By | July 12, 2019

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth wanted to delay the vote.

The City Council had heard more than two hours of public comment the night of June 26 on relaxing restrictions on the construction and rental of “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs, such as casitas or guest houses.

Daniel Werwath, chief operating officer with New Mexico Inter-faith Housing, speaks to a rally in support of relaxed rules for “accessory dwelling units” outside City Hall on June 26. (T.S. Last/Albuquerque Journal)

Neighborhood activists who for years have fought against denser development in or near single-family neighborhoods in Santa Fe – and have won many such battles – were out in force to oppose the changes, which for the first time would allow the rental of two separate units on lots zoned single-family residential. Previously, an ADU could be rented out legally only if there was an owner-occupant in the house or other unit on the lot.

Romero Wirth said many of the people opposed to the ADU changes had been heard from only that night and had valid concerns that ought to be addressed before the proposals were adopted.

“I just think that some of these people who have expressed concerns need to be heard and we need to do some things to address the other side as we move forward with this,” she said.

But the council had heard enough from the “other side.”

“I think part of the problem is we’ve been listening for years and years and years to this other side and not … to one side as opposed to the other,” Councilor Roman Abeyta said. “And that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in as a community.”

The council approved the amendments, 8-1, with Romero-Wirth casting the lone no vote.

The ADU amendments were described by Mayor Alan Webber and other proponents as just a very small piece of an overall strategy to expand housing opportunities in Santa Fe.

Mayor Alan Webber

But the changes spurred what became an intense and divisive pitched battle that, by the time of the June 26 hearing, spurred charges of elitism and even racism against the people opposed to the changes.

Santa Fe’s old-school, baby boomer progressives were said to be using a fake narrative that denser development ruins neighborhoods, despite the experience of other cities.

Proponents of the ADU changes were accused of carrying water for development and real estate interests, and opening the door for speculators to buy up houses and use what amounts to duplex zoning to commercialize what have been stable neighborhoods for decades.

And there was a young versus old element. Many young people supporting the ADU changes spoke up before the council to say they can’t afford to live in Santa Fe.

This time, what their critics call “neighborhood protectionists” lost.

Housing shortage

The ADU fight arrived after Santa Fe has grappled for years with a housing shortage, with miniscule apartment vacancy rates and home prices again skyrocketing to pre-recession levels

So how is it that Santa Fe got itself into this situation?

There’s no easy answer. But Daniel Werwath, chief operating officer with New Mexico Inter-faith Housing and a vocal advocate for the ADU changes, took a stab at it.

“It’s really multi-fold,” he said. “But the biggest thing is we never really recovered from the recession. The economic downturn held back a lot of development, and created a mismatch between population and housing supply that got us deeply out of balance.”

There are plenty of other factors, including Santa Fe’s cumbersome building permit process, and there’s no discounting the impact of online short-term rental services that have grown since the recession. A study commissioned by the Homewise affordable housing organization released last month indicated that the there were 1,444 active whole-unit (entire homes or apartments) short-term rental units like Airbnbs in this tourist town, eating up a good chunk of the housing supply.

“You add all that together, it’s not unique that we have this problem,” Werwath said. “Frankly, at the core of it is we have a lack of future growth planning. We’ve had our head in the sand.”

But Werwath and others also point to another cause: NIMBYs, the critical term for those who cry “Not in my backyard” when a housing development is proposed. Not only do they voice loud concerns at public meetings, Werwath says, but also city regulations favor them.

“We’ve baked NIMBYism into our land use code,” he said, adding that the neighborhood notification process the city uses serves as a warning for interest groups to “spin” their objections. “The whole process is deeply NIMBYistic.”

Werwath said “neighborhood protectionists” have succeeded in either killing or scaling down housing projects to the detriment of the city, both in suppressing the housing supply and through the economic repercussions that follow.

He said years ago that the Kachina Ridge subdivision was made to put in a road that cost it four lots and raised the cost of the homes that were built by $20,000 each.

Just this year, a proposed subdivision of 80 single-family homes on Agua Fria Street next to Mandela International Magnet School was reduced to 68 after it was met with neighborhood opposition.

In 2015, the proposed 399-unit El Rio apartment complex on Agua Fria was defeated by unanimous vote in the wee hours of the morning after the City Council heard hours of testimony from people on both sides of the issue at a meeting that drew so much attention the council moved the meeting to the Santa Fe Community Convention Center to accommodate the large crowd.

Two years later, developers Blue Buffalo LLC got approval to build a scaled down 122-unit apartment complex at the same site.

Javier Gonzales was mayor at the time the initial Blue Buffalo proposal was presented.

Former Mayor Javier Gonzales

“The City Council at the time was right because of the density numbers,” he said in a phone interview last week. “That was on a scale that was too big for that part of town.”

The council was also right to amend the land use ordinance last month to promote ADUs, he says. Following the vote, Gonzales sent out a tweet that read, “Well done @SantaFeGov! Recognizing the past patterns of obstruction to opportunity to housing in our city for all people paved the way to sensible legislation. Proud of our City leadership.”

