Overheard at the Blake’s Lotaburger at the corner of Guadalupe Street and Paseo de Peralta in Santa Fe:
“What brings you back to New Mexico, dude?”
“I just got a great job at LANL, but I can’t find a place to live that I can afford.”
From fast-food joints to the chambers of local government to Realtors’ offices, everyone agrees: There’s a shortage of affordable, desirable housing in northern New Mexico to serve the growing workforces of places such as Los Alamos National Laboratories and Presbyterian Española Hospital.
It’s a vexing problem in an area where families are reluctant to move after generations in the same house, there is a lack of new housing developments in key areas, and New Mexico pueblos have been asserting and winning claims over water rights and roads.
Pueblo leaders, executives from LANL and its subcontractors, and representatives of local government gathered late last year at the Buffalo Thunder Conference Center to discuss the regional housing outlook and other issues facing northern New Mexico.
Kelly Beierschmitt, deputy director of operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said then that LANL expects to hire 1,000 people over the next year while 500 employees are projected to retire. The lab will likely end the 2020 fiscal year with 12,000 employees.
Historically, retiring LANL employees would sell their houses and leave the community, but increasingly they are staying put because their mortgages are paid off and because of the good quality of life, said David Horpedahl, a qualifying broker with Exit Realty in Los Alamos.
“Los Alamos is the safest place in the country,” Horpedahl said. “Nobody wants to leave.”
As a result, housing sales have slowed to a trickle, with lack of inventory. On Jan. 8, there were 11 homes for sale in Los Alamos County, which includes Los Alamos and White Rock. Just three were priced under $300,000.
In 2019, there were just 347 houses sold in Los Alamos County and the average time spent on the market was just 17 days, according to data supplied by Horpedahl.
Another reason for the housing shortage in Los Alamos County is the lack of new home construction, particularly multifamily rentals.
A dearth of available land, and obstacles to building infrastructure that would connect areas of White Rock to roads leading to Santa Fe have also deterred new construction, Horpedahl said.
With an abundance of wilderness surrounding Los Alamos, Horpedahl noted there has been a reluctance to build new roads or pave existing routes for fear of interfering with the pristine environment.
Although Los Alamos is a safe place to live when it comes to crime, it does face threat from wildfire and the possibility of a national emergency. Horpedahl, who was active in the Los Alamos Realtors Association before it disbanded in 2018, recalls intense community opposition to the idea of building an escape route that would make it easier to leave the area.
Not everyone LANL is hiring as it gears up to resume plutonium “pit” production for nuclear weapons can afford to live in Los Alamos, where the median home value is $300,528, according to Zillow, a housing website.
Zillow estimates that Los Alamos home values rose 7.5% over the past year and predicts they will increase another 1.9% over the next year.
At the Regional Economic Development Initiative (REDI) Summit in late November, it was estimated that 40% of LANL employees live on the mesa, while the other 60% commute from elsewhere, including the Española Valley, Santa Fe and even Albuquerque.
The American Community Survey data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau shows the median earnings for full-time year-round workers in Los Alamos averaged $103,879 for men and $77,533 for women during the five-year period that ended in 2018.
While these salaries are much higher than in the rest of the state, they may not be enough to support a family or buy a house in Los Alamos.
Los Alamos isn’t the only town facing a housing shortage. At the summit, there was talk of nurses rescinding acceptance notices at Presbyterian Española because they can’t find safe, affordable places to live in Española.
Española Mayor Javier Sanchez was quite frank about some of the reputational challenges facing his city at the Buffalo Thunder conference and also about the challenges of dealing with inertia.
“Española has to be livable,” said Sanchez.
He said the city is facing resistance in its efforts to remove properties that have been vacant for 50 years to get rid of blight, as well in buying land for parks. “Everyone thinks their property is worth a million dollars,” Sanchez said.
Horpedahl said there are neighborhoods in Española with houses built by Bradbury Stamm, New Mexico’s oldest and much-respected housing contractor, that are similar to those in Los Alamos, but that people coming from out of state are reluctant to live in the city because of its reputation for drugs and its clannishness.
“There was a point a while back where some people were suggesting that Española change its name because its reputation was so bad,” Horpedahl said.
At the Buffalo Thunder meeting, Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber noted that housing is the No. 1 issue facing every city in the country. He estimated there is a shortfall of between 4,000 to 5,000 units in Santa Fe and that the vacancy rate for apartments is near zero.
Monica Abeita, executive director of the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District, said that the various municipalities in the region must work together to solve the housing shortage. She pointed to the North Central Regional Transit District, which operates the Blue Bus, as a good example of regional cooperation.
Paul Andrus, the community development director for Los Alamos County, expressed hope that an overhaul of the county’s development code this year could pave the way for mixed-use zoning that would jumpstart higher-density housing projects.