As I campaign, I knock on doors in our community every day. At my opening line: “Hello, I am Gary Stradling, running for County Council. Los Alamos needs housing for the people who work here and would like to live here!” literally every head begins to nod up and down. Everyone agrees.
The people who live here recognize that this is a significant issue of the county’s economic health, and is integrally tied to infrastructure, road/utilities, congestion, and business, and will affect county education.
The high demand for the limited available housing, particularly by the well-compensated new hires at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), severely distorts the housing marketplace, driving prices to exorbitant levels. These high prices often exclude a broad spectrum of other productive people essential to the health of our community: care providers, nurses, pharmacists, teachers, veterinarians, repair technicians, small business developers, repair contractors, laborers, grocery workers, county staff, and countless others. Many retirees love this community, and often choose to stay, though many would like to “downsize” to alternate local residences. Historic County housing stagnation, coupled with significant growth in the lab staff, has resulted in thousands of new people, lab and non-lab, commuting into the county. Many more are expected to be hired in the next three years.
I believe that lack of housing is the core County ailment, and contributes to a number of other problems: especially aspects of the business crisis. My solution is to accomplish the transfer of federal land to the County for housing development, sufficient to meet the need.
While everyone agrees with me on the problem, some people are concerned about the barriers to significantly increased housing.
I have had good conversations with people of experience and insight in the community, at LANL, and with County managers. While their concerns are real, I believe they are surmountable. I cannot guarantee success, only that the diagnoses is true and very serious, and that a path to achieve a cure is possible.
Here is the list of concerns I have heard from others, and a few of my responses:
- DOE and LANL are not helpful/motivated. They do what is good for them, not for the County. Actually DOE/LANL have been helpful. Mirador is a DOE parcel. The new building locations on DP road are also DOE transfers. The old DOE building site off of 35th is now under construction for apartments. These are largely focused inward, but know that their success hinges on the viability of the County, e.g. there is a very high attrition rate for new LANL hires. Successful negotiation for land is all about persuading those who hold policy decision authority, and therefore must address their motivations. Senator Pete Dominici sponsored a law (Public Law 105–119 ) that directs DOE to annually examine their holdings and identify land that is excess and can be transferred to the County. DOE is invested in LANL’s mission and LANL’s success. The case can and must be made in a way that motivates the outcome we need.
- There is bureaucratic inertia! Of course there is. Bureaucrats are never looking for more work to do. “An action deferred is an action completed!” is a phrase I heard in the Pentagon during my years of service there. The solution is to not spend a lot of time wrangling with the middle man. Go directly to the decision maker, with data, plans, and motivations. My Washington DC experience was at the senior levels of DoD, DOE/NNSA, State, and Interior.
- The land is a buffer from potentially impactful (e.g. high-explosive) LANL activities. That depends on several factors, including the barriers and protections that are in place (or that can be developed) at the experimental sites. This must be examined, but a motivated DOE/NNSA/LANL will find solutions instead of blanket objections.
- Native American artifacts and sites exist on the lands and must be protected and preserved! This is the case of many of the lands along the Jemez plateau. Such artifacts and sites can be carefully respected in such a way to document, protect, preserve, and mitigate these sites. Some of this work is already underway.
- Much of the land would be difficult and/or unsuitable for development. Developers have already successfully developed some challenging sites across the county. (e.g., Quemazon, Ponderosa Estates, and Mirador). I believe that today’s developers had the know how and capability to solve such barriers.
- What about drainage in the canyon bottoms during monsoon floods or after a forest fire? Yes, engineering is required in all aspects of these developments to provide suitable civil engineering protections and facilitation: drainage, utilities, roads, etc. Developers and the county have experience to mitigate such concerns.
- What about green space and recreational areas? Of course planning must take into consideration parks and margins. The potential housing tracts are punctuated with canyon/mesa terrain changes that will provide intermingled wild buffer zones. The total area under discussion is a small fraction of the recreational and green space around our County.
