On November 10, Mayor Tim Keller announced his “Housing Forward ABQ” plan to add 5,000 housing units to the existing housing supply by 2025. Keller called his plan “transformative” and it includes updates to Albuquerque’s Integrated Development Ordinance (IDO) to carry it out. A critical component of Keller’s “Housing Forward ABQ” are Motel Conversions.
“Motel conversions” are the creation of affordable housing where the City’s Family & Community Services Department will acquire and renovate existing motels to develop low-income affordable housing options. Mayor Keller’s plan calls for hotel or motel conversions to house 1,000 people with low and moderate incomes by 2025.
The existing layout of the motels makes it cost-prohibitive to renovate them into living units with full sized kitchens. An Integrated Development Ordinance amendment provides an exemption for affordable housing projects funded by the city, allowing kitchens to be small, without full-sized ovens and refrigerators. It will require city social services to regularly assist residents. The homeless or the near homeless would be offered the housing.
A zoning change already enacted by the city council earlier this year eased the process for city-funded motel conversions by allowing microwaves or hot plates to serve as a substitute for the standard requirement that every kitchen have a cooking stove or oven. The zoning code update reduces the kitchen requirements for such affordable housing conversions that receive city funding. The zoning changes allow the substitution of a microwave or hot plate for a standard oven or range. The exception applies only to those conversions using city money, but the city council is considering a proposal to expand it to all housing developments.
TARGETED AREA IDENTIFIED
One area of the city that has been targeted in particular by the Keller Administration for motel conversions is “Hotel Circle” in the North East Heights. Located in the area are a number of motels in the largest shopping area in SE and NE Albuquerque near I-40. The businesses in the area include Target, Office Depot, Best Buy, Home Store, PetCo and the Mattress Store and restaurants such as Sadies, the Owl Café, and Applebee’s and other businesses.
The city is looking into buying potential properties and claims it has not yet completed any purchases. Sources have confirmed the Keller Administration wants to buy the fomer Sure Stay Hotel located at 10330 Hotel Circle NE and also has its eye on purchasing the abandoned and boarded up Ramada Inn for a motel conversion.
The City Department of Family & Community Services is in the process purchasing the Sure Stay Hotel by using Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding of $3,059,662.12 in Community Development Block Grant, $2,443,724.00 from Public Facilities monies and $615,938.12 from Foreclosure Prevention for a total property purchase of $6,119,324.24. She also outlines how the Department of Family and Community Services has submitted a request to the HUD Albuquerque Field Office for the release of CARES and HOME American Rescue Plan funding to be used to purchase Sure Stay Hotel and the renovation project for the permanent housing with supportive services.
Strong neighborhood and business opposition has emerged and galvanized around the city’s attempted purchase of the Sure Stay Motel, with some petitioning the city to change the zoning code to disallow motel conversions. A petition with well over 250 signatures of business owners and residents in the area was secured within a few days has been submitted to the city.
CITY HOLDS MEETING TO GET INPUT, ANSWERS FEW QUESTIONS
On December 6, with only a 4-day public notice and reservations required, the City’s Family and Community Services Department and the Planning Department held a public meeting at the Albuquerque Convention Center to discuss the Keller Administration’s motel conversions plans. A little over 100 people attended the meeting which had a mediator oversee the meeting. In attendance to present the program were Family Community Service Director Carol Pierce, Deputy Director Lisa Huval and Albuquerque Police and APD Deputy Chief Josh Brown. Notably absent from the meeting was Mayor Tim Keller with no explanation given. Not a single Albuquerque City Councilor attended.
The City presented a short “power point” slide to the audience entitled “THE PATH FORWARD”. The power point said in part that there are “several possible paths all of which the Department of Family and community services is exploring” to deal with the housing shortage. Those options listed in the power point were:
“The city can acquire motels, contract with a contractor/architect to completr renovations and then identify an entity to own and operate the facility through a Request for Proposal (RFP), which is the city bidding process.
The city can acquire motels and then identify and entity to rehabilitate, own and operate through an RFP process. The RFP would include funding to rehab the motel
The city can use an RFP to select one or more entities to aquire, rehab, own and operate a motel.