“I think there has been a pattern of obstruction by minority voices that have always taken the effort to show up at City Council meetings, and use fear tactics and use quality of life in a way that doesn’t allow for a conversation to take place,” Gonzales said. “If we continue down this line, we’ll continue to deny housing opportunities to the very people who grew up and live in this town.”

Notably, Gonzales now works for Descartes Labs, a high-tech company that uses satellite imagery in scientific analyses that, as mayor, he helped attract to town.

And Jamie Durfee, a woman unwittingly caught in the center of the debate over ADUs because she was renting a casita from absentee landlords operating in violation of Santa Fe’s ADU laws as they existed before the City Council’s June vote, also works for Descartes Labs as a recruiter.

Seeking discussion

Karen Heldmeyer and Rick Martinez represent the Neighborhood Network, whose mission is “to work for the political, social and economic empowerment of neighborhoods in Santa Fe and Santa Fe County.”

They also represent the “other side” that Councilor Abeyta said the city has been listening to for too long.

“They call me a NIMBY, but I’ve never been a NIMBY,” Martinez said. “I’m for affordable housing. But of all this housing that is supposed to get built, not one of them is an affordable unit.”

Nothing in the ADU changes requires any units to meet the city’s affordable housing standards.

He said he’s not against development, he just wants to make sure neighborhoods are protected and any development that does take place is compatible with what already exists.

Heldmeyer, a former city councilor, says the Neighborhood Network isn’t trying to suppress conversation over a the housing issue; it’s doing the exact opposite.

“I think you need to listen to all sides,” she said. “If you listen to everybody, maybe you’ll get ideas from both sides. But you won’t know until you give people an opportunity to speak.”

Heldmeyer said the Neighborhood Network got a bad rap by being labeled obstructionists during the ADU debate.

“We don’t push anything down anyone’s throat. If people are worried about something happening in their neighborhood, we can help get them organized and get people to come out and speak, but it has to happen from the bottom up, and why shouldn’t it?

“It’s very easy to demonize people as NIMBYs if they are saying, ‘This is going to affect my neighborhood,’ ” she continued. “But very, very, very few people who are saying something about a development are saying they don’t want anything there. They aren’t asking that development be stopped. They are asking that things be discussed before a decision is reached, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.”

While Werwath complained about “spin” orchestrated by the Neighborhood Network, which he described as “sort of a NIMBY franchise group,” Heldmeyer and Martinez said the city and pro-housing activists have spun things their way.

“You put out enough PR about, ‘Oh, my God, this is a crisis’ and everyone against this is a terrible person,” Heldmeyer said. “If you have a successful enough PR campaign, you can change how people vote.”

Martinez took exception to messaging put out by the Santa Fe Housing Coalition, which favored the lessening of restrictions on ADUs.

“For too long, the city has listened to a minority, but vocal, opposition to new housing and affordable housing in existing neighborhoods at the expense of renters and working families who are increasingly pushed out of the community,” read a message on the Housing Colation’s Facebook page calling on people to attend a rally at City Hall before the City Council considered the ADU amendments.

The post went on to warn that “a small but vocal opposition has been organizing people against the proposal and aggressively lobbying our elected officials,” and that the pro-amendment crowd needed to make a strong showing of its own to support new housing.

Martinez addressed that argument before the City Council at the June 26 meeting.

“Wow. Neighborhoods in Santa Fe created this housing crisis?” Martinez told the council.

“Wow. Financial institutions had nothing to do with it?

“Wow. Real estate speculators and the recession had nothing to do with it?

“Wow. Our existing urban planning officials had nothing to do with it?

“Wow. Short-term rentals had nothing to do with it?”

In an interview last week, Martinez maintained the Neighborhood Network isn’t the villain.

“We, the so-called NIMBYs, haven’t stopped growth at all,” he said, adding that the problem is that Santa Fe has stopped investing in its neighborhoods. Single-family homes are now being turned into rental units, he said, and the city has been listening too much to its pocketbook, offering developers the opportunity to pay a fee in lieu of building affordable homes and apartments called for under city law.

So, the question now is whether last month’s vote was a watershed event signaling that city leaders will stop listening to that so-called “other side” when considering new developments.

“I hope so,” said Werwath, who sees the Neighborhood Network and NIMBYs as obstructing growth. “What I’ve seen in the last 15 years is a lot of legislating over every hypothetical thing that could go wrong, and as a result it makes it hard to do things. The other night, all but one councilor said we need to get moving away from the idea we have to fix every hypothetical problem that might arise before we move forward on anything.”

Heldmeyer hopes not.

“Personally, I think that the way (the city) handled this to keep public comment down to a minimum was the wrong thing to do,” she said. “Having these discussions might take a little longer and be more messy, but you’re better off if you include everybody in on the conversation.”

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