It is a well-known fact that Los Alamos County needs housing and lots of it. The question is, how is the County going to get it?
A housing market needs analysis conducted by Sites Southwest offered several suggestions but the strongest one was to look at public lands.
During her presentation to Los Alamos County Council Tuesday night, Sites Southwest Senior Planning Principal Phyllis Taylor reported that public land is key to the County’s ability to provide housing. She noted in her report that large parcels of land are owned by the Department of Energy and the laboratory as well as Los Alamos County and Los Alamos Public Schools. It was proposed that the County could pursue more land transfers.
Other recommendations included:
- Provide a continuum of housing types that includes smaller lots, attached units, and higher density apartments that will make better use of limited land resources;
- Offer high density housing in Los Alamos and White Rock town centers;
- Create policies / ordinances that encourage productive use of vacant buildings and land as needed; and
- Address vacant buildings, possibly through an infrastructure standby charge for vacant properties.
The report further noted that a range of incomes need to be accommodated in the local housing market.
Taylor reported there is a housing gap among those who earn between $60,000 to $100,000. She said these individuals earn more than what is required for income restricted projects but not enough for a market rate home. In fact, according to the report, only 8 percent of the new units currently being built in the County are for these “missing middle” residents.
There also is a need to offer housing to low incomes. Taylor said there are many high-wage earning employees in Los Alamos who do raise the median income, but there also are many employees working in education, retail and local government who earn salaries similar to the rest of the state.
“Those people are priced out of your market,” she said, adding, “If you could meet the housing demand, you would give people more options … to be able to move and stay within the community.”
Taylor pointed out it isn’t just single-family homes that should be offered in Los Alamos’s housing stock but also rental units and multi-family homes. There is an unmet need that needs immediate attention, Taylor said. She reported that Los Alamos needs 1,310 rentals and 380 homes for sale. In reality there were 21 homes available for sale in September and virtually no rental properties available.
She did note that current housing projects in the planning or construction phases will provide 536 units.
While quantity and prices are significant issues, other issues include the amount of aging houses in the County as well as limited land space to develop housing. There also needs to be coordination between infrastructure, transportation and schools.
As far as next steps, Taylor and County staff made several recommendations:
- Develop solicitations for currently available County-owned land for housing and mixed-use development;
- Continue working proactively with developers to address housing needs in the County;
- Conduct design and outreach processes in partnership with the public schools on North Mesa to provide workforce housing;
- Investigate the feasibility of a Community Land Trust model;
- Reassess and update plans for the downtown areas in White Rock and Los Alamos regarding densities, height restrictions and parking;
- Update the County’s development code;
- Work with the laboratory on transportation plans and other redevelopment plans;
- Support a Metropolitan Redevelopment Area in White Rock;
- Continue to identify strategic parcels for the relocation of other uses that are currently sited on parcels suitable for housing;
- Analyze current public land parcels for potential redevelopment of housing –include scenarios for relocation of uses to suitable locations;
- Request additional land transfers from DOE;
- Step up efforts to market existing affordable housing programs and products that are County, state and federally funded; and
- Coordinate housing planning with infrastructure and utilities planning and budgeting efforts.
Regarding the report’s recommendation to pursue housing on public land Council Vice Chair Pete Sheehey noted that two ordinances that protect County’s land as open space are coming up for review next year. It might be time to revise those ordinances, he said.
“I’m not proposing we do that,” Sheehey said. “We need to look at those lands (and see) if any of that land is going to continue solving our housing problem.”
Council Chair Sara Scott suggested moving forward there be some sort of mechanism in place to track the progress made on the housing issue.
“(We need) to consider as we move forward on this how are we going to track progress … to make sure we are doing it well,” she said.
Many citizens shared their opinions on this issue.
Resident and former County Councilor Robert Gibson urged council to work with the Department of Energy on this issue.
“The root problem is the lack of developable land,” he said.
The solution is to work with the laboratory and DOE, he said. Gibson recommended moving subcontractors out of prime real estate in downtown Los Alamos and relocate them onto laboratory property as well as secure land transfers from DOE to the County.
“DOE needs to be a partner in the solution,” he said.
Some voiced concern that Los Alamos County Airport would be transformed into a housing development.
It would be a mistake to do this, several residents said, because the airport offers many services including firefighting, medical transport, education and recreation.
They also shared concerns that removing the airport would push the County in the wrong direction; turning it into a bedroom community for the lab.
Resident and pilot Will Fox said, “I want a town not a bedroom community.”
Another resident shared support for keeping the airport; she said that “a mile of pavement will take you down the road. A mile of runway will take you anywhere.”