By Nathan Brown, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham showed up in a Senate committee Wednesday evening to push personally for a bill to create a state housing office.
“I am losing my mind [at] the number of people who are coming to us and begging us to find housing solutions for them,” Lujan Grisham told the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee, before telling a couple of stories about homeless people she has helped personally.
Senate Bill 71, one of the major housing initiatives the governor threw her support behind in her State of the State address, is still alive, although it didn’t get a ringing endorsement from the committee. The panel voted 5-4 to advance the bill to the Senate Finance Committee with no recommendation, instead of the more common “do pass” recommendation.
With just a week left in this year’s legislative session, the measure would have to clear the Finance Committee and the Senate floor before going through a similar process in the House of Representatives.
Sponsored by Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, SB 71 would create an Office of Housing that would be attached to the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration. The governor would appoint the office’s director, who would oversee studies on housing issues and work with government agencies and private developers to plan and fund projects, according to a legislative analysis of the measure. The office, Lujan Grisham said, will require three or four full-time employees, which will be funded from her office’s budget.
The office would be tasked with working hand in hand with the quasi-governmental New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority and other organizations. But according to the analysis, the authority has raised concerns about overlap.
“MFA notes the office would duplicate much of the work it already does,” the report said.
Health and Public Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, one of two Democrats to vote against a “do pass” recommendation and the only one to oppose advancing the bill at all, worried the office would overlap with the Mortgage Finance Authority and noted many of the initiatives touted by the bill’s supporters, such as developing workforce housing and directly aiding people at risk of homelessness, are not discussed in the legislation.
“One of the dilemmas I think the bill creates is much of what’s in the bill is not what you said you’re going to do,” he said.
Everyone agreed on one thing — with skyrocketing rent and home prices and not enough housing to go around, New Mexico has a problem.
“We are in whatever is beyond a crisis in this moment,” said Daniel Werwath, the governor’s housing policy adviser.
Werwath said the state needs to address this not only by subsidizing housing but by “working to bring down the cost of housing and increase the supply of housing.” The new office, he said, would help to coordinate this sort of comprehensive approach.
“It’s not just investment,” he said. “It’s making sure we’re working on the big picture.”
Several groups representing businesses and homebuilders spoke in favor of the bill, saying it would help address the state’s housing shortage.
“Rent is sky high,” said lobbyist J.D. Bullington, speaking on behalf of the city of Santa Fe and the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. “Home values have priced out many buyers, including first-time buyers, and overall there isn’t enough housing to go around.”
However, representatives of a couple of groups that work with members of the homeless community and people facing eviction expressed concern, saying they, unlike industry representatives, weren’t included in discussions that led to the bill. Monet Silva, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, said the money could be better spent on services for the homeless.
“I want to be very clear, we are not opposed to an office of housing,” she said. “We are opposed to the way this bill stands today.”
In a lengthy, polite and wide-ranging discussion, lawmakers and the governor went back and forth about the many issues surrounding both the bill and housing in general. Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, who noted he liked some aspects of the bill, said federal fiscal policy since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has played a big role in driving up prices. Poor and middle class people have been “whiplashed” by the Federal Reserve, he said.
“Getting into the housing market now is almost twice as much for the same quality of house,” Schmedes said.
Sen. Brenda McKenna, D-Corrales, decried the failure of a bill she supported to lift the state’s prohibition on rent control and worried SB 71 wouldn’t do much to help tenants being crushed by rapidly increasing rents.
“I just fear, regardless of how much building we do, folks are still going to be left out,” she said.
New Mexican reporter Gabrielle Porter contributed.