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Affordable housing a big need in area

Roswell has one public housing project, Sandstone Manor, in the southwest portion of the city. A Regional Housing Authority administrator says it stays full. (Daily Record Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Those whose financial circumstances suddenly change can find themselves between a rock and hard place when it comes to finding affordable housing. Such stories are not uncommon in Roswell.

The elderly, who may depend on a Social Security check as their sole source of income, are among the most vulnerable.

Whether due to waiting lists at local apartment complexes serving low-income residents, a lack of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 vouchers to help with rent or other obstacles, they face a frustrating, often disconcerting reality.

As city and business leaders acknowledge, the Chaves County area, which has about 17 percent of its population below the poverty level, lacks enough affordable housing options. That can lead to periodic homelessness for some, or people being “cost-burdened” by rents, or people living in substandard conditions, such as several families sharing a single-family home or small apartment.

In the past 18 months, the city of Roswell has developed an affordable housing plan and has adopted an affordable housing ordinance, two steps essential to developers receiving funding for projects. Other efforts to alleviate the housing problem include finding ways to aid private and nonprofit developers and providing financial counseling to those receiving housing vouchers so that they can move off of the HUD lists.

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HUD vouchers: ‘No increase in decades’

There are 257 families in southeast New Mexico on the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers, which pay a portion or the full amount of rent for those near, at or below the poverty line, said Christopher Herbert, executive director of the Eastern Housing Regional Authority.

The Eastern Housing Regional Authority covers 12 counties in the eastern section of the state and is one of three authorities in New Mexico to distribute federal HUD money and administer HUD projects.

“We haven’t had a voucher increase in decades,” Herbert said. “How it works is through attrition. When someone goes off the program, then people who are on the top of the waiting list come in and they get a voucher and then they get on the program.”

People who call the Department of Housing and Urban Development will hear that there are 1,810 Section 8 vouchers available in the region and that only 974 are taken, Herbert said. But he called that confusing information.

“What happened is, they (HUD) used to fund per voucher, but then HUD changed that in early 2000s and we went to a budgeted allocation. … You get so much money and you can lease up to that amount. And we are right at 100 percent right now.”

The regional housing authority used to keep the waiting list open, he said, but found those lists were too difficult to maintain. So now, the agency will wait until there are enough available vouchers to make a voucher distribution. Each housing authority board can decide whether to set preferences — such as giving first priority to families with children — but the local authority has no preferences. People are eligible for vouchers based on the date and time they submitted applications.

When the next distribution might happen, or in which county, is not known at this time, Herbert said, and people must either watch the newspaper or check at the agency office on East Reed Street to find out the location and date.

He added that people must obtain the voucher in whichever county they are being distributed, but they are free to use them anywhere in the region.

At the current time, a Chaves County individual can qualify if they earn between $12,140 to $30,100, but they probably will not receive any subsidy at the high end. Most subsidies go to people earning no more than 30 percent of the poverty level.

If qualifying for a subsidy in Chaves County, vouchers will pay from $519 for a studio apartment to $1,330 for a four-bedroom unit, depending on income and other criteria.

Public housing thing of past?

The city’s only public housing project, Sandstone Manor, is full and stays that way, Herbert said, and his agency is not involved in any plans for a new project in Roswell.

Government-funded housing projects in the traditional sense are no longer common, he said, and likely won’t be in the future.

“We haven’t put public housing on the ground since the ‘80s,” he said, but explaining that his agency runs projects in Carrizozo, Eunice, Vaughn and Lovington in addition to Sandstone in Roswell.

He said that since the 1980s, the government has encouraged public housing development primarily through an Internal Revenue Service program known as low-income housing tax credits.

Each year, the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority allocates those credits, with gubernatorial authority, but only cities ranking in “top tiers” will receive the credits. Typically those are cities experiencing significant population growth, such as Carlsbad and Hobbs at this time, which are in the process of getting new private-public housing projects.

Given how difficult it is to obtain federal funding for projects, cities are looking for new ways to bring affordable housing to the region.

City seeks to aid nonprofit builder

In its 2016 Affordable Housing Plan, the city of Roswell indicated that the city now needs 2,460 subsidized units or vouchers for low-income earners and seniors, and that another 350 additional units will be needed by 2026. Currently, there are 810 subsidized units available in multi-family housing.

The city is planning one move at this time, to help a non-profit builder.

“We are working on providing some assistance to Habitat (for Humanity) in the form of a land swap, a land donation, potentially, so that they have properties so that they can continue to build for a long time, 15 to 20 years,” said Community Development Manager Bill Morris. “That has to go to the City Council.”

He added there also has been some discussion about using the Yucca Center land near downtown for a housing project once the center demolition is complete. But the idea has only been discussed, without any definitive plans on that.

“Right now, affordable housing is a tough nut to crack, but we are trying in different areas,” he said. “There is a great need for it.”

Efforts to boost financial well-being

Another way that the housing agency is seeking to help the situation is with the Family Self-Sufficiency Program, Herbert said.

“It creates several training modules for them in financial awareness, credit counseling,” he said. “It also has an aspect that you can utilize and begin to put money away in a HUD escrow account for down the road being able to do home ownership.”

He added that people who do not anticipate home ownership in their futures can use the program to save for a car or education.

“We have 80 participants in the program right now. We are really happy with that,” he said. “We are trying to get more.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.