Los Alamos School Board members at the joint session to discuss the North Mesa Housing Study are, from right, Dawn Jalbert, Steve Boerigter, Julia Baker, Christine Bernstein and Chair Ellen Ben-Naim. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Los Alamos County Councilors, from left, Pete Sheehey, Randy Ryti, James Robinson, Katrina Martin, David Izraelevitz and Antonio Maggiore, pictured at a Feb. 11 joint session with the Los Alamos School Board. Chair Sara Scott was on travel. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Will Gleason, an urban planner for Dekker Perich Sabatini, told a joint session of the Los Alamos County Council and the Los Alamos School Board Feb. 11 that he understands the North Mesa Housing Study is a sensitive subject for people that live near the site.
“I also appreciate the fact that housing is really a key to the future of this County and ensuring your economic success in the years ahead and housing is one of the key pieces of the puzzle,” he said.
Gleason noted that the study is “fairly circumscribe”.
“It’s not to generate a site development plan. It’s not to change the zoning. It is to study the feasibility of creating housing on this 30-acre site. The goal is to generate a plan that can be carried forward if the County and the School Board decides to do so into development – to test the feasibility that housing on this site can be done,” he said.
Gleason noted that his company has been working with a steering committee composed of people from the School Board, the County Council and others and that some goals have been developed. He said the desire is to really focus on creating the housing that would meet what he called the Missing Middle – housing that “addresses people that have a good job but can’t afford those $400,000 to $600,000 homes, the more custom homes in other parts of the County”.
Another goal, Gleason said is to develop a scenario where the school district would generate some revenue from the project.
“It’s their land, so they have a real desire and a real need for an additional stream of revenue, and along with that, to find possibly some housing that would address the housing demands that the school district itself has for teachers, for janitors, for others that work for the school district,” he said. “We are looking at a variety of households and a variety of housing types that meet that range of needs that people have, from young families to retired baby boomers to people that are just up here for a 12-month stint or short-term, that don’t want to buy a place or rent a place. So there’s a whole range of housing that we’re looking to address.”
He said balancing the development is also a priority so that is doesn’t have an negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.
“We are exploring the feasibility and range of housing options, we’re generating design ideas and concepts to facilitate a conversation and we’re recommending a framework for the housing. And that’s really our task,” Gleason said. “This is not a regulatory document. We’re not changing the zoning of the land. We’re not asking for Planning & Zoning approval for anything and we’re not creating an approved design for the site. That will come later in the process as it goes forward.”
He noted the steps the County and the School Board will have to go through before there would be a shovel in the ground – including County public hearings for a development agreement, land transfer hearings if applicable, zoning and site plan public hearings, and County Council consideration of budget appropriation for the extension of infrastructure to the site.
“Development when it’s done seems like an easy thing but all the steps before anything tangible comes out of the ground take quite a bit of time and there’s a lot of risk involved for both the owners and for the County. This is by no means a done deal at this point,” Gleason said.
He said a housing market needs analysis with more than 1,000 responses found the immediate need for about 1,300 rental units in the County as well as units for people who want to buy homes who are in the household income range of $60,000 to $100,000, where they can afford to buy something but there’s nothing available for them to buy in the current market. In order to fill those needs, he said the solution is not to build custom homes on ¼-acre lots.
“You really need to figure out how to build slightly higher density infill housing and not just on this site but on multiple sites around the County. And in reality, there just aren’t that many sites that are available to be developed in the County given the terrain,” Gleason said. “We have proposed, with a lot of consideration, a range of types of housing trying to get the density right on this so that it has a minimal impact on the adjacent neighborhoods but provides enough housing so that it’s worth doing. If you put a really low density project on here, you’re not going to end up doing much to address the housing needs of the County.”
School Board chair Ellen Ben-Naim said her board had reached a consensus that the proposed project could be a “win-win for us and the County”.
“It has been with our full cooperation and nothing has been yanked from the schools. It is quite the opposite. This collaborative approach has been a part of the process from the beginning,” she said.