Currently, [the] City has funding available to complete at least two motel conversions.”
CITY VISION OUTLINED FOR MOTEL CONVERSIONS
City officials outlined in the power point the vision it has for hotel conversions as follows:
Creation of “basic but safe” apartments.
There will be “Public-Partnerships”.
Conversions would be located throughout the city and not in one location.
Conversions will be in mixed communities. Some will have rental units with lower rents affordable to low-income households while other units will be rented at fair market rates.
The converted motels will be professionally managed by a property management company.
The conversions will have “onsite service” coordinators.
They will be sustainable.
KITCHEN REQUUIREMENTS FOR MOTEL CONVERSIONS
The city officials noted that kitchen requirement for conversions would be changed dramatically. Under recent zoning changes, there are reduced kitchen requirements for projects funded by the Family Community Services Department. With motel conversions under taken by the Family and Community Services Department, stoves, ovens or ranges are not required. However, refrigerators, countertops, and kitchen sinks are still required. Proposed changes to the Integrated Development Ordinance (IDO) will allow the same to all conversions by the private sector.
Another power point slide identified the “qualifying incomes” of the population that would be served by the motel conversions in terms of income levels. Those qualifying income levels listed were “Supplemental Social Security Income” recipients, “Social Security Disability” recipients, “Warehouse Workers”, “In Home Care” workers and “Tipped Workers”. The power point noted that the fair market value for an efficiency apartment in Albuquerque is approximately $666 per month. According to the power point, the monthly cost of $666 is “naturally affordable for single adults who earn $27, 000 a year” which is 50% of the city’s Median Income level. It was noted that some of the units will be for subsidized or for affordable housing for those making $16,000 a year which is 30% of the city’s Median Income.
CITY OFFICIALS RESPOND
Lisa Huval, deputy director in the Family and Community Services Department, argued that the existence of inadequate supply of low-income housing is a key factor in the city’s current housing crisis. Huval said Keller’s recently “Housing Forward” plan aims to tackle the problem from various angles. The goal of “Housing Forward” is to add 5,000 more housing units by 2025 beyond what the ordinary market would create.
Duval said transforming hotels or motels would account for part of that by creating what she called “basic, decent” places for people to live. Huval said the city estimates that rehabilitating hotel rooms into housing can be done at about one-third the cost of building a new unit from the ground up. According to the city officials, new apartment construction costs per unit is upwards of $300,000 while conversion or remodeling is upwards of $100,000. Huval said this:
“We need new creative, innovative strategies, and we believe converting motels and hotels into housing is one of those creative strategies”.
City Officials said any hotel conversion will have to meet the same city code as other apartment projects, with the exception of the kitchen standard. The city officials said that city-affiliated projects would also require an on-site social services provider at least 40 hours a week. They would allow pets and accept housing vouchers, city representatives said.
During the meeting, City officials announced that they hope to have the first city hotel conversion underway by the middle of 2023. The city officials said they are exploring acquisition of motels across the city, but have not yet made any purchases. The city officials did confirm it is in negotiations with at least one property located at 10330 Hotel Circle NE, which is the vacant Sure Stay Motel. It was revealed the city has about $20 million in federal funding and local bond money available currently for motel conversions. The funding is expected to cover at least the first 2 conversions.
In a slightly bizarre manner, Huval downplayed the zoning changes that allows the substitution of a microwave or hot plate for a standard oven or range. The city went so far as to have a chef at the event to demonstrate how to prepare chicken noodle soup from scratch with only an induction hot plate. Duval said this:
“Folks immediately go to microwave and picture someone living off Hot Pockets, but in fact it is possible to safely cook nutritious foods in these settings.”
The meeting lasted a little more than an hour and a half with a very short 15 minute power point presentation made. Index cards were circulated for written questions from the audience. Roughly an hour and 15 minutes was devoted to answer audience questions with very few answered or just ignored.
