The Canyon Walk Apartments on DP Road. Photo by Stephanie Nakhleh
BY STEPHANIE NAKHLEH
For the Los Alamos Reporter
This story is the third in a series of guest articles about the housing situation in Los Alamos. The first is on Los Alamos National Laboratory, the county’s biggest employer, which is on a growth curve. The second describes the housing crunch from the Realtor perspective. This month I focus on what the housing market looks like to young workers who are considering a career at LANL. My background: I’m a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission of Los Alamos but I do not speak for the Commission. The hat I wear here is that of a journalist. I used to be a reporter for the Los Alamos Monitor and currently freelance for local publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Emma Womack was excited to work in Los Alamos. Womack, 23, is one of two young women in the machinist apprentice program at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and she loves her job. She’s also become attached to the town.
“I really love Los Alamos,” she said. “I love smaller towns, I love being on top of a mountain, and like there’s a trailhead every 20 feet. I really enjoy it here, but yeah.”
The “but yeah” comes with a sigh and refers to the housing situation in this town. Los Alamos County has roughly 19,000 residents but only 8,000 housing units—far short of its needs. The shortage, reflecting national trends, has driven up the median house price to more than $500,000 and has shrunk the supply of affordable rental units. The dearth of housing is only likely to grow worse as Los Alamos Laboratory hires thousands more workers, people like Emma.
There is nowhere for them to go.
“IT WAS A SHOCK”
I interviewed Emma and three other young people in her program, Taylor, Ethan, and Joseph, who each asked that I refer to them by their first name only. The four spoke to me as private individuals and not as representatives of any organization. Each has their own story about house-hunting, but all their stories share many similar features. One commonality in all interviews was the word “shock.”
“I was expecting to at least get into a place,” said Taylor, 23, the other woman in the machinist program. She’s originally from Albuquerque and joined the apprenticeship program about 5 months ago. “I gave myself a month to find something, which in Albuquerque is plenty of time, so it was a shock,” she said. The month she spent looking was not enough: Taylor has a dog and didn’t want to rent a bedroom in someone’s home, so she had to abandon Los Alamos after a month and look for housing in Santa Fe. She found an apartment on the south side, off NM 599, but she has to leave her apartment at 4:30 a.m. to clock-in on time. “I’m still hoping to get into Los Alamos (housing) in August, we’ll see if that works out. I’m on a couple of waiting lists. I’ve contacted a few apartment complexes and I have heard nothing,” she said.
“I wasn’t expecting to wait this long,” said Joseph, 24. “I thought it might be a little bit more expensive, but I thought I’d be guaranteed to get something. But that’s not been the case at all, unless you get 350-foot studio, and that’s like $750; everything else is near a grand for a studio. I didn’t think that would be the case.”
Joseph said he initially expected only to come for a shorter program, with costs covered by his college. “Since I was only going to be here 10 weeks, I didn’t want to look for anything long term. That turned me to looking at Airbnbs.” He found one in Pojoaque and commuted from there. “For those 10 weeks I ended up spending like $5 grand or something. I didn’t want to find an apartment for only 10 weeks and I doubted I could. My school helped: I couldn’t have pursued this opportunity without that.”
As the 10 weeks came to a close, Joseph was encouraged by his instructors to look into the full multi-year apprenticeship program and decided to take the plunge. That meant his housing had to change. “I had to look for something long term. I started reaching out to all of the apartments about their waitlists. And they all told me it was like a hundred people long. I was like, welp.”
Unsure what to do next, Joseph turned to social media, where he’d heard people sometimes rent out spare bedrooms in their own homes. “I knew there was the Facebook group, but even those were first come first serve. That’s what I ended up getting in mid-August: I found a single bedroom with an attached bathroom for $850 and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.” He is still on the waiting lists for apartments. “I’m still waiting for them to reach out to me and finally let me know they have something,” he said. He does call periodically but nothing has opened up so far.
Ethan, 24, was able to find a small studio but is facing challenges with thin walls and poor insulation, so he’s on a waiting list for what he hopes will be a better apartment. He, too, was surprised at the lack of rental options. “Considering it’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, I thought they would have student dorms or something,” he said. “Student dorms would definitely be a good thing to have. Especially if they were cheaper and low income.”
Ethan says he likes his job and is considering staying on but is unsure about his future. “A lot of it is the housing climate, basically.” Ethan came to Los Alamos from Pueblo, CO, where density was on his side. “It was nice, everything is close together, everything is within 15 minutes from where I was living. I moved there to take care of my grandparents and I was going to college at the same time. The housing situation over there is a lot more abundant with apartments and other living spots,” he said.
All the young people echoed Ethan’s sentiments, making it clear they feel lucky to be in the machinist apprentice program and that they enjoy the town of Los Alamos, but wish they had more housing options.
“It was stressful, very stressful,” said Womack of her time spent rental-hunting. “In Amarillo, and I know it’s much bigger, but there’s always available apartments, which have been updated, and for a reasonable price. You come here, and there’s no apartments, and they have not been updated in decades. The only option is moving into a stranger’s home and paying $900 for a bedroom and a minifridge. It was definitely stressful and shocking and nothing like what I was used to.”
