Organizers, nonprofit players and local residents attentive to the ongoing issue of affordable housing tuned into the second meeting by La Coalición (formerly The Coalition) on Monday evening (Sept. 20) to discuss one of the most prominent issues facing the community in Taos County.
Organized by Anita Rodriguez and hosted by Aurora Valdez, the community wellness manager for Taos Pueblo, the live-streamed event was focused around a panel discussion by people active in the cause of bringing more affordable housing to Taos.
The panel included Kimberly Park, director of HEART of Taos; former planner for the town of Taos and current development director for Rocky Mountain Youth Corps; Herbert Foster; and former Taos County health planner Carol Miller.
Each took turns explaining their unique history in Taos helping people with different social issues. From housing homeless women and children (Park) to making a creative zoning map that addresses specific issues (Foster), to working on housing at a national level (Miller), the panel covered a wide range of reasons and possible solutions for the ever-worsening housing crisis.
Park opened the panel discussion by describing housing problems as “the root and the foundation of a lot of the issues we see our community members face,” including continued poverty, addiction and more.
Park discussed area median income (AMI) as a way of gauging the needs of a community. The current area median income in Taos County is approximately $38,000 per year. Park said the goal was to have residents spend less than “45 percent of your income on housing and transportation combined.”
AMI is broken into several categories: 30 percent AMI, or those making 30 percent or less of the average median income ($38,000); 60 percent AMI, or those making less than 60 percent of $38,000; and 80 percent AMI, or those making less than 80 percent of $38,000.
The need in Taos is greatest in the 60 percent AMI category, Park said. While housing vouchers have been issued through the Northern Regional Housing Authority, she said some of those people have still had trouble finding a place to live, with many landlords not considering the vouchers (typically around $800 per month) to be at current market value. “Landlords are supposed to accept these [vouchers], but if they can get a higher rate, most people are going to be doing that,” she said.
Park began to identify some of the problems behind this disparity. “The market doesn’t build affordable,” she said, explaining that with the current expensive land costs, people “can’t build housing for what it can sell for at affordable prices.”
Herbert Foster, a former long-range planner for the town of Taos and former executive director at Taos Pueblo Housing, spoke about solutions and ideas to create affordable housing.
Foster acknowledged “a crisis in affordable housing,” and said it was important for Taos residents to take the new Town of Taos Comprehensive Plan Survey, in which they can express to the town their top priorities, of which he said affordable housing is one.
Due to the massive amount of demand for housing, Foster said a creative solution was required; one that didn’t have so much red tape and allowed for more unique development than has been previously allowed under town and county codes.
“I consider myself to be very pro-development,” said Foster. “But not just any kind of development anywhere. I’m very particular about the type of development I support.” He said that increasing the density of the town was “a practical solution to the housing crisis.
Foster used the example of a firetruck, which he explained town codes are usually designed around, leaving towns with “no sense of community or livability.” Designing entire communities around something like a firetruck creates more problems, he said. “It’s inherently not fair what we’re doing to ourselves with these regulations.”
Several practical solutions were offered by Foster, such as allowing easier permitting for casita building on already existing property, allowing and encouraging more mixed use developments (both residential and commercial in the same area), regional planning to disperse affordable housing across the community and promoting more owner-built homes for homeownership or rental.
Carol Miller, who has spent most of her life working on housing issues around the country, presented after Foster. Miller spoke broadly about how northern New Mexico has been “harmed by federal, state, town and county policies” that pertain to affordable housing.
Miller displayed part of the text from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in 1948 that proclaims housing to be a universal human right. The main reason for the current crisis, she said, was the wealth gap, particularly the “under-taxation of the wealthy and the overtaxation of the low income and poor people.”
The interconnectedness of housing, food insecurity and other social inequalities were all part of the larger housing problem, Miller said. “Homelessness is not caused by poverty but by wealth,” she said, adding that the right way to progress is by “trying to do a more holistic approach; a human rights avenue of moving forward.
“I think the plan is to push people out and to take over land, and to make it unaffordable for the people that were here … We really need to change the way we think about this,” she added.
Miller noted the incredible and unique building style of Taoseños, and credited that with the high value of some homes. She also blamed “changes in bank financing, access to credit [and] the uniform building code, so many people can't build [the way they used to].”
Opening up easy avenues for generational and long-term residents to continue building on their properties is one way Miller said the community can begin to move forward. “We need to look small again, how do we build each community, and then how can we move that to the state?”