Sheehey: County Encouraging Housing Options

By Vice Chair Pete Sheehey
Los Alamos County Council

One of the County Council’s Strategic Priorities for 2019 is: “Increasing the amount and types of housing options … for all segments of the community, from affordable, entry level, and live-work housing to new options for those interested in downsizing or moving closer to central areas of the community.”

How is the County working to increase our housing options?

The County and Los Alamos Public Schools each own vacant land available for housing. The County cannot afford to build houses, but can offer land at a fairly appraised price, and help with infrastructure funding as part of an agreement with a developer for a project that meets our housing goals.

The Mirador development, approved in 2017 on N.M. 4 across from the White Rock library, was the first major development started since the Quemazon tract twenty years ago. The large amount of basalt on the land required expensive utility work. To encourage housing investment, the County provided utility infrastructure to the edge of the property.

The main Mirador housing tract will be market-priced homes with nice yards and views. The County later negotiated with the developer to add adjacent land where higher density (hence lower-priced) condominiums, live-work units, or small offices will be built. This was partly made possible by the County agreeing to allow a Public Improvement District (PID).

The PID is a mechanism to lower house prices, in which some utility infrastructure is paid for by an extra property tax increment, solely on properties within the tract. Although the total monthly payment (principal, interest, taxes and insurance) on a home in a PID is often the same as if there were no PID, the sale price of the homes is lower because of lower costs to the developer. Three County Councilors will serve on the PID Board to oversee that it is run in a fair and transparent way.

In 2018 the County entered into an agreement for a new 149-unit high-end apartment complex at the old LASO site (southeast of Los Alamos Medical Center). This is more buildable land, so the County will receive $2.175M for the 12 acres and will provide some public utility improvements to the property line.

Clearly there is still need for more low- and medium-priced housing. The County is commissioning a Housing Study to determine more precisely what types, how much, and what price ranges will meet current and projected needs. Los Alamos Public Schools and the County are discussing development of school property on North Mesa targeted towards the first-time buyer market.

In December 2018 the County approved a 70-unit affordable rental housing apartment complex on DP Road. Affordable housing, which qualifies for special tax credits and grants, is available to people earning 40 percent to 60 percent of the Area Median Income. The County will donate the land, and add infrastructure improvements (which were already planned for DP Road). A second 64-unit complex there, aimed at lower-income seniors, is also moving forward.

There is room in downtown Los Alamos and White Rock for redevelopment into mixed-use areas, including townhomes and condos. The land along the edge of Los Alamos Canyon behind the new Smith’s would be ideal for townhomes. Vacant and sometimes dilapidated properties in downtown Los Alamos and White Rock (one of which is now finally being demolished) could also be used.

It’s definitely time for the owners of these properties to do something with them. Council is ready to facilitate and provide incentives to make such developments viable. Additional fees on vacant property might also be discussed to encourage owners to take action.

With the right mix of housing development and good planning, Los Alamos can grow economically and socially, without giving up the beautiful open space and amenities we all enjoy.