In her conversations with co-workers, housing is their only complaint, Womack said. “Everyone here has enjoyed their jobs, I really haven’t heard anyone say ‘my boss sucks’ or ‘I hate the Lab,’ or ‘the weather sucks.’ I haven’t heard any negative talk other than housing.” If her co-workers leave, housing will be the reason why, she said. “Working at the Lab is a really good opportunity. But on a weekly basis my co-workers are talking about housing and how, if they were to leave Los Alamos, it’s because of the housing. Not the job, not the Lab; the housing.”
If there were no options, people would undoubtedly remain and adjust, because there wouldn’t be a choice. But people with training in a high-demand technical-vocational jobs like machinist do have options. Womack noted that “In our conversations they talk about going to Sandia Labs or going to work at a different lab. So, a similar job, but where there’s affordable housing, where you can afford to live without roommates and 50-year-old stove.”
At the time we spoke, Womack was in the process of moving from one in-home situation to another. “Right now, I am renting out a basement studio apartment under a family’s house, but I will be moving to White Rock next weekend,” she said. “My basement studio, I pay a thousand [per month] and I do have a little kitchen with a full-size fridge and a bathroom. But I don’t have laundry access. A lot of my coworkers pay between $800 and $900 for one bedroom in a house. I’m the only one who doesn’t live directly in a family’s house, just attached to a family’s house, and I have my own entrance, which is nice,” she said. But the basement is dark and the laundry bill is adding up. “There’s only one laundromat in LA and it’s $5 a load. That adds up quickly.”
“WE NEED SOMETHING IN THE MIDDLE”
Another challenge these young renters have encountered is that they fall into an income Catch-22. Low-income apartments, such as the new Canyon Walk apartments on DP Road, place income restrictions on who can rent an apartment. Residents have to make a certain percentage below the Area Median Income (AMI) to qualify. But market-rate apartments often have income restrictions, too: leasing companies, these young people have found, won’t allow people whose incomes fall below a higher AMI level to join the unit waitlists.
“The other struggle is that all the apprentices, we all make the same amount of money,” Womack said. “Out of all the apartment complexes here, the ones that are low income, we make too much. But the ones that are $1300 a month, when you apply they say you don’t make enough to live here because that’s over 30 percent of your monthly income. A lot of us have struggled to even get on waiting lists because we make too much for low-income and not enough for the rest of the apartments.”
“A lot of the (leasing companies) do gross income, so even a couple hundred here or there will make you not able to apply for some of them,” agreed Joseph. “The waitlists I do get on are like a hundred people long. I’m not sure if everyone is in that same income gap, fighting for the same three sets of apartments.”
Asked what he would say to local decision-makers about the rental situation in Los Alamos, Ethan responded, “I want them to know that the current situation in terms of finding an apartment waitlist, and being kind of blacklisted from waitlists because you make too much or you don’t make enough money—that’s ridiculous,” he said.
Taylor, responding to the same question, had this to say: “We need more low-income housing and that’s difficult in Los Alamos. I’m not making enough to get approved for a good chunk of the apartments in Los Alamos, but I make too much to get into the low-income apartments. So I’m in this really weird in-between, of like, I can’t afford this house, but I also make too much to live in this apartment. We need something in the middle.”
Ethan agreed. “I wish there were more medium-income apartment living situations, or that were more affordable, and that don’t force a person to live with roommates when they don’t want to,” he said. “I’ve known a few other people that do live with roommates, or who live with their landlords, and their living situation wasn’t quite the greatest because of clashing personalities or whatnot.
“THERE’S NO BALANCE WHEN YOU HAVE TO COMMUTE“
Santa Fe is an option, but there’s a cost.
“I know a ton of people who work up here do commute, which is an option,” said Womack. “But we’re here at work 10 and a half hours a day. One of my bosses commutes from Albuquerque, he’s driving two hours here and two hours back home, and he is also here 10 and a half hours. It’s doable, but you’re not enjoying it, you’re not having a satisfying or a rewarding work life. There’s no work-life balance when you’re working that many hours and commuting. Your entire day is commuting-working-commuting. I know a lot of people who have families and that’s 14 hours you’re not seeing your kids at all, or your pets. Even if you commute from Santa Fe, it’s an hour each way, that’s still 12 hours gone.”
As challenging as commuting is for the fresh-out-of-school cohort, it only gets more complicated with time, she added. “The older all of us get, and the more we get into having a family or getting in relationships—there’s no balance when you have to commute.”
“COUNCIL NEEDS TO BE MORE ASSERTIVE”
Politicians and other decision-makers ignore these challenges at their peril, said Daniel Werwath, an affordable-housing expert who lives in Santa Fe but has worked all over the Mountain West. “Attainable rental housing is really the bedrock of a healthy housing economy. Without it, it’s nearly impossible for young adults to stay in their hometowns, for employers to recruit new employees, and for aspiring homeowners to save up down payments and closing costs.”
