BY STEPHANIE NAKHLEH
Gary Stradling, Republican candidate for Los Alamos County Council, made some claims in a recent letter that are curious and/or misleading. I’m mostly going to focus on one paragraph, others may choose to look into the rest of the letter.
The 2019 Los Alamos Housing Market Needs Analysis study said that if every opportunity for infill housing were exploited, only 4500 new residential units would be provided. There are reasons for infill developments, but it will be piecemeal, slow, will also impact our existing town environment and infrastructure, and ultimately cannot meet the need. You have heard the discussion about proposals to fill the county with Auxiliary Dwelling Units and to eliminate parking requirements for new developments. You recognize that will negatively transform our community. Our only reasonable solution is to acquire more land from DOE.
The tl;dr is this: Mr. Stradling says he wants more housing, but he scorns real solutions (infill and code reform) in favor of a fantasy of DOE land transfers. Now, the details:
Numbers: The 2019 Los Alamos Housing Market Needs Analysis’ infill number is closer to 5000 units (see portion of chart below). According to the same report, “there is demand for 3000 units of housing based on current employment levels and the location preferences of the 7500 people who work in Los Alamos County but commute from outside of the County.” That number will increase as LANL hires more workers, but seems unlikely to more than triple to the 10k number Mr. Stradling cites. Keep in mind a “housing unit” can house more than one person. Five thousand units could house 10, 20, even 30 thousand people. With sensible code changes to parking requirements and building heights, infill units could increase beyond 5000. We have control over our code. We can house enough people through infill—the number is really up to us, which is great, because “us” is something we have control over. “DOE” is not.
Speaking of DOE, the claim about “slow and piecemeal” is a curious one to contrast with DOE land transfers. Even if those were to happen (note the number of DOE transfer units in the chart is zero), surely the process is likely to be quite a bit slower than any infill? The same can be said of his strange ideas about digging up our canyon bottoms and replacing open space with housing. Even if the town was into this idea, which it isn’t, the remediation necessary would go beyond “slow and piecemeal.”
ADUs: There are no proposals to “fill” the county with little backyard casitas, aka Accessory Dwelling Units. Rather, the development code draft update carries a proposal to reduce legal barriers that prevent homeowners from building them. The idea is that people ought to have the freedom to use their private property in ways that, within reason and still adhering to building codes, benefit themselves and the community. People ought to be at liberty to modify their own garages to let their parents age in place, or to subsidize their expensive mortgages by renting out a small unit in their own backyard to a grad student. Los Alamos long ago made many good housing options illegal for reasons that are either arbitrary or flat-out classist, and we’re not alone in that: it’s a problem across the country. Cities everywhere are changing that, and ours is on track to do so as well.
Note that p. 60 of the 2019 Housing Market Needs Analysis (let’s call it the Housing Study) encourages infill and ADUs in particular: “Accessory dwelling units are an infill strategy that can accommodate needs in Los Alamos County, including student housing and multi-generational households. The development code should allow these units in more locations with clear requirements and conditions under which accessory units are allowed.”
Parking: That same page of the Housing Study advocates for review of, and, where appropriate, reductions in parking mandates. No candidate is proposing to eliminate parking requirements for new developments. The development code update has a proposal to decrease top-down parking mandates by a very modest amount, allowing businesses a little bit more freedom to build what the market demands. There is, to borrow one of Mr. Stradling’s phrases, no reason to panic about this. Reducing government-mandated, arbitrary parking requirements will help our housing situation. Easing up on expensive parking mandates is not the same as taking a pickaxe to existing parking, or prohibiting parking altogether. Downtown Los Alamos has a lot of asphalt dedicated to parking that isn’t going anywhere.
It’s not just us. “Parking is required in copious, unscientific amounts by almost every zoning code in the United States,” says Planetizen, and this requirement adds enormous cost to both residential and commercial development. We’ve done this zoning experiment in Los Alamos. Ask builders who have given up on projects here: parking mandates are, in fact, hindering development. The only logical position for a pro-housing, pro-business candidate to make is to encourage a reduction in expensive government-mandated parking. You can’t have it both ways.
The government does some things very well, but mandating that builders to turn valuable land into unnecessary, cost-prohibitive parking instead of housing? Keeping unreasonable legal barriers to backyard casitas? Why would a Republican candidate be for government control in these private arenas, in these arbitrary ways? Especially one whose whole campaign hinges on more building. This isn’t even a partisan issue: members of both parties have been advocating for code changes that would produce more housing and foster business growth—but it seems from this letter that Mr. Stradling, ostensibly Republican, opposes those changes.
Centering a campaign on a fantasy of DOE land transfers, and undermining the very code reforms that would actually produce more housing, is not a good strategy for Mr. Stradling, who wants to be the “housing” guy.