The debt issue goes across the income spectrum.”
What does that add up to for millennials with college degrees?
“I have friends who say ‘I’m going to die with my college debt.’ I hear that a lot,” said Katrina Ortiz, 30, coordinator for the Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition.
Ortiz managed to avoid student debt by cashing in the money her parents were saving for her future wedding.
“When I was getting close to graduating, I was looking at an apartment complex,” Ortiz said. “It was very expensive. I looked at Craigslist. I found a studio casita for $900 something. It has a bedroom nook. I find it very nice and really cozy.”
Ortiz noted she has benefited from a change to the city’s accessory dwelling unit ordinance last June that allows homeowners to have two rentals on a single-family lot and dropped the requirement that property owners must live on the property.
Pushing city policy
The coalition wrote a white paper in support of the proposal and drafted the language for the ordinance change. The coalition also drafted the revision to the city’s “inclusionary zoning program” that the mayor and City Council approved in December. This gave developers more options to satisfy a city requirement to set aside 15 percent of new housing developments as affordable housing.
Those were the most high-profile accomplishments so far for the coalition, which is just now making a strong push to convince the City Council to increase the trust fund by $3 million a year.
“There are a lot of ways to fund this,” Werwath said. “Our job is to lay out the options.”
For starters, Werwath suggests improving the collection of taxes from short-term rentals. The coalition also wants the city to set aside 10 percent of its capital improvement funds for infrastructure to support affordable housing projects.
The affordable housing challenge in Santa Fe extends to homeownership.
“The monthly payment is typically not the biggest barrier,” Altomare of Homewise said. “It’s the down payment. It’s the upfront chunk that is the barrier. Twenty, thirty years ago people could save money. Parents helped kids with down payments. Now parents aren’t in a position to help make a down payment.”
The American dream of homeownership and doing better than your parents has become a remote concept for many.
“Two people who are working full time earning the living wage are at about 50 to 60 percent of the median wage to qualify for homeownership,” Schuyler said. “People shouldn’t have any problems buying housing if they are working full-time jobs.”
She recited choices many young adults have to make, such as juggling the costs of higher education with basic necessities.
“We are overwhelmed by need, and we’re exhausted by the blood-curdling stories and sadness we see of people just straining to make things work in their lives,” Schuyler said.
Plenty of professionals commute on Interstate 25 every morning and evening because homeownership or even renting in Santa Fe is an obstacle more easily overcome in Bernalillo or Sandoval counties.
“For myself I work in Santa Fe, however I live in Corrales due to the fact I cannot find comparable housing” in Santa Fe, said Sarah Leyba, project manager at the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. “Living in Corrales affords me the ability to live in a home that is up to my standards and safe, whereas moving to Santa Fe I do not have the same quality of home for nearly the same price.”
Public Service Company of New Mexico linemen are not immune from living an hour from their jobs.
“Most of our folks who work in Santa Fe don’t live in Santa Fe,” said Jamie Aranda, local government affairs and community relations manager for the state’s largest utility company. “They could buy that four-bedroom in Rio Rancho for the same price as a two-bedroom in Santa Fe.”
In addition to emergency shelter, St. Elizabeth’s Shelters & Supportive Housing provides long-term supportive housing for the homeless in Santa Fe, many surviving on Social Security disability benefits of about $700 a month or Section 8 housing vouchers good for up to $1,000 a month, executive director Archuleta said.
While the median rent in Santa Fe is a bit over $1,000, that doesn’t mean renters can find anything at or below that in Santa Fe. The apartment occupancy rate here in September was 98.79 percent, according to commercial real estate services firm CBRE in Albuquerque.
“We’re now sending many of our clients out of town, especially to Albuquerque where they can easily find a decent place to live in the $400 to $500 range,” Archuleta said. “It’s unfortunate because many of them were born and raised in this town and have been driven out because of the high cost of living.”