The City Council has plenty of business to address at the last regular meeting for 2019. Two big initiatives are on the agenda. Both are complicated and far-reaching.
One initiative, affecting inclusionary-zoning laws, needs to pass at this meeting because the program it reforms will expire at the end of the year. The Office of Affordable Housing has put together a flexible package of reforms to better able Santa Fe to provide affordable housing that works for developers and helps increase the supply of dwellings. Santa Fe has an affordable housing crisis on its hands, with the occupancy rates for rentals around 98 percent and rents continuing to rise.
The current program had asked developers building multifamily rental units to either set aside 15 percent of the apartments for qualified low-income tenants and rent the rest at market rates or pay a fee in lieu of the set-aside to the city, 100 percent of which goes to build affordable housing elsewhere.
Amendments would keep the fee-in-lieu option but would increase the amount paid over the next several years. There also would be new options encouraging development of apartments aimed at middle-income renters with other incentives, so developers would build more affordable units for people who can’t afford market rent.
Alexandra Ladd, in charge of the Office of Affordable Housing, makes a persuasive case that these amendments provide flexibility for developers and continue emphasizing the need for more affordable housing. Eventually, increasing the supply of housing should allow the market to correct itself, bringing down rents at older units as newer buildings open. The City Council should approve these amendments, while at the same time tracking their impact on construction and the housing market. If they don’t work or have unintended consequences, change them.
The second big item on the agenda is even more important to the future of Santa Fe — and that’s because without ensuring an adequate water supply, there is no way forward.
Up for consideration is a relatively uncontroversial item from District 2 Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth calling for the city to begin work on its 40- to 80-year water plan. This is necessary and somewhat overdue, and deals not just with where Santa Fe will find water but how that precious resource will be used, reused and conserved.
That prudent effort, though, has become controversial because of an amendment to her resolution that also calls for the city to approve the “design and construction” of a $20 million, 17-mile pipeline connecting the south-side wastewater treatment plant to the Buckman Direct Diversion plant on the Rio Grande.
Approval would not mean the project is a done deal — such a project needs 28 permits, after all — but it would indicate City Council consensus on a proposal that has been talked about for decades. Despite the many studies of this proposal over the years, including numerous stakeholder meetings held in recent months to discuss Santa Fe’s water future, the addition of what is essentially an endorsement of the pipeline project to the water-planning process has raised the hackles of downstream farmers and environmentalists.
The pipeline would allow the city to maximize use of its 5,000-acre-feet-a-year share of San Juan-Chama Diversion project water that flows through the Buckman Direct Diversion plant, using return-flow credits as the city takes water from the Rio Grande and replaces it with treated effluent water.
District 2 Councilor Peter Ives, who is leaving the council, added the pipeline amendment to Romero-Wirth’s water-planning resolution. The council Public Utilities Committee voted 3-1 to move the combined resolution forward; this week, however, the Public Works/CIP and Land Use Committee stalled 2-2 on whether to move ahead. The resolution goes on to the council because of Public Utilities Committee approval.
On Wednesday, the City Council should endorse the creation of the long-term water plan but remove the word “construction” from the resolution. Not because it should not be built but because reasonable opponents still need to be persuaded.
Take up further discussion of the pipeline after the first of the year, but remember this: The concept of diverting water and using a return-flow pipeline is the option that study after study dating to the 1970s has endorsed as both cost-effective and practical. The city still needs to make its case to environmentalists and downstream farmers, showing ways they believe the project would benefit both the environment and downstream acequias.
First, though, comes a busy end-of-the-year meeting. It’s going to be a long night.