Renter fights city of Santa Fe for home

Jamie Durfee looks out from the front of her casita in the South Capitol neighborhood Friday. Due to a section of city code, Durfee could be evicted by the end of the month. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican

For five years, Jaime Durfee called a 750-square-foot apartment near St. Francis Drive and west of the Santa Fe Railyard home.

“It was a great place,” Durfee, 31, said Friday. “I was paying about $800 a month.”

But when her friends asked if she was interested in moving into a casita behind the main house they were going to rent in the South Capitol area, Durfee jumped at the chance.

“It had a washer-dryer and a dishwasher, and it was a brand-new, renovated unit” in a quieter neighborhood close to her job, she said. “I’m paying about a third of the rent for the property right now.”

But under a section of the Santa Fe city code, Durfee could be evicted by the end of the month.

The city code allows a property owner to “rent both the principal dwelling unit and the accessory dwelling unit to the same lessee, however, no separate subletting of either unit is allowed.”

Durfee said she and her friends, Megan Keller and Paul Cochran, all signed a single long-term lease.

“We’re all equally responsible for the property,” she said, adding that she didn’t realize something was amiss until the Santa Fe New Mexican last year wrote about a neighborhood dispute over the situation. While it raises issues of neighborhood self-determination, some housing advocates see the situation as a case where a city ordinance is aggravating the housing crunch affecting young renters.

In a notice of violation dated Feb. 27, Assistant City Attorney Michael Prinz wrote that the city “has reason to believe” that Keller, Cochran and their child rent the main house in the 800 block of Don Cubero Avenue while Durfee and her boyfriend rent the adjacent casita.

“Your clients have until March 31, 2019 to come into compliance with the city code,” Prinz wrote in the notice to an Albuquerque-based attorney who represents the property owners. “This means that either the Keller/Cochran or the Durfee household must move out of the property. If no action is taken to come into compliance with the city code, the city of Santa Fe reserves all legal rights and remedies it may choose to exercise, including revoking the certificate of occupancy or referring the matter to the city prosecutor.”

City Attorney Erin McSherry said the city started to receive complaints from neighbors in 2016, prompting the City Attorney’s Office to get involved.

“The owners agreed that because they had a lease that was expiring in 2017, they would just not refill the property with additional tenants at that time,” she said, adding that the owners later said the property was vacant and that they were in compliance with the city code.

“Then they enter this new lease,” generating more complaints from neighbors, McSherry said. “There was a whole petition of many names that was filed, ‘City please enforce your code.’ Neighbors sending photos.”

McSherry noted that the city asked the property owners to provide evidence that the accessory dwelling unit is not being leased.

“If they thought they weren’t violating, they could tell us, they could make an argument,” she said. “We have not heard from them.”

Mariel Nanasi, executive director of New Energy Economy, who owns the property along with her husband, Jeffrey Haas, would only say that they plan to “resolve” the matter with the city.

“That’s all I want to say right now,” she said.

Her tenant had much more to say.

Durfee called the city code antiquated and said she hopes that sharing her story will lead to changes, especially in a city that continues to grapple with a shortage of rental housing.

“The casita I’m in is one of the few affordable options available to me as a young professional from Santa Fe, working to stay in my hometown,” she wrote on a Facebook post Wednesday. “Ironically enough I work at Descartes Labs as a Recruiter where my job is to encourage individuals to move to Santa Fe.”

Descartes is a high-tech start-up that recently opened its headquarters near downtown Santa Fe.

Vince Kadlubek, a housing advocate who is the former chairman of the Santa Fe Planning Commission, said he agrees that the city code needs to be changed to remove the prohibition affecting Durfee.

“Given the rental housing crisis that Santa Fe finds itself in, the governing body, the mayor, the planning commission and the Land Use Department should be doing everything in their power to fix the city code to alleviate the housing stress that is happening to people in Santa Fe,” he said. “That means tweaking some of this language. It means allowing for even more accessory dwelling units. It means fast-tracking more multi-family developments. It means getting out in front of this problem.”

Kadlubek, chief executive officer of the wildly popular artist collective Meow Wolf, said he’s seen five or six “alarmist posts” on Facebook from people in their 30s who “literally cannot find a house to live in” in Santa Fe.

“The mayor ran on this as a platform, that it was a problem, and yet the problem seems to be getting worse before it’s getting better,’ he said, referring to Mayor Alan Webber. “To me, somebody needs to get out in front of this thing and form a rental housing crisis initiative that goes through every single page of code and goes through every single aspect of our housing crisis and rapidly starts to fix it.”

Durfee said she’s “almost gotten to the point where I’ll move into the main house” with her friends.

“Obviously, this situation is a lot bigger than me,” she said. “There’s an antiquated city code that says that if you own a property, you can’t rent out both the main house and the casita. That’s crazy to me, but it is what it is.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.