On October 18, 2022, Mayor Tim Keller announced his “Housing Forward ABQ Plan”. It is a “multifaceted initiative” where Keller set the goal of adding 5,000 new housing units across the city by 2025 above and beyond what the private sector normally creates each year. According to Keller, the city is in a major “housing crisis” and the city needs between 13,000 and 28,000 new housing units.
Keller’s “Housing Forward ABQ Plan” was embodied in amendments to the Integrated Development Ordinance (IDO) which is the city’s zoning laws. To add the 5,000 new housing units, Keller proposed that the City of Albuquerque fund and be involved with the construction of new low-income housing. The strategy includes “motel conversions” where the city buys existing motels or commercial office space and converts them into low-income housing. It includes “casitas” on existing residential properties as permissive uses and not as conditional uses.
The most controversial provision of Keller’s “Housing Forward ABQ” plan was to allow the construction of 750 square foot casitas and 750 square foot duplex additions on every single existing R-1 residential lot that already has single family house built on it in order to increase density. The zoning code amendments would have made both casitas and duplex additions “permissive uses” and not “conditional uses” as they have always been historically. A “conditional use” requires an application process with the city Planning Department, notice to surrounding property owners and affected neighborhood associations and provides for appeal rights. A “permissive use” would give the Planning Department exclusive authority to issue permits for construction without notices and hearings and with no appeal process. Objecting adjoining property owners and neighborhood associations would be relegated to filing lawsuits to enforce covenants and restrictions.
CASITAS IN, DUPLEXES OUT
On June 21, the Albuquerque City council voted 5-4 to approve the zoning code changes to the Integrated Development Ordinance. The version of the bill that ultimately passed on a 5-4 vote was amended extensively. The city council voted to allow casita construction a “permissive use” in all single-family R–1 zone and reduce parking requirements for some multifamily properties and changing building height limitations. The city council voted to strike the amendment and not allow duplexes to be permissively zoned in R–1 zone areas.
Other amendments adopted included additional setbacks for backyard casitas of 5 feet on either the back or side of a property’s lot lines and a limit on the height of accessory dwelling units, but not other accessory buildings, to the same height as the main building on the lot. The enactment of the amendment also paves the way for converting motel properties into housing and includes provisions to ease parking challenges at developments.
The biggest point of contention dealt with by the city council was whether casitas would be allowed as a “conditional use” mandating and application process or a “permissive use” giving the planning department unilateral authority to grant construction in R–1 zones. The amendment making casitas a conditional use passed 5-4. Because casitas known as Accessory Dwelling Units are now zoned permissively in R–1 zones, any home or property owner living in the area will automatically be qualified for a permit to build, so long as they meet the zoning and building standards, which include lot size, accessory structure size as well as setback and height requirements. Casitas will require water and sewer lines and electric hook ups which will be above and over mere construction costs.
KELLER SIGNS INTO LAW “HOUSING FORWARD ABQ” PLAN
On July 6, Mayor Tim Keller, surrounded by low income housing and homeless advocates, signed into law all the zoning code amendments passed by the city council that embody his “Housing Forward ABQ Plan” including those that will allow casita construction on 68% of all built out residential lots in the city. Keller said his administration does not have an “all-encompassing solution“, but they do have a step in the right direction which is changing the zoning code. The annual update amendments to the Integrated Development Ordinance will take effect on July 27.
Before signing the legislation, Keller said this:
“I remember asking, I was like, ‘Well, what would actually make a difference?’ because when you have a shortage of, you know, 19,000 to 30,000 [housing] units, it’s not about one more building or 100 more units. … I had no idea what the answer was to that question. … This is a big, big deal for Albuquerque. … We decided to put something forth. It was very bold, very visionary … And it came from the team saying that, ‘Look, right now our current zoning code, not on purpose, but by default, discourages things like casitas, things like converting hotels to apartments. … This notion that your adult child or your grandparents can live with you on your property is fundamentally New Mexican. … That is the promise of Albuquerque and this bill delivers and reflects on that promise. ….”
Not a single city councilor, including the amendment sponsors Democrat City Councilor Issac Benton or Republican Councilor Trudy Jones attended the signing ceremony. Several low income housing advocates who spoke referred to the legislation as a “compromise bill.” The bill survived City Council with several amendments, which Keller called reasonable.
Keller announced that what is next on the Housing Forward agenda is the actual implementation of the zoning code changes and in particular making headway on hotel conversion projects around the city. The city has already purchased the Sure Stay Motel located in motel circle for upwards of $8 million and is in the process of converting it into 100 efficiency apartments for low-income housing. City sources have confirmed the city has enough funding to perhaps purchase one more motel for conversion into low income housing.
One of the provisions of the zoning code change was allowing a microwave and additional heating element, such as an induction cooktop, to qualify as a kitchen. This is a change intended to make it easier for developers to convert out-of-use hotels and motels into housing.
