Community groups in Santa Fe are asking the city government to use federal pandemic relief toward direct cash assistance for families, public housing, participatory budgeting and job training.
The American Rescue Plan Act previously passed by Congress includes $21.5 billion in emergency rental assistance, $10 billion for homeowners assistance, $5 billion for emergency housing vouchers, and $5 billion to help unsheltered people.
The city of Santa Fe will get $15 million over the next three years to assist in the local recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
On Wednesday night, councilors and Mayor Alan Webber heard public input on how to spend the money. That input is supposed to shape their decisions in building the city government’s budget in the next fiscal year.
Bianca Sopoci-Belknap, with EarthCare and the Santa Fe Mutual Aid network, said her organization thinks that as much of the funding as possible should be set aside for direct cash assistance.
Applications for that help should also have as few requirements as possible, so that the greatest number of people can benefit from it.
“Direct cash assistance is really important because the flexibility of funding for families to direct their own financial resources is really critical,” Sopoci-Belknap said.
She added that language access must be a top priority, and no programs should be launched without full investment in Spanish language materials, information and staffing.
“This funding is a real opportunity for the city to fulfill its language equity and language justice commitment and responsibility,” she said.
Barriers to Spanish-speaking Santa Fe residents have hampered ongoing efforts by various groups in the city to get emergency rental assistance to people.
Last year, Santa Fe Mutual Aid partnered with the city government to hire nine people from the community to help applicants get pandemic aid, Sopoci-Belknap said.
“We believe some funding needs to go towards rental assistance, but it shouldn’t just be about rental assistance, but also investment in public housing, the expansion of public housing and affordable housing that the city can own and have some control over the rental prices, which are exorbitant,” she said.
Hernan Gomez Chavez, a former member of Santa Fe Mutual Aid, told councilors he sees a lot of private housing being built around the city, but none that are necessarily accessible or affordable for people like him, who have lived in the city their entire lives.
“I’m actually living with my parents right now because I can’t afford to live here,” he said. He and others with Santa Fe Mutual Aid worked with residents on the city’s South Side who were struggling to pay rent.
“I’m thankfully right now making a decent living with my own business, but that’s still not enough to be able to afford an apartment here in Santa Fe,” he said. “That’s very telling of what it really means to live here in town. So I’m asking that those funds be used towards affordable housing for the gente here in town so that we can continue to live here, so we’re not forced to move to the outskirts.”
Santa Fe Mutual Aid is also hoping that the city government would be interested in investing in long-term resilience and democracy-building initiatives like funding a community-wide mutual aid fund that would incorporate participatory budgeting, a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget.
Sopoci-Belknap said city leaders have talked about participatory budgeting for a long time but never implemented it. Her group recently received training in the process from people who have done it in other parts of the country.
Another group who provided input to the City Council was the state chapter of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit dropout prevention organization.
Mike May, director of workforce learning for Future Focused Education in Albuquerque, said his organization has been working with Communities in Schools to create paid internships for underserved youth. He said this past year they started a pilot program in Santa Fe that has placed 15 students into internships at local businesses in the city.
“What we have done now is submitted a proposal to scale that program in the Santa Fe area to really take advantage of the goodwill towards creating pathways for young people as they transition out of high school, and to help them more intentionally move into training, education and the workforce,” he said.
Lucia Duncan, the alumni internship director for both Future Focused Education and Communities in Schools New Mexico, said youth need support to explore career paths, training and education.
“Everyone needs support, and especially youth that struggle with financial hardship or other hardships in their lives and could use a little bit of help,” she said. “It can be a transformative experience for them to have internships that will lead them towards a career that they are excited about and can be successful and help support their families.”