Can you afford to live in Santa Fe? If you are single and/or make under $50,000 a year, then you might find your options rather limited. There is an old formula that says one month’s rent should be equal to or less than one week’s take-home pay for your household, but these days, finding something at a reasonable price that also suits your needs — space and layout, as well as location — is getting more difficult. By and large, Santa Fe is still more affordable than many other cities, but rents are quickly rising, and the squeeze is upon us.
There are various reasons for this near-dire situation, including fewer homes available for long-term rental due to the tempting financial boon of letting one’s property for short-term stays through Airbnb or other vacation rental websites. There are also more renters than there were a decade ago — including those who hit the market after being foreclosed upon during the housing crash, along with tenants who now see renting as preferable to potentially getting in over their heads on a mortgage. It’s not unusual to find one-bedroom apartments in the downtown area going for $1,200 to $1,500 a month, which almost no young professionals with starting salaries in this town can afford alone. (Many middle-aged couples dealing with stagnant wages might also find it difficult, as would retired couples on fixed incomes.)
If you head west of St. Francis Drive, you can get a two- or three-bedroom home for that price or even far less, so neighborhood does make a difference, but for single parents bringing in $600 or $800 a week, that’s probably not a ton of comfort. Many two- and three-bedrooms in the Railyard District, Casa Solana, and South Capitol can range from $1,800 to well over $2,000 a month. Though some of them are exquisitely outfitted with tile counters and hardwood floors, just as often they are in disrepair, with old, dirt-colored carpeting in the bedrooms and stained linoleum in the kitchen.
I spent my summer looking for and moving into a new house. My husband and I found what we needed in a very short amount of time, but it required abdicating most other responsibilities so that I could sit at my computer, refreshing Craigslist every 10 minutes and inquiring after every remotely promising ad. Now that we are settled in a gem that I feel lucky to have won, given that other desperate applicants offered my landlord three months’ rent in cash up front, among other bribe-like scenarios, I have continued to regularly check rental listings online. What I want to know is, what kind of city does Santa Fe want to be? Is this really the “City Different”? Are we “#NMTrue” to the ideals this state has proudly put forth about itself in marketing efforts going back a hundred years — claims of being small and eccentric, attentive to the needs of a diverse and individualistic populace, many of whom are uninterested in the rat race of 60-hour work weeks just to make ends meet? Or are we no different from the cities people move here to escape, where landlords take renters for all they’re worth, just because the market says they can?
Here are some sobering anecdotes from around the country:
My friend Angela was born and raised in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York. She works in project management, and her husband works in information technology. They need a full two weeks of her husband’s salary to cover their $2,730 rent for a two-bedroom apartment — an amount that exceeds her entire monthly salary. Angela blames creeping gentrification from Manhattan and Brooklyn and told me they will likely have to move out of Astoria in the next year or two.
Near Phoenix, Liz, a public-school teacher, and her husband, an electrical engineer, both work in the city but cannot afford to live there. They have three children. Their rent in the suburbs is one week of her husband’s pay, so they live within their means, but she said, “We would be homeless or starving if I had to do it on my own.”
Catherine, who works for a tech company, was paying over $1,000 a month to share a three-bedroom apartment in LA with roommates; that percentage has come down now that she lives in Palo Alto, in a 725-square-foot one-bedroom, for $2,200 a month, which she shares with her partner, who earns six figures as a software engineer. Marika, a dance teacher and choreographer in San Francisco, had one of the most alarming rent stories of all: “One of my students just got a great deal — she’s paying $700 a month to share a room with two other girls.”
Saying that cities like New York and San Francisco have always been expensive is an easy way of pretending Santa Fe doesn’t also have this reputation or that the problem can’t get equally out of hand here. A twenty-eight-year-old colleague who moved here after living in New York told me she could rent a room in a nice apartment in Brooklyn for roughly the cost of a dilapidated studio without a full kitchen in Santa Fe. She has had trouble finding other young professionals to live with her and said most of the better house-share options mean living with empty nesters who are two or three times her age. Though financially life would be easier if she lived with a romantic partner, she saw people in New York force relationships just to save on rent, and she doesn’t want to do that. As part of my research for this column, I’ve been online every day trying to find her a studio or one-bedroom that costs no more than $800 with utilities included and dogs allowed. I haven’t found much.
Although I’m certainly no expert, I have spent enough time this summer looking for rental houses that I now have some experience and wisdom to offer. Here are few tips for Pasa readers on the hunt:
▼ The classified ads on the Santa Fe New Mexican and property management websites, along with Craigslist.org, are your best sources for finding rentals. Beware: Craigslist is rife with scams. Do not give out personal information before you see the property in question, especially if it already sounds too good to be true.
▼ There is no one on Craigslist evaluating the truth of what’s posted there. Be aware that, for some reason, many of the most expensive rental homes listed are proudly touted as “below market value.”
▼ If a decently sized free-standing two-bedroom house costs less than $1,000 a month, start asking questions, because something is probably wrong. For instance, does the landlord expect to do his laundry in the tenant’s house? Do you have full use of the property, or is the garage filled with the owner’s late mother’s furniture?
▼ To find the gems, broaden your search. Look at the south and west sides, and consider Pojoaque, Pecos, and other locales that might require a commute. Living in or near downtown is nice, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of the Santa Fe experience.
▼ Consider one of the larger apartment complexes. Many have been renovated in recent years, with open plans and aesthetically pleasing laminate flooring instead of the old beige and baby-blue shag that used to be their hallmark, and they often offer pools and other amenities.
▼ Before signing a lease with a property management company, go online to find out what other tenants say about them. Some charge exorbitant rental application fees, some don’t maintain their properties after a lease is signed, and others simply overcharge for units that should be bigger or nicer for the price.
▼ Stick to your budget, keep refreshing ad websites, and make your inquiries immediately. It will help keep rents down if people stop even contacting the ad posters for unfairly overpriced homes. Sometimes, you can even watch this happen. This summer, I saw a $1,000 one-bedroom in the Railyard that didn’t allow dogs drop to $900 with pets OK after being posted on the site for about a month. A three-bedroom off West Alameda Street, originally posted for $1,600, dropped to $1,400 in just one week.
Good luck. I sincerely hope you find the Santa Fe rental of your dreams, and that you have enough left over for luxuries like car payments, emergency dental surgery, and your kids’ school supplies. ◀