By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Jason Santos weighed roughly 185 pounds when he moved to New Mexico in August.
Today, the University of New Mexico graduate student is about 45 pounds lighter.
It wasn’t by choice.
Santos, 24, told legislators considering a bill Wednesday to repeal a prohibition on rent control he’s been skipping meals to make sure he has a roof over his head.
“I’m not the only one,” he said. “There are many students like me who are having to choose between paying rent or eating food.”
Members of the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee acknowledged New Mexico has a housing problem but said rent control isn’t the long-term solution.
After a two-hour discussion and debate, the committee voted 6-2 to table Senate Bill 99.
Committee Chairman Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said the bill, which would lift the prohibition on rent control and allow counties and municipalities to decide for themselves, would create a “patchwork quilt of rules and regulations around the state.” The result, he said, is all the housing development would occur in cities and counties without rent control.
Ortiz y Pino said state government instead needs to incentivize the development of affordable housing.
“It’s going to take money, but we have money,” he said, referring to record revenue projections for the upcoming fiscal year that include $3.6 billion in so-called new money.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez and Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, both Albuquerque Democrats, drew the support of the Peoples Housing Project, which describes itself as a grassroots movement of volunteers leading the campaign to end the statewide prohibition on rent control.
It also drew the opposition of the New Mexico Association of Realtors and the Apartment Association of New Mexico.
“I appreciate where the sponsors are trying to go, but we all know that affordable housing in New Mexico is the real underlying issue, and we need more of it,” said Brent Moore, a lobbyist for the Realtors’ association.
“New Mexico struggles with lots of problems,” he added. “Introducing the debate about rent control into the discussion, I think, takes us in the wrong direction. I think we should try to refocus on initiatives that take us towards more affordable housing.”
Moore pointed to the bill’s fiscal impact report, which states New Mexico is among 37 states that prohibit or preempt rent control.
“When investors are looking to build housing, it’s more likely that they’re going to go to the majority of states that have some type of preemption or prohibition against rent control,” he said. “The real problem with rent control is that it leads, eventually, to stagnation.”
Sen. Brenda McKenna, D-Corrales, who voted against the tabling motion alongside Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said she didn’t buy the argument rent control would “stymie business.”
“Those that don’t want to have housing here in New Mexico and have tenants, they have that choice,” she said. “Someone else will come here.”
Serge Martinez, a UNM law professor, told the committee the prohibition on rent control is 30 years old.
“It is a law that was passed at a time when there was no discussion in New Mexico about rent control,” he said. “It was not a burning issue. It came to New Mexico as part of a wave of similar laws around the country from a group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a shop in Washington that makes a living writing these bills that try to take power from local municipalities.”
Martinez said the prohibition tied governments’ hands.
“Now 30 years later, we find that in a real crisis, counties and cities are being told, ‘You can’t consider all the possible tools for resolving this crisis,’ ” he said. “It flies in the face of the home-rule jurisdictions that we have around the state.”
After the tabling motion was approved, Lopez said outside the committee room she was disappointed.
“Sometimes short-term solutions are needed with deal with the issue at hand,” she said. “Sometimes what I see here in Santa Fe is we kind of look long-term, but we also want to see what power we have in hand to try and affect some change [immediately] because people are hurting right now.”
Anna Lee DeSaulniers, an organizer with the Peoples Housing Project, said thousands of renters are “getting extremely cost burdened” and need help.
“It was necessary a while ago,” he said, referring to rent control. “So many people have already fallen into very desperate situations. … We’ve [heard of] $600 increases. We seen double rent increases. And right now, as long as this prohibition stands, which is very undemocratic in character, there’s no ceiling to how much the landlords can charge us.”
DeSaulniers said housing should be a human right.
“Tenants need to have more protections,” she said. “We need to be putting our communities before the profits of large developers and landlords.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.