Nearly a decade ago, Santa Fe was a nonstarter for Josh Rogers, a high-ranking official with Titan Development.
Though Santa Fe had all the trappings of a magnetic housing market, Rogers said the Albuquerque-based firm avoided the state capital and its Byzantine housing codes in lieu of more attractive opportunities.
In an attempt to help balance its affordable housing stock, Santa Fe imposed an inclusionary housing ordinance in 2004 — requiring developers to set aside 15 percent of a development’s total units as affordable.
But Rogers, Titan’s vice president of development, said the move had the opposite effect — making it impossible for real estate firms to turn a profit and transforming Santa Fe into one of the least attractive spaces for new apartment construction in Northern New Mexico. A dozen years after the passage of the ordinance, just one large, market-rate complex — the 176-unit San Isidro Apartments — was constructed. That was in 2012-13.
“It’s not a coincidence that they passed the affordable housing ordinance in 2004 and then nothing happened,” Rogers said. “They are directly related.”
Then Santa Fe officials got creative.
In 2016, the city passed a new housing ordinance that allowed developers to pay a fee-in-lieu to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund instead of setting aside affordable units.
The change was the piece that was missing from Santa Fe’s housing puzzle, Rogers said, solidifying the housing calculus and spurring what has become an apartment-building boom.
“It was finally possible, and that is the story,” Rogers said. “Now there is all this multifamily development going on in Santa Fe. Is that a problem? Is there too much? That remains to be seen, but that fee-in-lieu of made multifamily developments possible. Everyone wanted to do multifamily, [but] we just couldn’t do it.”
Nearly three months after the ordinance was changed, Titan Development went into scouting mode, picking a plot near St. Francis Drive, its first venture under the city’s revised housing ordinance: the 188-unit Broadstone Rodeo (now known as Olympus Rodeo) which started leasing in 2019.
Other new developments have continued to sprout, with almost 1,000 units permitted last year, according to the city’s Land Use Department. More are expected to move through the system in the near future.
The explosion in such projects has had a ripple effect on the conversations about development — again posing the thorny question about how Santa Fe can hold on to a small-city feel while allowing developers to help tackle the suffocating affordable housing issue.
Perhaps as a result of those discussions, Mayor Alan Webber has proposed a $200,000 study to explore how to manage and approach growth over the next few decades. If the City Council agrees to fund the study, it’s likely discussions over what Santa Fe looks and feels like will again take center stage.
Some level of trade-off
For his part, Webber said Santa Fe is at a crossroads, the kind familiar to larger metropolitan areas.
“We’ve always thought of ourselves as a small town with a small-town feel and charm. That’s why people like to live here and like to come here as tourists,” Webber said. “But when you look at the actual evolution of Santa Fe, we are starting to become a bigger place with the real issue that larger communities face.”
Webber hopes to get the planning study rolling later this year, with an outside firm spearheading the effort and participation from the community encouraged.
The city’s lack of affordable units is no secret. With a vacancy rate near zero (meaning when a unit is vacated, it’s essentially snatched up almost instantly), it’s common to hear stories of people struggling to find housing within their price range.
Just over 50 percent of Santa Fe’s workforce commutes into the city, according to a report from the state Department of Workforce Solutions. About 15 percent of commuters come from Albuquerque, the report found.
Developers have stepped in. More than 2,540 housing units have been permitted since 2018, but more will likely be needed to house Santa Fe’s workforce.
“There is obviously a deep gap of available housing in Santa Fe,” Webber said. “We are trying to fill that need without sacrificing the quality of life of the city.”
It’s a topic city Land Use Director Eli Isaacson has been pondering for the past six months, but one that he believes was magnified as city officials debated the merits of the Zia Station project.
The 400-unit mixed-use complex next to a Rail Runner station received City Council approval earlier this month, accompanied by a slate of zoning changes. The most contentious change was an exclusion from the South Central Highway Corridor overlay district. The 50-year-old overlay set two-story building height requirements, among other restrictions, to help preserve view lines as motorists enter the city.
Planning commissioners and members of the City Council wondered whether the exception to the South Central Highway Corridor might be inviting piecemeal zoning changes for future developers, instead of taking a more robust look at citywide growth and zoning as a whole.
The discussions only highlighted the need for a more holistic look at growth around the city, Webber said. Isaacson said the discussions happening in planning commission meetings boil down to whether officials are willing to make a trade-off.
“You heard that during the planning commission and the council [meetings on Zia Station],” Isaacson said. “Are we willing to give this to get this? These are really big questions, which is why I am supporting a growth management plan. These are questions that really impact all of Santa Fe.”
The soul of the city
While Webber sees the prospective study as a “step in the right direction,” it does fall short of a full general plan update, something officials have said sorely has been needed for the past decade and that is a key component to long-term planning.
Last updated in 1999, Santa Fe’s general plan sets the framework for how the city approaches development and growth management through two maps — its zoning map and a future land use map.
Webber said money was going to be allocated last year to a more robust overhaul of the general plan, but the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic knocked the money out of the budget. Instead, the city is looking to clean up its existing land use codes through a $150,000 study in the 2022 budget.
The land use study is separate from the growth management study, but would likely include similar discussions over the proper place for larger developments.
“We are governed by codes that have long needed to be updated and internally reconciled,” Webber said. “We have patched the tire to where the tire no longer rolls smoothly. If you piecemeal changes, after a while the parts don’t add up.”
Affordable housing advocate Daniel Werwath said the city’s layers of code often contradict one another, putting developers in a difficult place when they are looking for land on which to build. A growth management study, he added, could help iron out some of those conflicts.
Werwath also said the city’s future land use map is about 20 years old and does not support the type of growth needed to solve some of Santa Fe’s more pressing housing affordability issues.
“We have zero next-level planning,” Werwath said. “That next level out, we are not good at. We have good programs and regulations, but we don’t have land zoned densely enough to achieve our goals.”
The city did have a committee for exploring long-range planning, but it last met in 2017 and dealt with individual area plans rather than citywide growth.
Werwath said the larger conversation needs to be about “exclusionary zoning” — moves that prohibit certain types of development in particular communities. According to data provided by Werwath, just under 5 percent of land in Santa Fe is considered suitable for affordable apartments.
More affluent parts of the city, due to Santa Fe’s zoning map, are effectively shielded from larger affordable housing projects.
“These are the types of issues we need to acknowledge,” Werwath said. “To solve them, we have to grow. The question we have right now is whether or not we grow, and in reality the question is how do we grow? We don’t really have a choice.”
Growth management in a city like Santa Fe is a balancing act, Webber said.
“People are attracted to Santa Fe because we have a certain sense of a way of life,” he said. “We don’t want to lose the elements that make us, us.”
Isaacson said some of those zoning and code changes might be informed through the growth management study, as well as changes to overlay districts and height caps for buildings.
He also said if the city is going to explore updating its general plan, it would attempt to do it in sections, as opposed to a lengthy, comprehensive update. That would allow planners to adjust to the changing city climate as needed, as opposed to making decisions that might be outdated by the time the plan is updated.
Werwath agreed, noting a full general plan update — one that might take three to four years to complete — might not be the best way.
Webber said once a management plan is completed, the city will begin work to figure out how to implement some of those recommendations. “This growth management study is getting us in the right direction,” he said. “It’s not the end.”