Ben-Naim mentioned the School Board’s strategic plan noting that the project fits very well into the part relating to teacher well-being and excellence.
“We have barriers to recruiting the best and brightest of our teachers and to retaining them, and the barrier is where will they live. We have heard from teachers who have left because they couldn’t find appropriate housing close enough and wanted their kids to be close to where they are teaching. We heard from teachers who haven’t even accepted positions because of that,” she said.
Ben-Naim emphasized that the process is at the beginning and that the School Board is planning for public input at every step.
“Schools are in the business of educating children. We are not land developers or builders and so being able to collaborate with the County that has expertise in this area, is a boon for us and a much better way for us to move forward,” she said.
She announced that the School Board is hosting a discussion at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26 at the Los Alamos Middle School cafeteria and is especially reaching out to its neighbors on North Mesa to participate in that discussion.
Under public comment which was limited to two minutes per speaker, Los Alamos High School principal Carter Payne noted that having appropriate housing affects teacher quality, teacher excellence and teacher well-being which are in turn foundational for student well-being. He said when teachers are being hired in May and June the more affordable housing is occupied by summer students and other people from the Los Alamos National Laboratory community.
“It’s a challenge for us in recruiting teachers,” he said. “The other challenge is in the mental health and the wellbeing of the teacher while they’re in the classroom.”
Payne noted that he has four staff members who have had housing insecurity, who have had to move multiple times, who have had to rent rooms in other people’s homes and that the process of upheaval in their personal lives has made it challenging for them to be the best teacher that they can be in the classroom.
North Mesa resident Barbara Phelps said her biggest concern has to do with density.
“We already have two of the four Section 8 housing developments in Los Alamos on North Mesa as well as two mobile home communities. Nothing against any of that, except that it is low-cost housing,” she said. “Nobody has told me how many units are in those total acres and it’s very nice that you’re addressing people that are my age, that are 65 and older. It’s very nice that you’re trying to hold it to teachers and policemen and so forth. I don’t know if that’s legal. I’d like to hear about the legality of how you can rent or sell only to that group.”
The “Section 8” program allows private landlords to rent apartments and homes at fair market rates to qualified low income tenants, with a rental subsidy administered by Home Forward. “Section 8” is a common name for the Housing Choice Voucher Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Martha Alderson-Lewellen said she became concerned after talking to people before the prior Housing Study that there are roughly 300 homes being considered because North Mesa already has more than 1,000 homes.
“Nobody at that meeting had any idea how many dwellings were already up there. In addition to having just over 1,000 including apartments, mobile homes, etc., 300 homes increases that density by 20 percent which makes a huge impact, not only on the people who are living there currently but the people who will be moving there eventually into this development,” she said.
She also expressed concern about the traffic which she said could increase by 30 to 50 percent.
“We already have a huge bottleneck because of the roundabout which anyone who’s been to North Mesa knows about,” she said, adding that she is also concerned about what will happen if there’s an emergency such as fire sweeping up both canyons on either side of the mesa.
“It is also very concerning to me that we have two stakeholders – the County Council that wants more housing and the School Board that has land and sees it as a good match. And the North Mesa community as stakeholders have not been considered until these meetings,” Alderson-Lewellen said.
Chris Creel, a resident North Mesa, said there would be a lot more buy in from the local citizenry who would support any effort to get better teachers.
“But no one has yet explained how this housing is going to be allocated to teachers, how you can legally do that and why it won’t be filled with just more people from the Lab who will occupy that space whether it be custodial crew, secretarial staff of the Lab and nothing related to the school,” he said.
Creel said the small amount of additional housing is not going to fix the problem of 10,000 people driving up to Los Alamos each day.
“It’s a Band-Aid on a much larger problem. As a parent and I live very close to the middle school, I’m a little troubled by the idea that it’s great to stick high-density housing in proximity to a school. There are certain groups of people who love high-density housing and if you can’t segregate teachers and support staff, those other people may find their way into that housing,” Creel said. “Some of those people include major concerns for the school that is protecting the kids and people that deal drugs love high-density housing. I don’t really see how that’s helpful. I have kids. They attend that middle school, so I actually do care.”
