by Daniel Chacón, Santa Fe New Mexican

The city of Santa Fe once again is committing more than $2 million in land and other taxpayer-funded contributions for a proposed affordable housing development with proponents who are trying to qualify for federal low-income tax credits.

Mayor Alan Webber and the City Council voted 7-1 Wednesday to contribute a city-owned parcel on Siler Road and other resources for development of a $16.3 million, 65-unit housing project on the former site of the city’s sewage treatment plant. City Councilor Peter Ives was absent, but he has supported the city’s commitments to the project.

Proponents of the proposed Arts + Creativity Center, which they envision as a combined live-work space for artists and a wide range of other professions in local creative industries, are making their third pitch to the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority, which so far has passed on the idea.

Tax credits, which can be sold to companies seeking to reduce their federal tax liability, are awarded under a program intended to help finance low-income housing.

“I’m glad you are going forward with this again,” City Councilor Chris Rivera told Daniel Werwath, chief operating officer of New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing, one of the groups proposing the project. “I know you had to put some thought into it and probably some additional funding. I think this is going to be our year, so thank you for bringing it forward again.”

The project’s proponents have expressed confidence about their financial plans in the past, only to be shot down.

City Councilor Mike Harris, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he has been concerned about the project for “quite a while.”

“We all are familiar with the concept of scope creep,” he said, referring to a project management term that means continuous or uncontrolled growth in a project’s scope. “On the city’s side of things, it’s been creeping over the years … the amount of money that the city is being asked to contribute.”

Harris said the city, which is short about 2,400 affordable housing units, is contributing about $44,000 for each low-income unit in this project, which he called “an incredible number.”

“I just don’t think the numbers are sustainable,” he said. “Quite frankly, I think that the property has a better use than what’s being proposed, so I’m just going to have to oppose it tonight. But I do want to make sure that people think about how we really can solve the bigger problem and not really look to the city consistently for this type of money for, quite frankly, not enough units.”

Earlier this week, Alexandra Ladd, special projects manager in the city’s affordable housing office, said the cost per unit is higher than other affordable housing developments “because these are specialized units.”

“These are not just meeting residential standards,” she said. “They’re meeting live-work standards.”

The site itself, which is next to a city maintenance complex, has constraints that include an old sewer line that doesn’t support residential construction on top, Ladd said.

Ladd also said she wanted to get away from the notion that “you can make each unit less expensive [by building] more units.”

“We are taking big steps away from the idea that you warehouse poor people,” she said. “People deserve a dignified place to live, no matter what their income is. Yes, these are higher quality units than your typical low-income tax credit project would probably offer, but why not? Our community deserves the best, and if we’re going to use city resources to support it, then let’s support the best.”

The mayor, who sponsored the latest resolution reaffirming the city’s financial support, wondered if there are some misconceptions about who would be eligible to rent a unit in the development if it were to get off the ground.

“Do I have to be a bonafide artist to live in this structure?” he asked.

“Mayor Webber, your income cannot exceed a certain threshold, and that is the ultimate criteria for whether you can live in this project,” Ladd said.

The project calls for 65 units, at least 50 of which would be low-income units. Rents for affordable units, including utilities, would range from $390 to $1,081, and for market rate units $900 to $1,500.

Ladd said the application is due at the beginning of February and projects that receive funding are usually notified in May.

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