Council supports housing proposals

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By Arin McKenna

Housing – especially workforce and affordable housing – has been high on Los Alamos County’s list of priorities for a number of years. 

Los Alamos County’s new housing manager, Paul Andrus, has spent his first seven months evaluating what initiatives the county has in place and developing some new ideas as well. 

Andrus shared the results of that work with council at Tuesday’s work session, outlining ways to attract commuters to relocate in the county, increase workforce and affordable housing, provide for the changing housing needs of an aging population and address issues regarding aging housing stock and declining property conditions.

Andrus recommended strategic investments in order to maintain and improve existing housing stock (both owner-occupied and rental), expand opportunities for home ownership; support the development of new mixed income housing and increase the diversity of housing choices.

According to Andrus, the county must find creative ways to provide home ownership assistance, since its resources are too high to qualify for many federal assistance programs. Typical programs provide down-payment and/or closing cost assistance for first time homebuyers earning less than 80% of the area median income. They usually mandate homebuyer education. 

Affordable housing for seniors ready to downsize was also high on Andrus’ list of priorities.

“If we keep our seniors here who want to stay here, we are not only helping ourselves and our seniors, and we’re also bringing in the medical professionals, the care people, and the younger medical people. The medical sector in this community has a real potential to grow,” Andrus said. 

Councilor David Izraelevitz asked if the county could partner with employers to build a fund for subsidizing workforce housing. Andrus does not recommend pursuing that at this point, because those programs can be quite expensive over time. 

Councilor Frances Berting asked Andrus to find ways to make affordable housing programs sustainable. 

“I would like to make low income programs as much in perpetuity as possible, because we don’t have any more land use, so we have to use it efficiently,” Berting said. 

Bob Fuselier, president of the Los Alamos Housing Partnership, suggested some options for achieving that during public comment. LAHP was formed by council action in the 1990s to assist the county with affordable housing.

“We’re a nonprofit, which can do things that a government agency cannot,” Fuselier said. Subsidizing housing in Piñon Trails was one of LAHP’s initiatives. 

Fuselier reported that LAHP has over $4 million in principal and interest as an asset to the community. He also suggested that the financial mechanism LAHP utilizes could be used for such things as housing rehabilitation. 

Another problem Andrus identified from his personal experience looking for both rental housing and a home to purchase was a lack of reliable, current information regarding available housing and resources. He suggested developing a centrally coordinated clearinghouse to streamline the search/referral process and to provide information on county programs and financing resources.

New property maintenance standards were also discussed Tuesday and many of Andrus’ ideas centered on ways to improve existing properties and assist low-income residents in bringing their property up to code.

“Housing and property maintenance standards are always hand in hand when you’re working at a broader level neighborhood revitalization process,” Andrus said.

A typical program might provide assistance for repair or replacement of major systems, energy efficiency updates, handicapped modifications, emergency repair, code compliance and some curb appeal improvements such as landscaping.

Councilor Pete Sheehey encouraged Andrus to pursue that.

“I strongly support the higher property standards we discussed earlier. I think that and housing rehabilitation are the first steps that will establish this as a desirable real estate market,” Sheehey said. 

“If you drive around and you see deteriorated houses, if you go looking for rental houses or apartments and what you get for the money is pretty underwhelming, that not only discourages the person from buying or renting here, it also discourages developers from coming in. It sends the wrong message.”

Sheehey asked about the possibility of providing tax incentives for rehabilitating properties. Andrus responded that “core customers” for a housing rehabilitation program are usually homeowners who are unable to afford to make those improvements.

Councilor Kristin Henderson suggested partnering with homeowners of vacant properties to make them habitable on the condition they rent or sell the property and reimburse the county’s investment from that income. 

“I think if we can come up with some creative way to get those homes back into circulation it will help us a lot,” Henderson said. 

Andrus said the key to moving forward is developing partnerships, which offer a “tremendous economic development opportunity.”

“In order to accomplish any of these things, we really need to develop partnerships. That way we’ll be able to leverage dollars, create and grow capacity within the community, provide housing and housing related services and develop local expertise,” Andrus said. 

“We would benefit by distributing liability and responsibility to our community partners, particularly when we’re dealing with acquisition or ownership or management.”

Andrus plans to look for ways to leverage the county’s $400,000 seed money from the economic development fund with private partnerships and other outside resources such as weatherization programs, USDA funding and the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority.

Council Chair Geoff Rodgers asked how the county would get around New Mexico’s anti-donation clause in working with private investors. County Attorney Rebecca Ehler provided the answer. 

“We have a constitutional amendment in New Mexico that takes affordable housing out of the anti-donation clause and some fairly liberal legislation enacted by the legislature in order to allow a wide variety of opportunities for local governments to provide affordable housing,” Ehler said.

Andrus will now develop some guidelines for the programs he proposed, and then begin looking for some community or regional partners to help implement them.