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Latest site plan, a sketch plan for El Rio

Facts vs. Emotions on El Rio and Affordable Housing

Editor’s Note: This opinion piece in favor of El Rio and affordable housing by affordable-housing proponent Daniel Werwath was solicited by Ellen Berkovitch for AdobeAirstream. Invitations were also extended to opponents of the project who have been vocal on Facebook. No one accepted the invitation to write the alternative point of view. An investigative article, Santa Fe Land Use, The Past and The Future, was published here in April and can be found here, including commenters from both sides of the issue. A City Council meeting this Wednesday, June 24th, will take up this issue at around 7 p.m. at Santa Fe Community Convention Center.

For the last three months, I’ve tried to promote a productive dialogue with my neighborhood and the larger community about the proposed El Rio development. I believe neighborhood input is critical to development, particularly infill. But wading through the misinformation, neighborhood gossip, I’ve mostly run out of patience for the repeated tropes of “neighborhood preservation”.

So I started writing again. I meant to write one more reasoned response full of facts and statistics about the importance of what the ENTIRE community needs versus what one neighborhood thinks it has to lose, but at this point, I cannot help but devolve into a bit of a rant.

The arguments against El Rio have taken the form of contemporary American privilege expressing itself as hysteria, fear, rumor-mongering and stereotypical accusations that all developers are lying and all citizen opponents tell only noble truths.

Can we please stop this madness?

We must stop the status quo. We must stop planning based on neighborhood hearsay, meanwhile passively strangling our economy and unnecessarily raising housing costs. We are on the brink here, it’s showing up in statistics—lower wages, no job growth, rising housing costs—which means it’s beyond urgent. Take a look at the unintended consequences of neighborhood driven neighborhood planning: segregation.

City Plan - Map Age Income Hispanic Population by Census Tract copy

So, to address the heart of the concerns: Dense rental housing on Agua Fria Street is not going to destroy our community or the middle Agua Fria neighborhood. Let’s start with the most common article of hyperbole: El Rio is not being proposed for some last vestige of bucolic agrarian countryside. The apartment complex is proposed to be built along part of the river lined with industrial metal buildings that has been a dumping ground for extra pickup loads of garbage for the last 50 years.

The vast majority of the project site (literally, 13.1 of 16.3 acres) is a vacant and abandoned commercial plot of land. That site is already zoned for 21 units per acre, which — face it — will likely become a crappy commercial office park, if we can’t find the collective vision to do something bigger, more important, more needed. Somehow reference to the commercial zoning or development alternatives hasn’t permeated the neighborhood opposition’s alarmist outreach materials, which perpetuate the idea that stopping the El Rio development will mean stopping all development.

Can we also please stop with the “EcoVersity is sacred” b.s.?

If the opponents to the project really wanted to be true to the intentions of the now-defunct “EcoVersity,” they would support development of the most ecologically responsible and energy-efficient housing possible. Even at dense single-family development levels, the same 399 units proposed for El Rio would occupy over 57 acres of land, consume far more water, require more fossil fuels for commuters, and take far more energy to heat and cool.

And long before EcoVersity was a pie-in-the-sky idea, it was Joseph Montoya’s grandmother’s house. Joseph Montoya spearheaded the first affordable housing programs in the city “to develop a plan to keep Santa Fe from becoming an enclave of the rich and privileged only.” You will find no bigger advocate of dense infill housing, period.

Then there are the perennial anti-growth code words.

First, “traffic”.  If the issue here really is traffic, people need to wake up: increased traffic is coming our way, regardless. New housing is being developed at rapid rates on the south side, every day. One need only drive a few more miles out Agua Fria to see the legions of Phoenix-style subdivisions multiplying like kittens in a barn.

Add to this the fact that the percentage of Santa Fe employees who actually live in the city shrinks every year; we’re down to 38%! That’s over 30,000 people in-commuting to Santa Fe every day, talk about traffic!

You can be pretty darn sure that some percentage of that growing pool of commuters will add to the traffic woes on Agua Fria frequently cited by opponents, whether this project is built or not. And another interesting point, Agua Fria traffic is at its lowest volume in more than 10 years— we’ve been through worse.

With El Rio, at least the developers would have to implement upgraded street infrastructure like stoplights and other traffic-calming that will ultimately benefit the entire neighborhood.

And while I’m at it, here’s a quick brain teaser: what creates more traffic? A 3.4 mile commute to downtown or the same number of housing units built on the edge of town with a 10-mile commute? I’m pretty sure the answer is clear here; it’s the 10 miles of traffic. Again, thinking about the whole community here.

Second code word: “water”. Multi-family rental is considerably more water-use-efficient than a single-family house. And yes, we have the water, we use less water now, than we did 20 years ago. And an interesting fact, all new housing development must demonstrate provision of sufficient water rights before a single unit is built. That’s right, they have to bring the water to build.

And how about this “El Rio isn’t affordable housing” argument?

Nobody has said it is 100% affordable housing. But at the current proposed size of 399 units, the project would be mandated to include 60 units of affordable rental housing by city ordinance. This is a BIG effin deal. Affordable rental housing is the #1 highest priority housing need in our city. And if you don’t believe me, call up the Civic Housing Authority. Last time I checked, they had a two-year wait list for affordable rental, and the list is closed because they estimate it would be six years long if they left it open, but that became unmanageable.

And stop to think for a second what that affordable housing provision ultimately means for Santa Fe families. It means affordable rents for 60+ families for at least 30 years to come. The housing security and cumulative economic empowerment impact benefiting literally thousands of residents.

So down to the brass tacks, is El Rio “perfect”? Nope. But it doesn’t have to have every possible question answered right now. This is not the last step but rather the first. The developers are asking for re-zoning, which only requires a sketch development plan. We only have to agree that this density is what’s good for the entire community.

To actually get permissions to build the project, they will need to go through a completely new process called Planned Unit Development, replete with a whole new round of Early Neighborhood Notification meetings, Planning Commission and City Council hearings. With the density issue settled, I believe we solve most neighborhood objections through design, provided the community is willing to participate in good faith.

And a shout out to all you “no growthers” out there in the crowd. Get educated.

No growth is not an option. Our population grows every year, and if we don’t grow with it, we’ll get priced out of our town. Our economy will atrophy, and we’ll finally and totally cede Santa Fe to the wealthy second-homeowners who wrecked our housing market in the first place.

And for all the developer conspiracy theorists, this is not a get-rich scheme for developers. For those unfamiliar with rental housing development, this type of project is financially difficult to nearly impossible. I believe the developers are really trying to do this for the right reasons and to do it in a totally socially and environmentally responsible way. That doesn’t happen often in the for-profit real estate development industry.

Finally, let’s just try something different for once. We’ve let emotionally overblown and hyperbolic neighborhood objection drive decision-making in Santa Fe for too long. We can respond to neighborhood concerns and still make decisions based on the collective good of the larger community, rather than the contagious fears of the few.

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