For the low income, housing is scarce — a challenge state lawmakers hope to address this session

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Cree Walker and her four children live in one room with two beds at an Albuquerque hotel that allows long-term stay. Credit: Marjorie Childress

New Mexico has a housing crisis. Homelessness is up and the inventory of homes and apartments is down. 

Ask Cree Walker, a 32-year-old mother of four children ages 5 to 12 who has experienced the crisis firsthand.

“I haven’t been able to find anything,” said Walker, who has hunted for housing for six months.

The 32 year old, who grew up in Pecos, moved to Idaho then returned to New Mexico but has scarce family to call on for help. Ailing from a back disability that limits motion, Walker can’t work, curbing what she can earn in income. She can’t lift much and it’s hard to stand or bend. She’s applying for federal disability after qualifying for a federal housing subsidy voucher called Section 8, which pays her full rent as long as it falls in her price range of $1,675. 

But finding a place has thwarted her. So she, her children and two dogs cram into one room at an Albuquerque hotel that is full of families similar to hers, she said.

She’s thankful. Her kids attend a great school. They have winter jackets. And the city reimburses her for the mileage she drives her kids to and from school (The reimbursement is made through the Albuquerque Public Schools Assistance Program, Walker said).

But it’s tough. “My kids don’t have room to run. They’re constantly arguing, always on each other’s nerves, none of us gets a break,” she said. “It’s really hard on us this way.” 

Most landlords won’t take her Section 8 voucher, Walker said. And those who do require much higher rent than she can afford and at least a $100 application fee.  “…they’re all out of my price range,” she said. The closest she is finding are three bedroom homes “and they’re all above $2,000. And my voucher only goes to 1,675 with all utilities included.” 

Just looking for an apartment can stretch her resources. Because of high gas prices, she rations how much she drives. She’ll arrange to meet a prospective landlord and they won’t show up. And sometimes fees can push promising rentals out of reach. One apartment tried to charge her $150, nonrefundable, before putting a rental application in, so she passed. She couldn’t afford it. Everybody else she knows didn’t have to pay that fee, she said. 

The struggle to find housing causes her anxiety, she said, but she continues the search. 

Walker’s challenges mirror a statewide problem. In New Mexico, it’s not illegal to “overtly discriminate” against a prospective renter based upon how they pay their rent, according to Attorney Maria Griego, the economic equity director at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.       

“One of the biggest issues that we’re facing is that even when we have a housing voucher in hand, it is hard to find a rental unit that can accommodate a family,” said Rachel Biggs, chief strategy officer at Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless. A lack of available housing stock combined with landlords not accepting vouchers — they are not required to — has made finding a rental with three bedrooms increasingly difficult. “Even when we do have a housing voucher in hand, it’s taking longer and longer for that family to find housing, which you can imagine is very troubling,” she said. “Once you had gone through the process of being able to secure that housing subsidy, you would hope that we’d be able to move a family in right away. And that’s just not the case right now.” 

To tackle the housing problem, lawmakers in the coming legislative session hope to make  evicting renters harder and to increase dollars for housing programs. 

The problem is big, and growing

Homelessness has leaped dramatically in New Mexico, although exact numbers are hard to come by. The common measure of how many people live unsheltered depends on a “point in time” count on one night in the winter. But to anyone who’s lived in the state’s largest metropolitan area in the past year, the increase is evident, with tents pitched in parks, under overpasses, or tucked away in doorways. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated in 2020 there were a total of 3,333 people living in the state who were experiencing both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness. Of those, nearly a quarter — 23% — were families with children and 8% were veterans. New Mexico’s rural counties had one of the highest percentages of homeless veterans living unsheltered. HUD also reported that New Mexico had the highest rate of people struggling with chronic homelessness.  

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: The 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress

There are many more people hanging on to shelter by a thread. 

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are 63,823 renter households in New Mexico that are extremely low income, but there’s a shortage of 30,154 rental homes that are both affordable and available to these same renters. 

Of extremely low-income renters in the state, 82% spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs and utilities. 

And a person working at the state minimum wage of $10.50 an hour has to work 54 hours each week to afford a modest one bedroom rental home at fair market rent. 

“The discrepancy between the average salary in New Mexico and the average housing costs in New Mexico is getting wider every year,” said Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque. 

There isn’t enough affordable housing for renters or would-be first-time homeowners in New Mexico, said Rebecca Velarde, senior director of policy and planning for the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority. There’s a shortage of about 32,000 rental units now statewide for renters who have incomes that fall below 30% of the area median income (AMI), she said, while “homeownership is becoming further and further away” for low to moderate income families because of skyrocketing prices. The numbers for the rental unit shortage come from a research brief by Root Policy Research,  a firm hired to help the Mortgage Finance Authority formulate a statewide housing strategy, Velarde said. 