- What about water requirements? This is a challenge across the Southwest and not unique to Los Alamos County. We must also plan to be frugal. Those people currently commuting into the county are using water somewhere in Northern New Mexico, so the large scale impact does not change if they live here. The County has access to the aquifers via our deep wells, and also has rights to Rio Grande water.
- The County has promised “affordable housing” many times and never delivers! The reality is that affordability largely comes through market forces, though initial subsidies have been provided by the County in some cases. However, subsidies are doomed to eventually fail without ample supply/demand balance. The only way to have truly affordable housing is by: a) providing the supply to meet the demand, and b) building less-expensive structures. Until then, even intrinsically low-value units sell for much more than intrinsic value.The County should not only help to provide “full spectrum” housing, but it should work to enable larger housing options to fill the need.
- What about the density of housing? Will Los Alamos County become unbearable? The County has a 2019 housing study in which 4500 additional units could be built if we filled the currently very limited available space of the County, but still not meet the current need. I believe we should explore and support options that include transfer of DOE lands such as the technical area (TA) 70 and TA-71south-west of White Rock and possibly Rendija and Bayo Canyons. The current County plans include high density housing: apartments, townhomes, etc. at several sites (such “mixed use town center” models have been successfully used elsewhere, e.g. Reston, VA).
- What about roads and utilities? Roadway development and mass transit suitable for the population density and the shopping-traffic load are essential. Existing traffic studies by the County predate the recent increase in Lab hiring. Clearly we need to ensure that roads and utilities are sufficient for new developments. We must also reexamine existing traffic plans and aggressively pursue solutions to minimize congestion.
- What about the old Los Alamos Canyon (Omega) Bridge? What if it fails an inspection and becomes unsuitable? This is a concern. According to the online source bridgereports.com (https://bridgereports.com/1372650) Omega bridge has received a poor substructure rating since 2017. While DOE conducts annual inspections and maintenance to mitigate and address many of issues of the Omega bridge, the county needs to engage with the Laboratory to ensure the bridge’s status and understand whether additional options need to be considered. This key transportation element must be part of the overall engineering plan for new housing developments.
- What about my housing value? Many of us have seen our homes assessed value increase significantly (along with concomitant property taxes). In a normal market, where supply can match demand, prices equilibrate. In Los Alamos, home values have tended to remain stable in downturns, and increase during times like now. Housing prices have not seen a meaningful downturn when new developments have happened (e.g., Broadview Estates, Quemazon, Ponderosa Estates, Mirador).
- What about older homes that currently exist? I have seen many many older homes in the county remodeled and refurbished to contemporary standards.
- Would this increase in affordable housing be inviting crime into the County? Often, property crime and violence happen with increased populations. We have hardworking and dedicated people throughout this county, and do not expect a major increase in crime. Nevertheless, any proposed subsidized housing for people would need to be aligned with Los Alamos needs to minimize concerns related to drugs and crime.
- What about greedy developers cashing in on these developments? It is up to the elected representatives—the County Council—to see to it that decision making is aligned with the people’s interests and not with personal interests. I do not personally own real estate other than my home nor do I represent anyone with such interests. We must be vigilant so that our representatives are fully transparent with respect to their interests. Negotiations must be in the County interest, and any decisions must be made in the public view.
- Why does the County Council ignore the rejection of specific development projects that are turned down in referendums?!! This is a topic I hear often. County residents are not just expressing reservations about funding, but also their opinion about the desirability of the County undertaking certain developments. As your representative, I will listen carefully to all views.
- Who are you and why do you think you can make this happen? I refer the voters to my track record as a treaty negotiator, a policy maker, a program manager, and an administrator, (see http://stradling4council.org/experience/) I have extensive experience at senior levels of DoD, DOE, and across the federal interagency. While such experience can only go so far, real success will require informed and strong support from the rest of the Council. So also vote for other candidates that will support this!
I appreciate all of the county residents that have contributed these serious questions, and hope that this discussion opens a dialog where such long-range policy objectives are seen as feasible, and worth pursuing. I commit to dedicate my time to pursue this housing need, and serve the county on other critical issues. Together, I believe we have sufficient determination and courage to bring this about.