Dennis Gray lost his home in Hurricane Katrina. He came to New Mexico and bounced around in Rio Rancho and Albuquerque before landing in a fourth-floor, 300-square-foot corner apartment. It has large, sunny windows that he says provide a penthouse view of the mountains. “I’ve gone from trailer trash to apartment garbage to penthouse pleasure,” says Gray.
He lives in the Downtown @ 700-2nd apartments on the southeast corner of Lomas and Second Street. The 72-unit workforce housing project is one of 12 paid for, in part, by the city’s Workforce Housing Trust Fund. They expand the housing choices for the city’s working class and those with disabilities.
Gray was the second tenant to move in when the complex opened in early spring 2010. “I am on a fixed income, so this is great,” Gray says. “The location is ideal. You can hop on the bus or take a pleasant walk Downtown.” The furnished apartments range on a sliding scale from $0 to $500 monthly, depending on income.
Some of units are reserved for people who aren’t part of the program to ensure a diverse community. Monique (not her real name) pays full market value, $500, for her apartment. “I enjoy living here,” she says. “It has a sense of community and safety.” There is a library/computer room, several indoor and outdoor common spaces, balconies, and a large meeting room.
In the lobby, St. Martin’s Hospitality Center runs The Coffee Shop, a new business that is being used to train formerly homeless people to re-enter the job market. The shop adds a fragrant, bustling air to the complex.
“These developments fill a critical need in sustainable housing for Albuquerque’s workforce,” said Dory Wegrzyn, development director with the Supportive Housing Coalition of New Mexico. A stable workforce builds stable communities, she says, and this benefits everyone.
Wegrzyn is a bit of a visionary. She prompted Downtown @ 700-2nd Street to use cutting-edge eco-friendly ideas. The four-story building has its own gray water system that recycles sink and tub water from half of the units to provided toilet water for the entire complex. It has about 88-solar thermal panels on the roof that generate all the heat. An outdoor rain cistern system supplies water for the landscaping, trees and community garden.
Silver Gardens is another Wegrzyn affordable housing development. For this Downtown project, the coalition partnered with local developer Romero Rose. The 66-unit mixed-income apartment complex managed to get Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum certification—the highest rating LEED offers.
NewLife Homes is on the same track, and its energy-efficient systems help lower residents’ costs. The nonprofit has many projects in the works around the city, including single-family homes, townhomes and apartments. A five-acre site south of Central and Coors creates a stable environment for chronically mentally ill people who often move in and out of homelessness. It aims to integrate mentally ill and disabled residents with working-class families, building a tolerant community.
Jennifer Gutierrez and her family moved into a NewLife development in January 2010. She was pregnant with twins, and her boyfriend was the family’s sole provider. The couple needed a bigger apartment but could not afford one. Gutierrez says she can now afford to stay home with her daughter and 5-month old twins. “This has made our lives so much better,” she says from the doorstep of her tidy apartment next to a playground.
“If Albuquerque wants to be a world-class city, then we must look at how we treat the most vulnerable of our citizens,” says John Bloomfield, executive director of NewLife Homes. Affordable housing investments are good stewards of public money, he adds, because they’re safe. The developments also improve adjacent property values. NewLife is planning a mixed-use renovation to the old Luna Lodge on Central.
The Workforce Housing Opportunity Act creates a $30 million trust fund using city general obligation bonds. In 2007 and 2009 voters approved the first two chunks of $10 million each, and on Oct. 4 voters are being asked to fund the third chunk. The bonds don’t raise taxes.
The state Mortgage Finance Authority has thrown its support behind the bond measure, saying these developments provide jobs and consume local goods and services. “As household incomes continue to decline and significantly more owners and renters are housing-cost burdened, we need the Workforce Housing Trust Fund more than ever before,” says Jay Czar, executive director of the authority.
City Councilors Isaac Benton and Debbie O’Malley spearheaded the city’s program. She says it has been so successful because the ordinance is specific about how the funds can be used. The money can be spent on banking land for future development, or construction in areas where public transit is plentiful. “This fund has pumped millions of dollars into the construction industry—where recently there has been little activity,” O’Malley says.
Connie Chavez is the executive director of the Sawmill Community Land Trust, where a 46-unit senior living complex called Villa Nueva was completed near Old Town in January. She is quick to point out that the bond money doesn’t fund the whole thing. “It fills a gap that allows the projects to move forward,” Chavez says. “We would not have been able to build without the funding,”
Private businesses and nonprofits partner with the city government to build the developments. Today, 200 units are occupied, and another 150 are being built. When they’re all finished, the 12 developments will create a total of 420 affordable homes for families, individuals, senior citizens and people with disabilities.
Duke City Lumber once owned the Sawmill site between Old Town and I-40. Rita Sanchez was the first Villa Nueva resident. “I was living alone Downtown when my daughter found this place,” Sanchez says while sitting in the complex’s bright community room. “It is hard enough to get by.”
Sanchez and Lonnie Juarez, another of the first dozen residents, planted a community garden that grows produce. Juarez also hosts a computer class once a week to help seniors become more Internet savvy. He explains one of the things he enjoys is the diverse mix of people living at Villa Nueva. He breaks off to talk with a retired Ph.D. about several business enterprises they’re interested in starting.
Director Chavez says the senior complex adds to the overall Sawmill community, and it’s necessary. “These are challenging times we live in, and it is hitting the working class,” she says. “Villa Nueva and other similar developments allow people to participate fully in their lives from a comfortable, affordable home.”