KELLER ANNOUNCES GOAL OF 1,000 CASITAS
During the July 6 bill signing ceremony, Mayor Keller announced to the public for the first time that it was his administration’s goal to have 1,000 new casitas in the city by 2025. The casitas will be part of the overall goal of 5,000 new housing units. To carry out Keller’s goal, Planning Manager Mikaela Renz-Whitmore announced the Planning Department is currently discussing how to “lower the bar” of entry for property owners to build casitas. Renz-Whitmore said that within 120 days, the Planning Department is expected to release some “preapproved casita designs” which should reduce the time and cost for a homeowner to build an accessory dwelling unit.
The department is also looking at how other cities have incentivized casita construction. In Los Angeles, Renz-Whitmore said, there’s a program where the city will loan building costs to homeowners that agree to rent their casita to a Section 8 housing voucher holders for a certain number of years. Renz-Whitmore said the department is discussing a similar program.
“That really helps make sure that this isn’t just for the people who can already afford to build an extra unit. … It actually helps those folks who are middle income. They’re already homeowners and they’re just looking for either a little bit of rental income, or even to provide housing for their own family members.”
Links to quoted news sources materials are here:
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Mayor Keller’s major announcement that his administration has set the goal of constructing 1,000 casitas by 2025 took more than a few people by surprise, especially property and home owners and neighborhood associations who so strenuously opposed casita’s during the 6 month process that included public hearings and city council committee meetings and council hearings.
“COMPROMISE BILL” A LIE
Low incoming housing advocates and Keller calling the zoning code amendments a “compromise bill” is simply a lie. Throughout the process, the Keller Administration showed no signs of wanting any kind of compromise and opposed any and all efforts by the public to stop casitas and duplexes from being allowed.
From December of 202 to March 20, 2023, the Keller Administration held 6 public meetings at various quadrants of the city to promote and educate the general public on the “Housing Forward ABQ Plan”. The proposals for casita and duplex development were met with hostility and mistrust by an overwhelming majority of property and homeowners.
The Keller Administration officials made no changes to the “Housing Forward ABQ Plan” base on the public comments made at the meetings. The Keller Administration went so far as to oppose any and all amendments offered by City Councilor Renee Grout to make casita and duplex construction conditional uses.
CASITA COST PROHIBITIONS
It is more likely than not that the Keller Administrations goal for 1,000 casitas by 2025 is more fantasy than reality simply because of construction costs and market forces. The Keller Administration has never discussed the actual cost of construction of 750 square foot casitas. They simply presume property owners will be able to afford to do it themselves which is not likely given the high cost of construction and materials.
Home builders serving the Albuquerque area estimate the cost to build residents in Albuquerque is between $175 to $275 per square foot. It’s a cost that equally applies to casitas. To build and construct a 750 foot casita or duplex at the $175 foot construction cost would be $131,425 (750 sq ft X 175 = $131,421). The addition of plumbing, sewer, electrical and gas hook ups and permits will likely add an additional $30,000 to $50,000 to the final construction costs. Very few people have the financial ability to invest another $130,000 to $200,000 in homes they already own.
Mayor Tim Keller and supporters of casita development argue it is needed to increase density, create affordable housing and to get away from “urban sprawl”. They repeatedly made the misleading representation that many within the community want additional housing for extended families making reference to “mother-in-law quarters”. Keller himself is now calling “casitas” uniquely New Mexico. The only thing unique about “casitas” is the use of the spanish word in that the most common term in zoning is “accessory dwelling” and accessory dwelling are found through out thee country. Calling casitas “mother-in-law quarters” or “casitas'” is nothing more than a publicity ploy to make the proposal palatable to the general public given the fact very few individuals will actually be able to afford the construction. The only ones likely to afford to construct casitas are investors and developers.
PRE-APPROVED CASITA DESIGNS
The Planning Department attempting to “lower the bar” of entry for property owners to build casitas and to provide “preapproved casita designs” is so very wrong on a number of levels. The private sector investors, developers and contractors are required to go through a very lengthy and costly process to secure approval of planned developments and architectural plans, including the application for construction permits they pay for themselves. Architectural plans for construction and remodeling are paid for in full by the developer who then submits them for the Planning Department for review and approval and to insure compliance with zoning codes and construction codes. Final approval of development plans and issuance of construction permits can take anywhere from between 4 months and at times as much as a full year.
It is common knowledge that the Planning Department is currently extremely short staffed when it comes to certified and trained code inspectors and personnel dedicated to approval and review development plans. The Planning Department does not have sufficient staff who have the training and certifications in permit and final construction inspection process. There has been a mass exodus of planning department personnel and code inspectors resulting in a serious backlog in approving projects.
