The Los Alamos Underworld

Los Alamos

When I wrote about the proposed new nuisance code the other day, I referred to its impact on the owners and renters of older residences on difficult lots, especially in the government-built sections of town and the mobile home communities.  These areas are by no means slums or candidates for urban renewal; many homes in these areas have been renovated or carefully maintained. But many lower income residents live there.

I’ve lived in the Elk Ridge mobile home park or in government-built homes in Eastern Area or North Community for most of the 48 years since I came to Los Alamos.  I rented out some properties in these areas for about 30 years.  And after I became a lawyer in 2004 following my retirement from the lab I practiced what some lawyers call “poverty law” (“poverty” describes the clients and the lawyer) in Los Alamos and Northern New Mexico.  The problems I mentioned in that other article I experienced first hand or vicariously through my roles as landlord or attorney.  I want to go into a little more detail on one way a seemingly desirable action by the government can inexorably crush segments of our community.

There are many single mothers in Los Alamos, especially in North Community.  Many are below the poverty line, even if they are on SSD, receiving (or not) child support, or work at low level jobs.  As is often the case in the poverty world, they are living on the edge of disaster: an illness or an accident or a car repair can be a life-changing event.  They rent older homes from owners like me who have moved on without rebuilding the properties, and so can afford to keep the rents low.  This is the fate of many older houses and apartment projects, and I suggest it provides a major part of the “affordable” housing in our town.  If the owner is suddenly required by say, the nuisance code, to replace the single-pane windows and doors in a place like that, or to dig a cavern in the hillside in the front yard to provide off-street parking, he’s looking at a major expense. The dominos begin to fall:  not just the windows, but the code requires him to bring the whole place up to code when a repair exceeds a 25% threshold, which it certainly would.  Now he has to increase the rent substantially (talking double here), the renter can’t afford it and has to leave, and there are no more places available she can afford. To satisfy an obsession with bringing “best practices” to our housing, the County has forced the transformation of an affordable home into an elegant little starter home or high-end rental, and has sent a stressed-out single mother once again to an uncertain fate.  

In my world-view, the best practice is to put human needs and welfare ahead of sophisticated urban planning “best practices.”