The Ballad of Tijeras Gardens
Affordable housing takes center stage in the city's effort to finalize the East Downtown Master Plan
Judy Hatfield is a 64-year-old woman who has lived in the same home for 18 years. She is being evicted, along with six of her neighbors, because the former landlords decided to sell the property to a development company called J&J Holdings, which plans to turn the apartments into condominiums.
These apartments are not just any apartments, however. The neighbors call the East Downtown property at the corner of Tijeras and Arno Tijeras Gardens, and they've made it their own little paradise. Eight households share a backyard where they spend almost every night together eating dinner, screening films in the backyard on weekends and sharing life's ups and downs. They have strung lights around and landscaped and decorated to transform the space from a lifeless patch of land to a welcoming and warm place to entertain and live. Over the years they have become so tightly knit some residents refer to each other as family.
Hatfield has been instrumental in forming and maintaining the familial atmosphere of Tijeras Gardens. She helped tear up the paved alleyway and plant the first trees that now grace the property, and she tells stories of the people who used to live here, of the hard work that went into transforming it, of babies born in the place next door. "It has always been a haven for artists," she says. Sculptors, potters, dancers and filmmakers have all made this their home over the years because the apartments' concrete floors and wide-open spaces are ideal for live/work situations. Their creativity has infused the whole area with a unique and vibrant character that is absent in much of America today.
J&J Holdings is evicting all the residents at the end of this month in order to build new condominiums that will sell for around $200,000 each, says neighbor Julia Ragen. "This is the other side of gentrification," she says.
One of the neighbors who did not want his name used works on many house restoration projects in the Huning Highlands area, and thinks it's ironic that his efforts at making the neighborhood more attractive have forced him out of it.
Jessica Corley of J&J Holdings says their condominiums will be affordable, "in that the properties in that area are expensive. We'll be somewhere in the middle." J&J is planning on making the properties into one and two bedroom houses with lofts and skylights, and will completely change the building's façade. She says she is aware "the tenants aren't happy" and that "nobody likes getting kicked out of their house," but points out that J&J Holdings gave them 60 days to leave instead of the legally mandated 30. She is also sympathetic to the unique bond the neighbors share with each other, and regrets that this "really nice community of folks" is being dissolved, but hopes they quickly find other places to live and that they "can maintain those friendships."
The neighbors of Tijeras Gardens agree that there will soon be no place left east of Broadway in the Downtown corridor that isn't gentrified.
However, Paul Herzog, vice president of the Huning Highland neighborhood association—which encompasses neighborhoods south of Central that aren't officially designated East Downtown—sees it differently. Evictions like these are much more the exception than the rule, he says, and he views the reawakening of East Downtown as a boon for the city, and especially for artists. "Mixed income housing is a strength of (our) neighborhood," he says, predicting that will not change any time in the near future.
The fact that many buildings have been owned by the same people for decades precludes drastic changes in rents, although real estate prices are escalating faster than anywhere in the city. Still, homeowners in Huning Highland are in it for the long haul and not about to sell their houses to developers for a quick profit, Herzog says. Many homes are historic protection sites as well, which guarantees they cannot be rezoned for a different purpose. A single-family historic home will remain a single-family home, no matter who buys the property or how much they renovate.
Herzog believes there is already an abundance of very affordable housing all over the Downtown area. He asserts, "The only people I've seen (who disagree) do not live in this district." Decades ago, many homeowners turned garages into low-rent studio apartments, and many houses have smaller, affordable units in the back. As for the people of Tijeras Gardens, Herzog hopes "they're able to find something immediately in the neighborhood" that suits their needs.
"Edo," or the area east of Downtown confined by Central, Martin Luther King, I-25 and Broadway, is a developer's dream come true. Literally. The city managed to enable the renovation of the old Albuquerque High School campus after years of failure and allowing the abandoned building to sit like a giant, blighted eyesore on the corner of Central and Broadway. Paradigm & Company, a locally owned company committed to the principles of New Urbanism in its design of city spaces, invested in the project three years ago and the transformation from school to living space flourished. In a nutshell, new urbanism aims to make the city center as economically vibrant, community-oriented and livable as possible—a central place to live, work, walk and shop. Instead of seeing the high school as a singular project, Paradigm, the city and the Broadway Central Corridors Neighborhood Association decided to remake the district entirely.
In order to get the broadest base of support and the most input possible, they consulted with urban renewal experts from other cities and held a public Charrette (a community-wide planning meeting) to draw up the guidelines and set the goals for the redevelopment of the whole area. After five days of deliberations, they came up with the Edo Master Plan, which gained unanimous approval from the city environmental planning commission earlier this summer.
The Master Plan is a blueprint for the next 20 years of development in the area. It envisions a network of pedestrian-friendly streets filled with green spaces, plazas, storefronts and office space at the ground level with apartments above, historic buildings, restaurants and sidewalks wide enough to hold foot traffic, café patios and perhaps the odd street musician or fire juggler.
In the end, Edo might be an urban oasis for residents repelled by suburban isolation and traffic that can afford an alternative. Its success might change how Albuquerqueans think about urban planning and its interconnection with sustainable economic development. It might make the cookie-cutter residential lots sprawling on the city's fringe with no businesses to accompany them seem like the nightmare of yesteryear. But is the city going to ensure that as this plan marches inexorably forward, low-income residents are not pushed out, and kept out?