The city’s efforts to reduce the time and cost for a homeowner to build an accessory dwelling units amounts to nothing more than giving preferential treatment over those in the private sector that have diligently followed the process and who have incurred substantial expenses. The city providing “preapproved casita designs” means the Planning Department is stepping over the line of being a code enforcement and approval agency to one of providing architectural plans or designs where the city taxpayer is absorbing the costs for the developer. The “preapproved casita designs” plan likely violates the state’s “anti-donation clause” which strictly bars public government entities from donating to private corporations and individuals.
CITY LOW INTEREST LOANS FOR CASITA DEVELOPMENT LIKELY VIOLATION OF STATE ANTI DONATION CLAUSE
Mayor Keller announced that his administration is looking at how other cities in other sates have incentivized casita construction. Planning Manager Mikaela Renz-Whitmore in particular said the city is looking at Los Angeles California’s program where the city loans building costs to homeowners that agree to rent their casita to those who use Section 8 housing vouchers.
Albuquerque, New Mexico is no way comparable to Los Angeles, California when it comes to assets and resources. Also in New Mexico there is the anti donation clause which strictly bars public government entities from donating to private corporations and individuals that does not exist in California or other states.
Ostensibly Mayor Tim Keller and his administration are totally ignorant of just how the “anti donation clause” works or they just choose to ignore it. Least anyone forget, the Keller Administration spent $236,622 to purchase artificial turf for the Rio Rancho Events Center. The turf purchase was for the benefit of the privately owned New Mexico Gladiators to play their home football games. The City Inspector General found the turf purchase and installation in another city was in violation of “anti donation clause” which strictly bars public government entities from donating to private corporations.
The city’s proposal to offer low interest loans dedicated for construction of casitas in exchange for the property owners committing that the casita be rented to low income Section 8 housing voucher holders is very problematic on a number of levels:
First, its likely the loan program for casita development to private property owners to construct casitas is a violation of New Mexico’s anti donation clause. This would be especially true if no collateral is required to secure the loan for casita construction and the city is forced to write off of loan for nonpayment or if the city converts the loans to none refundable grants for home improvements.
Second, it presumes the city has the financial resources to offer low interest loans to private citizens when the city’s responsibility is funding essential services such as police protection, fire protection and other essential services.
Third, it amounts to the city going into home improvement loan business assuming a financial risk when the city is supposed to responsible for construction code enforcement and permits.
Fourth, the City is not equipped to be a loan institution for collections and recovery on high risk loan defaults for casita development.
CASITAS NO SOLUTION TO AFFORDABLE HOUSING SHORTAGE
The housing shortage is related to economics, the development community’s inability to keep up with supply and demand and the public’s inability to purchase housing or qualify for housing mortgage loans. The shortage of rental properties has resulted in dramatic increases in rents.
The City Council’s reclassification zoning of all R-1 single-family lots to allow for casita development will encourage large private investors and real estate developers, including out-of-state corporate entities, to buy up distressed properties to lease and convert whole blocks into casita rental areas. This has already happened in the South area of the University of New Mexico dramatically degrading the character of neighborhoods and the city as a whole. It will now happen, or is already happening, in the South East Heights International District and historic areas of downtown.
To put the argument in perspective, individual investors will now be able to purchase single-family homes to rent, and add a 750-square-foot free-standing casita. More outside investors are also buying multifamily properties around the city. According to New Mexico Apartment Advisors CEO Todd Clarke, there are currently 1,999 investors looking in the Albuquerque multifamily market, a number that has increased sixfold since before the pandemic. Casitas will be used predominantly by outside investors and developers as rental units and it is in all likely they will not be low income units and the rent charged will be what the market will bear.
The result is a one-home rental being converted into 2 separate rental units. Such development will increase an area’s property values and property taxes. It will also decrease the availability of affordable homes and raise rental prices even higher. It will increase gentrification in the more historical areas of the city as generational residents will be squeezed out by the developers and increases in property taxes.
People buy single detached homes wanting to live in low density neighborhoods not high-density areas that will reduce their quality of life and the peaceful use and enjoyment of their homes and families. The city allowing casita development, which in all likelihood will be rentals on single family properties, will seriously damage the character of any neighborhood.
People buy their most important asset, their home, with the expectation they can trust the city not to change substantially the density, quality and appearance of their neighborhood. What happened with the enactment of Keller’s Housing Forward ABQ Plan and amendments to the Integrated Development Ordinance was a breach of trust between home owners, property owners and the city and its elected officials who put “profits over people” to benefit the development and investment industry.
Mayor Tim Keller calls himself a Progressive Democrat as he gives a wink and a nod to the business and development community with his “Housing Forward ABQ Plan” that overwhelming favors developers over neighborhoods. The City Council did its constituents a real disservice to the city by allowing development that will have a dramatic negative impact on historic areas of the city. Keller used the short-term housing “crunch” to declare a “housing crisis” to shove his Housing Forward ABQ Plan down the throats of city property owners.