James Wernicke for Los Alamos County Council

What’s the most important issue of the council campaign?

I was asked to answer this question at the May 3 Kiwanis regular meeting. I only get seven minutes to answer it so I’ll try to get to the point: the most important issue is making housing affordable in Los Alamos. Some solutions to alleviate this problem are to remove barriers to lab employees working remotely, to developers building homes people want, to creating mixed commercial and residential in downtown Los Alamos and White Rock, and to homeowners having rental options on their property. These ideas seem to be unanimously popular among our citizenship, but our government and leadership do not seem to support them. Have you heard one good reason why?

The lab rents property in town because they need office space for their employees. The common excuse I hear is that it’s easier for the lab to rent office space than build offices on site. You know what’s easier than renting offices in Los Alamos? Letting people work from home so they don’t have to live in, or commute to, Los Alamos. This would also make commercial real estate available at market rate for local businesses, but we don’t have time to get into that.

On their web page, the county’s Housing Program states their strategic goals are “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.” The reality is the county picks who can develop what, hiring consultant after consultant for study after study, and for what tangible results? We have 70 rental units from an out-of-state developer where a 1-bedroom costs nearly what I pay on my mortgage, and some assistance programs, at least one of which hasn’t updated their website since 2017. I don’t know how many teachers the county knows, but the teachers I know would rather see a bump in their paycheck than dubiously subsidized housing. If we want to see actual segments of the community be served, we need to invest in local builders who know and care about the community who are motivated to make fiscally responsible decisions about how to build homes to meet our demand.

The Los Alamos Downtown Master Plan addresses many issues including “lack of housing availability, especially attainable housing”, “vacant and underutilized structures and land with blighted conditions”, “high commercial space rents for small, local businesses”, and “unclear and outdated Development Code procedures that hinder development” with mixed-use commercial/residential development being an integral component to revitalizing downtown. This plan must be successful if we want to retain innovative, hard-working people who are attracted by high entry-level salaries only to find “there’s nothing to do in Los Alamos.” Nobody stays in Los Alamos for the pay or prestige. They stay because they make roots buying homes, starting families, and getting hooked into the community.

While I’ve had a lot of negative things to say about housing in Los Alamos, the positive is in the generosity of residents. When my mother-in-law was alive, she lived with us until her & my wife couldn’t stand each other. She was able to rent a private apartment in a neighbor’s home up the street that she could afford on a caretaker’s salary, paid by a family who generously kept paying her through COVID when they were working at home and didn’t need her services. I’ve seen people open their homes to students for reasonable rents. This is the Los Alamos I adore. The Los Alamos that helps each other. Sadly, I’ve also seen the county block generous people from building in-law apartments or renting out their RVs that sit unused in their driveways. And let’s address the elephant in the room, there are market conditions that allow landlords to rent out their 50-year-old mortgage-free quads to students at exorbitant rents. That wouldn’t happen if the government here allowed competition. People NEED housing. People don’t NEED their property values to grow at more than twice the national average.

So just to recap: force the lab’s hand on remote work, invite local builders with favorable regulation, execute the downtown master plan mixed-use development well and do it NOW, and let homeowners be.

It seems everybody knows we have a problem, but nobody seems motivated to fix it. Homeowners got theirs, and new members of our community probably just think that’s the way it is. Some of the solutions, like relaxing regulations, require no effort at all. So who is stopping it and why? I’ve enjoyed my life here staying out of it, but now I’m going to do something to help my friends, colleagues, and neighbors who are being robbed in this housing market whether by getting on the Council or whatever way I can get to the bottom of this and change it. That’s the most important issue of this campaign.

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