by Ellie Duke

Santa Fe, New Mexico — Sante Fe’s housing shortage has been a frequent topic of debate and discussion in recent years. The Santa Fe New Mexican has reported that “the fabric of the community is weakened” by the lack of housing, and that over 6,000 households are spending more than half their income on rent. Meanwhile, the short-term rental market is booming; the city has the 12th-highest rate of Airbnb listings per-capita in the country, and the number is growing. Long-term rental costs in Santa Fe rental have increased by over 40% in the last five years, and the community needs about 5000 additional units to make up for the scarcity, with about half of those being affordable to households earning less than $25,000 a year.

Enter Siler Yard: Arts+Creativity Center, an affordable housing complex that will provide live-work housing for 65 artists, plus retail space and economic development supports. Siler Yard could represent a new model for housing in Santa Fe, especially for artists who are integral to the cultural life of the city but struggle to afford its cost of living.

The idea for Siler Yard first emerged in 2012, when Creative Santa Fe partnered with the national organization Artspace, a non-profit that develops live-work housing, studio space, and arts centers across the US. Artspace conducted a study of the market in Santa Fe and searched for potential locations, and identified a piece of city-owned land on Siler Road. In 2013, the New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing group joined the team as developer. (The Siler Yard project will not have an inter-faith aspect. The organization has “a vestigial name that makes my job harder sometimes, and easier other times,” said the organization’s COO Daniel Werwath.)

There have been many ups and downs in the years since Werwath and his team joined the project, including three rounds of federal low-income housing tax credit applications with the state. The first two were not approved, and the latest was granted in May 2019. In addition, the value of low-income tax credits dove after the 2016 election, and affordable housing subsidies were devalued by about 12%. These roadblocks were frustrating, but one silver lining was that in those years, the cost of implementing solar panels went down, and the capacity of those panels increased. Due in part to the many delays, the prospect of being net-zero became a possibility, and then a reality. While Santa Fe hasn’t supported a new affordable housing development on city-owned land since the 1960s, the ability to make the project net-zero brought in renewed support and helped tip the scales in Siler Yard’s favor.

In October, the city of Santa Fe finally sealed the deal: the deed for the Siler Road property was transferred, and construction on the project is expected to begin in March 2020. The 15-month construction process will happen in phases; the first residents will be moving in around this time next year.

In this 100% income-restricted residence, prospective tenants will have to meet federal income guidelines for affordable housing. The requirements will be tiered, scaled to different income levels up to $30,000 per year. The application is not concerned with the quality of applicants’ practice; rather, it will focus on their dedication to that practice and their demonstrated need for space. Once applicants meet those requirements, the housing will be granted on a first-come, first-served basis. Werwath is committed to making the application process accessible and manageable for anyone who might qualify. He described the questions that have informed, and will continue to inform, the process: “How do we work with people so that the fact that they may not have a bank account doesn’t keep them from getting a federal income certification? How do you do that proactively, bilingually? We don’t want those things to end up being incidental filters, so that subtle types of privilege sway who benefits from us.”

Despite Santa Fe’s international reputation as an arts destination, Werwath said that many community-members he works with feel like there isn’t a place for them in the city’s larger art landscape — a phenomenon that has in part led to Santa Fe’s vibrant underground and DIY art scene. But the temporary nature of those projects can lead to a feeling of stratification and impermanence, not to mention perpetuate the struggle of achieving commercial success or financial stability. “To me, that is a big piece of this,” said Werwath. “Making a statement about what the contemporary creative culture in Santa Fe is, and to start tracking toward a more authentic identity for this stuff.”

Part of that means expanding the definition of what an artist can be. “For a lot people who are from here, artist is a proxy for whiteness,” Werwath said. That sort of language can alienate people, like low-rider painters or craftsmen, who might not see themselves as artists. Santa Fe’s art world goes well beyond Canyon Road, but the established galleries in the city don’t often represent that broader community. Part of Siler Yard’s mission is to represent the reality of Santa Fe’s identity as an art town.

Sure, 65 units is a drop in the bucket, when you consider the vast overhaul Santa Fe needs in terms of its urban growth patterns. But the hope is that Siler Yard can be both a hub for contemporary creative culture in the city and a model for what sustainable, conscientious development can look like. Werwath left our conversation with a clarion call and a strong position again inertia and his city’s history of keeping its head in the sand. “We can look to and honor our past, and perpetuate the aspects of our past that are really good, while still building a future that’s economically inclusive and responsive to climate change,” he said. “We can do that. And we have to do that, or this place actually dies. It becomes a wealthy second-home shit hole and fake art Mecca.”

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