A couple of years ago, a highly recruited architect and planner brought to town to run a Santa Fe housing nonprofit dropped a pearl of wisdom on me that still rankles. Befriending the person, with the honest intention of sharing my local knowledge of people, policies and politics to help the nonprofit, I even imagined a paid position might be offered.

Over a casual lunch, I was told it was a proven fact that quality education and experience in major markets like San Francisco and Phoenix, where this person had practiced and achieved many professional accolades, would always outweigh local connections and experience. In other words: Thanks for the offer, but you have nothing to offer.

Fired from the nonprofit within months, and after a short stint with the city, the person abruptly left town. Meanwhile, local yokels are still here trying to improve our city.

Implicit in the lunchtime comment was the assumption that if you never played in a major market, and chose instead a career plying your skills and intelligence in a small market, then your skills and intelligence could never match those drifting into town after professional accomplishments elsewhere.

The axiom may be true as a rule, but exception proves the rule. Santa Fe is the exception.

The exceptional nature of a local group, Friends of Architecture Santa Fe, is a case in point. While none of its board members are born and raised Santa Feans, all have professional credentials worthy of any market in America. Yet they chose Santa Fe to plant professional flags and make a difference.

Last week they released a “Call for Action on Housing,” a noncommissioned report outlining four areas the city should undertake. At the very least, the suggestions should be considered by whomever the next administration throws $200,000 at to create a growth-management plan.

Each of the four categories have verbiage expanding the concepts, but all are simple.

  • Eliminate obstacles to permitting accessory dwelling units (casitas).
  • Amend the land-use code (chapter 14) to be pro-housing.
  • Change exclusionary zoning codes.
  • Bring back long-range planning.

Most intriguing to me is the first item. Casitas are historic traditions in Santa Fe. My first jobs as a contractor 30 years ago were converting old backyard adobe garages into casitas. It was creative and fun, and property owners had immediate and positive cash flow from rents.

At the time, my crew did everything from foundations to finishes and spent weeks, if not months, on a project. It was disruptive to neighborhoods and inefficient. The Friends of Architecture report cites examples of how Los Angeles solved the problem — standard, preapproved plans and specifications pulled off the city’s shelf and permitted within hours.

The Los Angeles website shows 42 such plans ranging from 320 to 1,200 square feet. Virtually all are presumed to be built by modular factories then delivered and craned into place. Many offer turn-key contracts that include permits, foundations and installation.

That makes sense for existing neighborhoods. Backyards may have room for casitas but aren’t accessible to backhoes. But a 15-by-40-foot foundation can be dug by hand as can utility trenches. Concrete can be pumped in. A couple weeks later, a module or two arrives, gets lifted over the front house and deposited on the foundation, and then hooked up to utilities.

Locally standardized plans could stimulate local modular manufacturing. Pop-up factories are common in many markets. With an open floor space with a tall garage door, you’re in business. The vacant car dealership at the corner of Cerrillos and Camino Carlos Rey, for instance, would be perfect.

Kim Shanahan has been a Santa Fe green builder since 1986 and a sustainability consultant since 2019. Contact him at shanafe@aol.com.

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