Schools, Council And Public Weigh In On Proposed North Mesa Housing Project During Special Joint Meeting

By KIRSTEN LASKEY
Los Alamos Daily Post
kirsten@ladailypost.com

The question of whether to pursue a housing project on approximately 30 acres of land on North Mesa remains under consideration.

Los Alamos County Council and the Los Alamos School Board discussed the potential project Oct. 29 during a special joint work session.

The school district owns the property but previously asked the County to collaborate on the project, which could possibly benefit both entities. For the school district, the objective is that the housing project would provide a stable, reoccurring revenue and for the County, the hope is that it would offer another housing option for the local workforce.

No decision was made during the meeting, but the school board and council outlined a list of tasks to address moving forward:

  • Get a better understanding of the infrastructure needs and costs;
  • Explore grant availability;
  • Receive next level details on different housing and density as well as financing options;
  • Explore what are the best advantages for the school district and the community;
  • Investigate timelines and phases for the project;
  • Consider what the housing would like on North Mesa as well as revenue generation for the schools and affordability implications;
  • Research parking, traffic, emergency services and egresses, transportation to and from schools;
  • Consider the pandemic and its impact on the project;
  • Look into accessibility; and
  • Clarify what is hoped to be achieved through this project regarding revenue generation and workforce housing.

Council and the school board also reviewed and suggested revisions to a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for the project.

Council Vice Chair Randall Ryti emphasized that nothing is decided; all options are on the table – including the option to do nothing.

The housing project has support from the school board.

Moving forward on this project seems like a good thing for all parties involved, LAPS Board Member Stephen Boerigter said.

“I think we have a great opportunity here for both Los Alamos County and Los Alamos Public Schools and when I say that … I think we have a great opportunity for the children of Los Alamos and the residents of Los Alamos,” Boerigter said.

However, responses toward the housing project were diverse from County Council and the public.

Some members of the public spoke in favor of the project, while others wanted more information on a range of issues such as traffic and infrastructure. Others  flat out don’t want to see it happen.

Councilor Antonio Maggiore expressed his displeasure with a statement made in the County’s presentation, which addressed income generation for the school district. The presentation stated, “If desired, could produce recurring income for LAPS in the form of a school lease agreement and housing product for LAPS employees (rental income).”

Maggiore said this could be interpreted to mean homeowners or tenants would be “working for the company store.”

If that is the case, it is unconscionable, and he doesn’t want any part in the project, Maggiore said.

“The goal is to help our teachers get ahead not to turn a profit on their already underpaid backs,” he said.  “I’m really frustrated by this and I don’t agree with what is being proposed here.”

Ryti wondered what exactly the project is trying to achieve.

“There seems like there is a conflict between the objective of generating revenue and then having affordability, especially if it is for teachers, so that does seem to be a little bit of a conflicting objective so that needs to be captured somehow … the aspect of the ground lease is certainly more complicated but it retains the property at the hand of the schools in case they needed it in the future for some other purpose so that seems like a major plus,” Ryti said.

Councilor James Robinson said he felt the housing site shouldn’t be restricted to just school district employees but be available to the entire county. He added that the school district could take more of a leading role in handling this project.

“Don’t sell you guys short,” Robinson said. “You guys have incredible skill sets … you guys have already built several really high class schools, you maintain a whole lot of schools, you built a field house, you built and maintain gymnasiums, you rent to Los Alamos police officers … although your primary mission is to educate kids you already do some of the things this plan is asking and we could just amplify it.”

Similarly, Councilor David Izraelevitz said it is up to the school district to decide what to do with the property and the County should support that decision.

“The role of the County is to be supportive of whatever direction the school board decides …,” Izraelevitz said.

Council Chair Sara Scott explained that the North Mesa housing project was initiated for several reasons. For one thing, there is a critical housing shortage in the County, especially workforce housing, she said.

“This impacts the hiring and retention for our schools, our businesses, healthcare services and other services in our community,” Scott said.

She added that a recent housing market analysis showed there is an immediate need for 1,700 units in addition to the 1,600 units already in process. The need for more housing is further exacerbated by the fact that Los Alamos National Laboratory is expected to continue its increase in hiring.

LAPS Superintendent Kurt Steinhaus said the school district is facing its own challenges. He said the district is facing insecurity in its funding and a stable, reoccurring source of income is needed.

Steinhaus reported that during the most recent state legislative session, funding for every public school in the state was cut by 5 percent. There is concern that there will be pressure to do something similar in the regular session in 2021.

Plus, the state is reducing what its public capital outlay council will match for construction funds for schools, Steinhaus said.

“That creates funding insecurities that makes us want to try and find stable, recurring revue,” he said.

A collaboration between the County and the school district could reap rewards for both entities, School Board President Ellen Ben-Naim said.

“The high-level reason for this collaboration is that LAPS is in the business of educating children,” she said. “Excellence in education is our goal and where our expertise lies. While we do manage properties throughout the County for schools and rentals … we are not in the business of land development or developing neighborhoods and housing. Los Alamos County has expertise in many areas that LAPS frankly doesn’t … so that partnership makes sense…”

The North Mesa housing project as well as the County’s housing needs have been discussed for some time. Last year, the County contracted a housing market study.

Will Gleason of Dekker, Petrich and Sabatini reported on the key findings of the study during Thursday’s meeting. These findings included an immediate need for 1,310 units of rental housing and 379 units for homeownership.

The group whose needs are critical is referred to as the “missing middle” or those who make an annual income between $60,000-$100,000 a year.

Gleason said only 8 percent of new housing coming on the market is being geared toward these individuals.

Los Alamos County Community Development Department Director Paul Andrus outlined ways the potential housing project on North Mesa could be affordable:

  • A Housing Lottery for Local Workforce – owner-occupied employed in communities that struggle to provide affordable housing. The community develops or facilitates development of housing and sells or rents housing at a discount to community members who qualify;
  • Ground lease for rentals. The land is retained in ownership and the housing units are rented to the local workforce; and
  • Community land trust. Community-run, nonprofit landholding organizations that sell or rent units while still owning the land beneath to keeping housing affordable in perpetuity.

Andrus told the Los Alamos Daily Post that the feedback from the meeting will be considered moving forward.

“The outcome of the meeting was for staff and others who are going to be involved in the project to get some direction on what the next steps are, and we got next steps,” Andrus said. “We know it is going to be a fairly complicated process moving forward and everyone is very thoughtful about it and we want to take this incrementally.”

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