At one point during the question-and-answer period, frustrated audience members yelled out concerns about potential crime and blight noting that the Sure Stay Motel the city wants to buy has an excessive amount of crime and APD calls for service. Colleen Aycock, a resident of Four Hills in SE Albuquerque, who is a founding member of “Women Taking Back Our Neighborhoods” shouted out:
“So, you’ll get rid of drug addicts and sex traffickers if you find them in these units?”
In response, APD Deputy Chief Josh Brown said officers would tackle crime as needed. He also said it was unfair to make generalizations about low-income renters and said this.
“I don’t know what this is going to look like yet. We’re supportive of it and, if there is anything that pops up criminal-wise, APD can step in.”
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
There is absolutely no doubt that the Keller Administration and the Family and Community Services Department hosted the December 6 public meeting to discuss motel conversions simply because the issue has resulted in a severe backlash. The fact Mayor Tim Keller and not a single City Councilor attended the December 6 meeting speaks volumes of just how controversial motel conversions have become and Mayor Keller and the City Council could not careless what the public actually thinks.
Giving a 4 day notice on a Friday of a public meeting and then requiring an RSVP from the public was nothing more than a ploy to suppress attendance by hoping no one would see the notice. It’s a ploy that did not work and the city was inundated with reservation requests forcing the city to schedule a second meeting. A second meeting is now scheduled for December 13.
The first biggest take away from the City’s presentation on motel conversions is that they are not intended to be used as “homeless shelters” such as the new Gateway Homeless Shelter on Gibson, but there is no guarantee that will not happen. The intent is that those who will be housed in them must have some sort of income, either through social security or other government assistance or be gainfully employed, and they must pay rent. The city failed miserably in identifying the screening criteria that will be utilized for occupants and the minimum income levels.
The second biggest takeaway from the city’s December 6 presentation is that the motel conversion program has been haphazardly put together in order to make it part of Keller’s “Housing Forward ABQ” plan. The city officials were clearly on the defensive feeling there was need to have a professional mediator who announced repeatedly how people should conduct themselves and not be confrontational.
The third major takeaway from the meeting is that the city’s estimated cost of $100,000 per unit to fix up or remodel existing motels is likely a waste of taxpayer money and financing. Simply put, many times it is cheaper and makes more sense to demolish and rebuild motels. Approximately 15 years ago, the city’s Safe City Strike Force took civil code enforcement action against a number of the 150 motels up and down central with many ordered shut down. The motel owners were ordered to bring their properties into code compliance that usually cost thousands before they were allowed to reopen.
The Safe City Strike Force was responsible for the demolition of at least seven (7) blighted motels that were beyond repair. Those motels were demolished because it was cheaper and made more sense to tear them down rather than spends hundreds to remodel. The Central motels that the Safe City Strike Force took action against include the Gaslight (demolished), The Zia Motel (demolished), The Royal Inn (demolished), Route 66 (demolished), the Aztec Motel (demolished), the Hacienda, Cibola Court, Super-8 (renovated by owner), the Travel Inn (renovated by owner), Nob Hill Motel (renovated by owner), the Premier Motel (renovated by owner) the De Anza (purchased by City for historical significance), the No Name, the Canyon Road (demolished), Hill Top Lodge, American Inn (demolished), the El Vado (purchased by City for historical significance), the Interstate Inn (demolished).
Simply put, the city’s “motel conversion” plan is not ready for prime time. It appears Mayor Keller rushed to have it included as part of his “Housing Forward ABQ” plan without it being completely formulated or vetted. The city’s December 6 public meeting was very short on details as to what motels have been targeted, the projected overall funding for the program, no details as to the private-public partnerships and no identifying those in the real estate and development community and the construction industry the Keller administration is working with.
The city is spending between $60 million and upwards of $100 million a year on affordable and supportive housing. The biggest unanswered question is does the city have any business going into the “hotel conversion” business and begin operating such facilities in addition to what it is already being spent? Given the December 6 public meeting and all the written questions that went totally unanswered and ignored, it is not at all likely that the city has a realistic plan in place to achieve its goal of 1,000-units relying on motel conversions.