As critical as rental housing is, it’s not getting the attention it needs, he said. “Rental housing is one of the most overlooked types of housing from the point of view of elected officials and policy makers, who generally show strong preference for homeownership,” he said. “Strong leadership from local governments around zoning reform coupled with provision of land and other incentives for new rental housing construction can have major positive impacts across the housing spectrum.”
Los Alamos Community Development Director Paul Andrus, who has spent his career working on affordable housing for various communities, is sympathetic with the situation the young people find themselves in. “This is the function of that overused term, ‘the missing middle,’” he said. He wasn’t surprised that they make too much money to qualify for income-restricted apartments such as those on DP Road and on North Mesa, but he was surprised that they’re hearing from some leasing companies that they make too little. “It might be a factor of the market. Let’s say I make $80k a year, but I’m competing against someone who works for the Laboratory who makes six figures,” he said, offering a hypothetical scenario. “We’re competing for the same unit, and I might lose out because they can pay more, or their credit score is higher. That’s why we have the income-limited, tax credit affordable housing, which says to the richer folks: you’re not allowed to live here.”
This kind of housing helps a certain percentage of people who make below the Area Median Income, but leaves many others out in the cold, he acknowledged—renters such as Taylor, Ethan, Emma, and Joseph.
“I would like to say to them, we’re trying to bring new units online as soon as we possibly can, but that demographic doesn’t have a lot of time to spare,” Andrus said. Youth may be on the side of these apprentices in terms of careers, but not in terms of housing in Los Alamos: it can take a long time for affordable housing production to get units on the market. “We want to support the younger generation that wants to live up here, we want to give a choice to the older generation that doesn’t need their house anymore,” Andrus said. “I wish I had a better message for them. But anyone who shares the notion that this is important, that affordable housing is important, and workforce housing is important for our major employer, I say to them: send a message to our elected officials to keep this up.”
County Councilor David Reagor, an elected official, wholeheartedly agrees. “We have got to light a fire under the county government,” he said. “We do have some projects coming online in Los Alamos, such as the one by the hospital and those on DP Road, but they are filling up as fast as they’re built.” The Bluffs, the senior housing complex on DP Road, “doesn’t even have a website yet and I’m already getting calls, from seniors, and from young people who have senior relatives, who are inquiring about that property. There’s such interest,” he said.
The Bluffs Senior Apartments on DP Road. Photo by Stephanie Nakhleh
Although it may not seem related to the housing troubles young renters face, Reagor feels the interest in the Bluffs illustrates the need for senior housing. “It may seem off topic for young people but it’s not, because the senior-housing shortage is causing a backlog,” he said. “Older people need a place to live. They can’t downsize and they can’t make their lives simpler. They’re stuck living in a house because there’s no senior housing for them to move to.”
Meanwhile, rental units that young people like the four machinists might use are instead being taken up by people with higher incomes—perhaps a young couple just starting a family who wants that same single-family detached house that an elderly resident would sell to them, if only there were somewhere else to go.
Until older residents have senior-friendly housing to move into, nobody can move, Reagor said. “It backs up the whole town. There’s nothing for elderly people and we desperately need it. It causes all kinds of problems for neighbors with, for example, unkempt yards.” In other words, an elderly, mobility-limited person no longer can keep up with a large house and yard and needs a smaller, lower-maintenance housing situation. “But especially in White Rock, land is locked up. We need county government action to release this backup,” he said. Los Alamos County has plans and policies in place that support needed housing changes, he added, but action is slow. “There’s a little bit of inertia and bureaucracy. It’s hard to get projects moving, it’s always difficult. But the problem is here right now. We’re not saving ourselves trouble by waiting on it. If a majority of the councilors can move on it, we can speed it up. Council needs to be more assertive in making this a priority.”
Hundreds of housing units for renters are coming online in Los Alamos, said Reagor, but it’s a drop in the bucket of what the town needs. “In a real sense we need a thousand units,” he said. Given the shortage of land, the solution is taller, denser buildings: “For that, we need to go up in downtown Los Alamos.”
That, and a deeper-dive into the affordability crisis and possible solutions, is a topic for another day and another article.
Have ideas for this series? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
How “filtering” works: older housing becomes affordable housing: https://www.huduser.gov/portal/pdredge/pdr-edge-featd-article-061520.html
‘Missing Middle’ housing and the parking problem: https://parkingreform.org/2023/02/24/missing-middle-housing-and-the-parking-problem/
NM Governor hopes to go big on housing, homelessness: https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/legislature/governor-hopes-to-go-big-on-housing-homelessness/article_976cd646-95af-11ed-931c-e3638c2732c1.html
An interview with Daniel Werwath on how Santa Fe can increase affordable housing: https://www.sfreporter.com/podcasts/reported/2021/03/12/season-4-episode-12-housing-solutions/
The rental housing crisis is a supply problem that needs supply solutions:
There’s no such thing as affordable housing:
The typical American renter is now rent-burdened: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/25/realestate/rent-burdened-american-households.html
Housing for America’s older adults: four problems we must address https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/blog/housing-americas-older-adults-four-problems-we-must-address
Housing costs are perverting every facet of American life, everywhere: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/02/us-housing-market-shortage-costs-san-francisco-cities/673121/