The Edo Master Plan has a one-page summary of goals and recommended approaches to affordable housing. It acknowledges that, in some cities, "unfortunately, the very efforts that make downtowns more attractive ultimately make them less affordable to all but the affluent." In many cases, it says, revitalization causes the displacement of long-term residents and traditional communities.
Edo planners have placed the responsibility for ensuring this doesn't happen in Albuquerque on a corporation called the Downtown Albuquerque Civic Trust that was created specifically to address this issue. Its mission is to give loans to developers and potential homeowners of a certain income bracket. The Civic Trust plans on helping homebuyers who earn around $40,000 a year with their down payment, and will lend money to developers to build housing to accommodate renters earning around $30,000, or 60 percent of the area median income.
However, no specific information was available either in the Edo Master Plan or on the Civic Trust website dealing with exactly how many of these affordable apartments will be created. Because the city currently has no legislation regulating the distribution of affordable housing downtown, all affordable housing projects are, while incentivized, still voluntary.
Rob Dickson, owner of Paradigm & Company and one of the principle proponents of the Edo Master Plan, doesn't think that's a problem. Seventeen out of the 70 lofts at the old Albuquerque High rent for $600 a month or under, which is comparably less than similar developments in other cities. He maintains there is a great deal of economic diversity in the new projects and there will continue to be, despite the common perception that they are only available to the white collar crowd.
While no affordable housing provision is specifically written in for Edo, Dickson says they do not zone out affordable housing, like many developments. He says many incentive programs exist to encourage the creation of affordable housing, and that "this is a place where the city's going to have to take the lead on identifying where the housing could be built."
But what exactly is "affordable housing," and what incentive programs exist to create it? The city defines it as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of total household income. There are three basic options to provide such housing: Section 8 (federally subsidized) vouchers, city-owned and managed apartments, and subsidies for nonprofit developers to build mixed-income units, according to Marty Luick of the Department of Family and Community Services.
Under Section 8, low-income earners can rent a market-rate apartment, but pay only 30 percent of their income. The difference is covered by the voucher. The city-owned apartments designate 20 percent of the space as "affordable," and rent the rest at market rates. Profits from the rent are used to subsidize the low-income housing.
The problem is the city is heavily dependent on federal funds that do not match the demand in Albuquerque. The city only has seven apartment complexes of its own, and Section 8 is such a popular program that there is a constant waiting list.
Those who cannot afford rents at market rates and have to wait for a housing subsidy usually end up in substandard, unsafe housing, or end up living in motels along Central, says City Councilor Debbie O'Malley, who has worked with the Sawmill area near Old Town to create subsidized housing that, while affordable, takes on a more upscale design and more communal quality.
Dickson says the difference between the type of affordable housing units Edo offers and those available elsewhere is "we don't have to sell them to people who say, ’I qualify for an affordable unit.' The problem here has not been a lack of affordable housing, but too much. This area has been a wasteland."
Terry Keene, president of the Broadway Central Corridors Neighborhood Association, concurs that the area before the renovations began was home to "drug dealers and prostitutes" and was a truly blighted place.
The overabundance of affordable housing that Dickson mentions is actually an overabundance of run-down homes and buildings that no one wants to live in, no matter the income bracket, according to Councilor O'Malley. "A lot of times what you have is landlords who don't maintain housing," O'Malley says. "It's cheap and it doesn't meet code. And you have a lot of people who can't afford anything else and have to live in it."
Obviously, O'Malley adds, that is not the kind of housing the city wants to encourage people to build in Edo, or anywhere else.
She stresses that Albuquerque is in desperate need of safe and decent housing that is within the economic reach of low-income families, and that it's especially needed Downtown in order to provide homes for the large work force that will underpin any economic revitalization. It's not a flashy endeavor, she says, "not like building a stadium or something. But it's key to stabilizing community."
Paul Herzog agrees that mixed-income neighborhoods are a major priority, but he also thinks there is no need to regulate housing in his neighborhood, as it is already solidly diverse. "I would hate to see legislation impeding on what developers and homeowners are able to do," he says. "Those (homeowners who have) held on this long deserve to be rewarded by continuing to gentrify and becoming the place they've dreamt of living in."
According to Councilor O'Malley, protecting mixed-income housing through legislative means is of utmost importance. The city needs to maintain a reserve of affordability by acquiring some properties and turning them into affordable housing apartments and homes before the properties become prohibitively expensive. That is precisely what she had a hand in while working with the nonprofit, successful Sawmill Trust. The private sector, O'Malley acknowledges, is responding to market demand for upscale housing in and around the city core. "If (developers and land owners) can charge more for something, they will," she says. "If they can build something cheaply, they will. They're motivated by profit. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but they need to make sure they're looking out for the welfare of the community. It's not enough to say it's a good idea."
After several years in the works, the Edo Master Plan is up for final approval by City Council in just a few weeks.
Councilors O'Malley and Eric Griego are going to require specific provisions for affordable housing to be written in to the plan before they approve it. Although all parties involved with the Edo development support mixed-income neighborhoods, there are widely differing views of how to create and maintain them. Some say they maintain themselves. Some want legislation to protect them. Some feel the private sector has enough incentives to provide affordable housing without any mandates from the government. These conflicting viewpoints will battle it out this fall over the blueprint for Edo. The outcome may inadvertently pave the way for more displacements and evictions like those of Tijeras Gardens, or it may put the final touches on a plan for a Downtown that is truly the pride of New Mexico and accessible to all people.
Albuquerque is poised on the edge of a major breakthrough. How will we decide to shape our city's future?