To the County Council, Creel said it sounds like there is a third party constituency that’s being served here.
“There are a lot of people who live here and vote for councilors and this is a very unpopular idea with them, yet there are all these imaginary future dwellers who would supposedly support this. I don’t really understand how your current voters are going to oppose it but these new incoming people are going to thank you when they purchase the housing. I find that an odd perspective. You can tell I’m not in favor,” he said.
Lisa Reader, a school district employee, said the North Mesa property is the last large tract of land owned by LAPS. She said there are many aspects and issues to be considered such as what would happen should another school site be necessary, due to fire, other disasters or an expanded school age population.
“There’s not more vacant school land available to put either a temporary or a permanent campus on. Once the land is gone it’s gone,” she said.
Reader also noted that LAPS ownership of the site could also accomplish the district’s goals for vocational education, day care, early childhood education and services for those with disabilities.
Asst. Supt. Jennifer Guy said the school district has had students that are experiencing housing insecurity because they’ve lived in different home and rental properties
“Some kids for years and they’re being displaced and they’re sitting in my office and they don’t know what to do. They’re staying with friends, they’re staying in temporary places. They’re going from hotel to hotel and they’re unable to secure housing,” Guy said.
Following public comment, Council and School Board members discussed at length several issues connected to the project, including how to maintain affordability for the homes, the demographics of those who might live there, whether or not it would be legal and feasible to set homes aside for certain sections of the population such as teachers and police officers.
Chair Ben-Naim brought up the possibility of a memorandum of agreement (MOA) to formalize the relationship between the County and the School Board going down the road. She said there was a Catch 22 situation at present.
“We’re saying, ‘we can’t decide until you tell us what you want’ and you guys are saying, ‘we can’t decide until you tell us what you want’,” she said.
School Board member Steve Boerigter said he believed the term “feasibility study” characterized where the project is today which is, asking the professionals if it is possible to work together to meet the goals listed by Gleason.
“We think the answer to that is yes, but we don’t have the results of the feasibility study. In the context of that study, we don’t have detailed options to work with – talking about all these questions that we don’t have the answers to yet,” he said. “Yes, clearly as we progress some type of formal agreement will be required that will help us prioritize our goals. But it’s a little less clear to me that we are prepared to articulate what that agreement looks like. Partly because our consultants are in the middle of the feasibility study. Yes, but I feel like we’re not there yet. Maybe those conversations need to start but I’m not ready.”
Councilor Antonio Maggiore said Boerigter hit the nail on the head.
“I personally am not comfortable with starting to draft an MOA. At this point the feasibility study needs to come back. It needs to be talked through with the community, especially North Mesa a little bit more,” he said.
Maggiore said speaking for himself he finds it a little disheartening when everyone knows there is a housing crisis and the first reaction from people who come up is “not in my backyard”.
“That’s not a starting place for a real productive discussion moving forward and I think we need to step back a little and find a better way to engage with the community about what the goals are of this project because this is something that could be wonderful for everyone in this community,” Maggiore said. “But inevitably, as with just about every project – not in my back yard – and that’s not a starting point. We hit that obstacle right out the gate every time so in my opinion we’re doing something wrong. Either the community is happy at the size that it’s at and they don’t care whether their teachers teach their kids, or the police that keep them safe live in this community, or this town needs to realize that ‘not in my back yard’ there is pretty much nowhere else. There is pretty nowhere else in this town but our back yards.”
He said to move forward on the project, some people need to come to the realization that yes, their back yard might change a little.
“But having your back yard change a little doesn’t mean you lose a back yard. What it does for anyone else in the community would hopefully override that not in my back yard,” he said.
Chair Ben-Naim said the meeting on Feb. 26 will be another opportunity for perhaps some more informal discussion with a little longer time because that will be the only thing on the agenda for that night.
Although work on the Housing Study has given the public an idea of what the County is working towards for the project, the School Board does not yet seem to have a structured path going forward in terms of what its financial benefits from the project might need to be to make if feasible to allow development of housing on LAPS land.