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County Tackles Affordable Housing

on July 20, 2017 - 9:45pm

A worker applies stucco to a Los Alamos home. The work was provided through the Los Alamos Housing Partnership, which offers deferred payment loans for a variety of home improvement and repairs to those who qualify. Photo by Vint Miller

​Los Alamos Daily Post

Homeownership is part of the American Dream. Owning their own home is among many people’s goals, but accomplishing this aspiration is a whole other story. Affording a mortgage or a down payment on a house can be a major obstacle in the path to homeownership.

Affordable housing seems to be a major issue in Los Alamos County. During the public hearings regarding the sale of land  parcels known A-19-A-1 and A-19-A-2 in White Rock, the Los Alamos County Council heard several residents request the Council consider affordable housing in different housing development projects.

The topic of affordable housing will also be addressed during the Council’s work session at 6 p.m. Aug. 22 at the White Rock Fire Station.

Within the County, efforts are taken to help make this dream of homeownership a reality. The Los Alamos Housing Partnership, a 501 c(3) organization, strives to help homeowners. Executive Director Steve Brugger explained the nonprofit, which has a contract with the County, offers several services. These include the Home Renewal Program for general repair, emergency assistance and energy conservation.

Those in need of these services apply for funds to the appropriate program area. Brugger said the majority of applicants apply for the general repair program area. If the applicant is accepted, a deferred payment loan will be awarded, said Andrew Harnden, Los Alamos County Housing and Special Projects manager. He explained that loans are only due back to the County when the homeowner sells the house or they are not keeping the home as a primary residence.

Brugger said the maximum amount that can be awarded in the general repair program area is $45,000. The loan can be used for a number of things such as insulation, furnaces, electrical, accessibility improvements, installation of windows and stucco. The emergency repair program can award up to $24,999 and can be used to correct an immediate threat to health, safety and welfare. For instance, Brugger said funds were given to replace and install a broken furnace. The energy conservation program area can give up to $14,999. 

In 2016, the program’s first year, Brugger said 10 projects were awarded and this year 11 projects received funding.

A program slated to go before Council July 25 for approval is the Homebuyer Assistance Program. Harnden said the program would provide loans to homebuyers to assist with down payments or closing costs on homes. Harnden said the loan terms may be identical to the deferred payment loans given in the Home Renewal Program. The loans would range from $10,000 to $25,000 with the average loan being about $15,000. Harnden said the goal is to help out 10-12 households a year.

In order to qualify for these programs, Harnden said applicants need to make less than 80 percent of the median income. The income limit is based on a sliding scale, depending on the size of the household. For a household of four, the limit would be $87,050  and for a household of one the limit would be $60,960.

Another program the County offers is the Land Discount and Donation Program, Harnden said. He explained the County can discount the price of land or donate land to a developer who agrees to supply affordable housing.

Harnden said there are other initiatives being brainstormed. For instance, he said the County is looking into ways to address vacant buildings and revitalize neighborhoods. Harnden added the County is doing a needs analysis to determine whether affordable housing assistance should be expanded to households up to 100 percent area median income.

Existing programs are funded primarily by County funds although Los Alamos Housing Partnership also contributes its own monies and has also brought in outside money such as the New Mexico Energy Smart Program. Harnden said installing a mechanism to allocate a portion of proceeds from County land sales into affordable housing is being proposed. It would require Council support to be drafted into an ordinance, he said. The money given to affordable housing could be used for a number of things including building affordable housing, doing renovations.

Harnden commends the Los Alamos Housing Partnership for its work. “The LAHP (Los Alamos Housing Partnership) has done a very good job for us and the homeowners,” he said. “The County staff continues to explore innovative potential ways to develop more affordable housing.”

The issue of affordable housing is not a new topic in town. The current County Council has taken things a step further and made affordable housing one of its top priorities.

“I’m very supportive of housing options for people who live and work in Los Alamos,” Council Chair David Izraelevitz said. “I think it’s good to have a wide spectrum (of housing).” He said there should be housing options for teachers, firefighters, police officers; it makes for a healthier community.

Izraelevitz added he was looking forward to the upcoming meeting to continue the discussion. “This is a priority of Council … I think it’s very good we’re able to focus on it and have a good discussion on it.”

Councilor Chris Chandler commented she feels the discussion needs to include affordable and mid-priced housing. She added while she is pleased the Homebuyers Assistance Program is coming to Council for approval, she feels when addressing affordable housing, a lot of tools should be utilized.

Some of the issues Chandler feels should be addressed are: rehabilitating existing buildings, removing blight from neighborhoods and focusing on underutilization. She added it should be discussed what is the County’s role in these issues and whether the County has a role in redevelopment.

She added if the County is investing in properties whether it is demolition or infrastructure, it should have a say in what the development should be.

“We want a community that is diverse; to do that we need housing stock that a variety of incomes can afford,” Chandler said.

It’s not just price ranges that should be addressed but also age ranges. Chandler said senior citizens looking to downsize are interested in properties located in the downtown area that are in the $200,000 price range. If seniors’ wants are addressed, then their former homes would open up to young people and their families.

Affordable housing is important, Chandler said because not everyone works at the laboratory. The community needs people in other professions from teachers to restaurant servers. “We need them, we want them, we love them,” she said.

Still, it’s a tough issue to tackle. Everyone agrees affordable housing needs to be made available, Chandler said. However, not everyone can agree on how to bring it to the community so they move on to an easier task.

Councilor Antonio Maggiore feels the time for action has come. “All of us on Council know that affordable housing is an issue. We differ in what the best approach to that issue is but we are making steps in the right direction. I just don’t feel to date those step have been big enough or bold enough to yield real tangible results.”

“I think it’s going to take the County taking a more hands on approach,” he said. While he doesn’t feel the County should be a landlord, Maggiore said the County perhaps should start looking at options outside the box. Whether that means setting up a land trust or co-op model where the County would maintain a seat on the board so when properties are re-sold, it is ensured houses will stay affordable, he said.

Similar to Chandler, he feels this is a complex issues. “It’s such a challenging issue because so many people’s retirements  and investments are tied up in their homes.”

It is tough to find developers who don’t want to maximize their returns to do something for the good of the community, Maggiore said.

Los Alamos also has a unique housing situation. “The housing situation here is unlike anywhere else,” he said. “We’re land locked and even places where redevelopment is ideal (such as Longview or Sherwood in White Rock) it has so many different owners, we can’t move forward; everything seems to stall.”

Councilor Pete Sheehey said the Council is taking an active role in this issue. While people voiced disappointment that the A-19-A-1 and A-19-A-2 properties will not offer affordable housing, he pointed out that there are other properties better suited for houses in lower price points. Sheehey mentioned the Los Alamos Housing Partnership is working on redeveloping existing property into affordable housing and he predicts that the County could very well take a role in that. “I would be delighted if we could get that done,” Sheehey said.

He added with the demand for housing at a high, this is a good time to discuss housing. “I think the council is very focused on low-income housing because there is a need.”