That so many New Mexicans spend way too much toward their housing costs is one of the biggest drivers of homelessness, said Biggs of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless.

“That combined with lack of access to health care and lack of access to a living wage, a housing wage that actually allows people to afford their housing are our … biggest issues in the state in terms of homelessness,” she said. 

New Mexico has long pumped money into a housing fund administered by the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority. The agency uses it to beef up programs around the state that help people get into housing and to create more affordable housing. 

The New Mexico Housing Trust Fund is a crucial piece of a puzzle, with those dollars leveraging money from other sources to support programs for homeless people, to pay for low-income home rehab and weatherization, assist first-time homebuyers, and help with down payment assistance, or rental assistance.  

Lawmakers have allocated $22 million to the fund since 2005, excluding 2021 Session appropriations, and interest has grown it to over $34 million.  To date, there’s been a 32 to 1 return on the state money, for a total of $698 million since 2005, according to the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority

“This is a perfect year to do something meaningful that is transformational for people in New Mexico,” said Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, a Santa Fe Democrat and the vice chair of both the Senate Finance and Mortgage Finance Authority Act Oversight committees. Eyeing the enormous amount of revenue lawmakers have to allocate this year, Rodriguez will push to add $70 million to the fund this year, she said.  

In addition to lobbying for that, Rodriguez wants the state to invest money year over year into the New Mexico Housing Trust Fund. The senator is currently drafting a bill which would earmark two and a half percent of the state’s severance tax bonding capacity on an annual basis for a recurring, sustainable and permanent amount of funding to go into the New Mexico Housing Trust Fund for affordable housing.

In fiscal year 2023, which begins this July 1, this would generate $27.7 million from the state. The New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority would then leverage this money for a 30 to 1 return on investment, according to the senator, potentially bringing in $831 million for affordable housing.

Such a cash infusion would add stability to money earmarked for housing needs, which currently is vulnerable to the state’s economic swings and the whims of lawmakers. 

“We go to the state legislature every year. And we ask for funding, sometimes we get nothing, sometimes we get a good chunk, but it’s never certain,” said Velarde. 

Isidoro Hernandez, executive director and chief executive officer of the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority, said an important piece of the MFA’s work is helping people experiencing homelessness qualify for services that help them access permanent housing. 

“When somebody is homeless, it’s not easy for them to come out of homelessness, sometimes they need much more than just finding an apartment or shelter,” he said. The MFA has supported projects that combine housing assistance and various services onsite that address the needs of people struggling to remain housed.  

Supportive housing programs are critical, housing advocates said. Biggs is urging a greater investment in the state’s Linkages Permanent Supportive Housing Program, which serves people with mental disabilities, and a doubling of available housing vouchers for those clients from 318 to 636. 

“We’ve had great success with that program,” she said. Because it’s state rather than federal money, there’s more flexibility in how it can be used. “We’re able to house a wider range of people,” she said. 

Tenant rights

While there’s a critical need for greater investment in housing stock and access, advocates also hope lawmakers will support greater safeguards to slow evictions of those who are renting.

“Right now, under New Mexico’s law, we have…some of the strictest timeframes in the country for tenants who get behind on rent,” said Griego of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.  

If a tenant doesn’t pay rent when it’s due, their landlord can give them a three day notice of nonpayment, Griego said. That means a tenant has three days to pay the amount or a landlord can file an eviction case against them in court. 

“Once a court case is filed, the hearing happens very quickly, within seven to 10 days. It’s supposed to happen that quickly,” Griego said. 

Legislation being introduced, again, this year, would extend those time frames so tenants have time to find a lawyer, and take the time off work to prepare for the hearing. “So that they’re not just faced with the…choice of, go to work or go to this hearing and, you know, defend my case because if you don’t go, then you lose by default,” said Griego. 

Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Doña Ana, one of the co-sponsors of the legislation, said she’s a renter and sometimes the culture around renting is looked down upon. 

“It’s just really a culture that has been built up over decades around, like, who deserves what…,” Rubio said. “Housing is sort of that intersectional piece that doesn’t necessarily equate to equitable access for a lot of people.”  

Her co-sponsor, Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, said the hope is that tenants burdened by a lack of resources can come to an agreement with their landlords, to “basically find more time to…be able to pay back anything that’s owed.”

Biggs said the tenant protection bill is her organization’s number one priority, because there’s an eviction crisis that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

One thought on “For the low income, housing is scarce — a challenge state lawmakers hope to address this session

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