Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Looking for affordable housing in Las Cruces? It’s an ‘unforgiving’ market.

LAS CRUCES – Residents and housing analysts say the city’s housing and rental market continues to rise, pricing out those on the lower end of the pay scale.

Natalie Medina is one of those residents. She says she recently escaped an abusive relationship, leaving her and her teenage daughter and son in search of housing without much savings. She works for $12 an hour at a recovery center. It’s enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment in a less-desirable part of town, she said.

Medina applied for rental assistance through the Mesilla Valley Public Housing Authority, also known as a Section 8 Housing Voucher, which provides a set amount of money each month to area residents to prevent families from falling into a cycle of houselessness.

For two years, Medina was on the waitlist for a voucher. About a month ago, she and her family were approved for a three-bedroom unit. The MVPHA requires families who use housing assistance to have separate bedrooms for kids of opposite sex over the age of 5. So, they’ll have to move from their current living situation.

Medina said the monthly grant could help her family raise its standard of living, providing peace of mind and comfort and reducing stress.

As soon as she was approved, a 60-day clock started counting down the days Medina had to find a place to live or the voucher would expire and she’d return to the waitlist.

“They (MVPHA) told us that if you find something, even if it’s in a bad area, to take it because there’s nothing on the market right now,” Medina said.

It’s been more than 30 days and Medina is still looking for something she can afford that meets the needs of the family and MVPHA. You must pay the difference in rent that the voucher does not cover.

She calls the renter’s market in Las Cruces “unforgiving.” That sentiment is backed up by Natalie Green and Erin Boyd, both of whom analyze the local housing market.

Boyd, the housing manager for Mesilla Valley Community of Hope — which provides services for the indigenous in Doña Ana County — said that before the pandemic, it was easy to connect with landlords with available and affordable units. Today, it’s a challenge.

“There’s a lack of affordable housing in our community, period and it’s not just single occupancy units, it’s family units, single family houses …” Boyd said.

Why are rents increasing?

From 2019 to 2021, Las Cruces was in a housing market boon. The number of active listings decreased from 700 to 350 and the median price of a home increased from $197,000 to $250,000 in those two years. More competition for fewer homes means increased prices, good news for real estate agents and sellers but not always for buyers.

Those unable to get a home will stay as renters, meaning fewer units to rent. More competition for fewer units to rent means increased prices for rental units.

“It’s like a domino effect,” said Green, the housing and neighborhood services manager for the city.

Factors such as natural inflation, the pandemic and some potential rental units being turned into short-term rentals, such as AirBNB, have also led to increased demand and higher rents.

What is considered affordable rent in Las Cruces?

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as housing in which the occupant is paying no more than 30 percent of their gross income for housing plus utilities.

Green said that by that calculation, the average Las Cruces family should be paying no more than $600 a month in housing plus utilities for “affordable housing.”

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The average cost of a two-bedroom apartment in Las Cruces is about $742 per month, according to Fair Market Rent, and that doesn’t include utilities.

Data from city’s Department of Economic Development said that 70% of renters in the city pay more than 30% of their income to housing costs.

“It’s a difficult challenge and there’s just no easy answers, and even if it feels like it’s just Las Cruces, it’s really is all across the country,” Green said.

Those on government assistance face additional hurdles

Currently, more than 10 million Americans use federal rental assistance to afford modest housing.

However, those who use federal rent assistance face barriers, including that the vouchers rarely cover enough to allow for a modest standard of living and there’s a stigma that comes with assistance.

Many landlords refuse to accept vouchers because the individual doesn’t have a reliable or high enough income outside of the assistance, according to Green.

At Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, Boyd assures they have more than enough vouchers available for people who need them but they are no units to use them on.

Various programs are helping those on government assistance find housing.

The city of Las Cruces is partnering with the New Mexico Children, Youth & Families Department in a project called “the Landlord Incentive Mitigation Fund,” which will provide landlords with extra funds to renew units if they’re willing to take more individuals with vouchers .

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In June, the city of Albuquerque voted to ban “source-of-income discrimination,” which seeks to help tenants with low incomes find safe and stable housing wherever they deem fit. Las Cruces will be monitoring how that mandate works in Albuquerque so they can possibly do something similar, Green said.

Medina said landlords denying vouchers has factored into her struggle to find a new place to live. Her current landlord does not accept government assistance vouchers.

Also, Medina said after a disagreement with a fellow tenant at a previous apartment complex, she was evicted. She said the landlord claimed the eviction was because she hadn’t paid rent, a claim she says is untrue. Not having the means to fight the eviction, Medina said that eviction for not paying rent is now on her tenant record, which adds to landlords not giving her a chance.

“I don’t have a criminal history or anything like that,” Medina said. “Even if I try to explain, they don’t give me an opportunity,”

Annya Loya is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at [email protected] or @annyaloya on Twitter.

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