KUNM

Low-Income, High Rent: Getting By In Santa Fe

May 9, 2016

Living in Santa Fe has gotten more and more expensive over the years. Today, home prices in New Mexico’s capital city are higher than almost anywhere else in the state. So, what happens when people don’t earn enough to make it there?

Look on Santa Fe’s tourism bureau website, and you’ll see it proudly boasted as one of the most walkable cities in the country. That’s true for people who can afford the sky-high housing costs near the state capitol’s historic city center—but not for Santa Fe’s lower income residents like Theresa C De Baca.

"I live on the bus practically," she laughed.

C De Baca was born and raised near downtown Santa Fe. But now, after decades of rising costs, she’s had to move in with her daughter on the outskirts of town. She’s standing at a bus stop on Cerrillos Road, a main artery leading away from the plaza. It’s part of the commute she makes each day for her job cleaning houses.

"Yeah, well we couldn’t find a place in town because everything’s too expensive. So we had to find a place out near Airport," she said. 

You might ask, what’s the big deal about riding the bus? But in Santa Fe, taking public transportation to from the outskirts is time consuming, and buses only run certain hours. Plus  pretty much everything costs more here. Gas, groceries, bills, taxes—for people like C De Baca, who have to manage those costs on minimum wage, even the price of a bus pass, or lost work time because of long commutes, can be that one thing that tips you over the financial edge.

"It’s hard, very hard," she said—even though the city hiked minimum wage to almost $11 an hour this year. "Because the income is only minimum wage and the rent over here is like close to 8 or 900 dollars a month. I don’t think you can make in here on minimum wage."

It’s our stop, so we get off the bus near an apartment complex on the south side of town, where C De Baca’s daughter Amanda works as a leasing agent. It’s taken us an hour to get here.

Amanda lives in Section 8 subsidized housing, and gets a rental assistance check from the city. In some ways, she’s lucky—she found a steady job that she’s good at and is eligible for raises. But, she says that creates its own problems. 

"I mean, they assist me with rent, but the more I work, the more I get raises, the more I get punished for it," she said.

Because the more she earns, the less rental assistance she gets from the city. And that’s a big problem for her. Amanda is a single mom supporting her son by herself, she has food costs, utilities, transportation expenses—by the time all that money gets spent, she says there’s hardly any left over. But she’s afraid working more and earning more money could cost her and her son their rental assistance voucher.

"If I lose my voucher, I wouldn’t be able to make it," she said. "How am I supposed to pay $875 full rent a month? I’m barely making it now paying $650."

"It’s tough because you can understand the rationale behind it," said Alexandra Ladd, who runs Santa Fe’s affordable housing department. "If someone is making more money they should get less assistance, because that will free up help for someone who's making less money."

She says she knows how hard it can be for single moms like Amanda C De Baca to get by here, and the city wants to help. But the problem of affordable housing is so big, it can be overwhelming for planners and residents alike.

"There is a chunk of very low income people who live here, and the disparity between the number of people in that income category and the number of units that would be affordable for them is gigantic, I mean that’s by far our biggest gap," she said.

Rental properties in Santa Fe are 97 percent full. To get everyone who needs a place to live into housing, the city would need twenty-four hundred more affordable rental units.

But getting those units built has been an uphill battle. So now the mayor’s trying a new plan: charging developers a fee for new housing projects instead of requiring them to build a percentage of affordable units.

We’ll take a look at that plan, and why building affordable housing is so hard in Santa Fe, in part two of this story.

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KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the WK Kellogg Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Find out more online at publichealthnm.org.