Looking for affordable housing in Las Cruces? It is a “ruthless” market.
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LAS CRUCES — Residents and housing analysts say the city’s housing and rental market continues to rise, pricing in prices at the lower end of the pay scale.
Natalie Medina is one such resident. She says she recently escaped an abusive relationship, leaving her and her teenage daughter and son looking for accommodation without much savings. She works for $12 an hour at a recovery center. Just rent a two-bedroom apartment in a less desirable part of town, she said.
Medina applied for housing assistance through the Mesilla Valley Public Housing Authority, also known as Section 8 Housing Voucher, which provides a fixed amount of money each month to area residents to prevent families from fall into a cycle of homelessness.
For two years, Medina was on the waiting list for a voucher. About a month ago, she and her family were approved for a three-bedroom unit. MVPHA requires families using housing assistance to have separate bedrooms for children of the opposite sex over age 5. They will therefore have to leave their current living situation.
Medina said the monthly stipend could help her family raise their standard of living, giving them peace of mind and comfort and reducing stress.
As soon as she was approved, a 60-day clock began counting down the days Medina needed to find housing or the voucher would expire and she would be back on the waiting list.
“They (MVPHA) told us that if you find something, even if it’s in a bad neighborhood, take it because there’s nothing on the market right now,” Medina said.
It’s been over 30 days and Medina is still looking for something she can afford that meets the needs of the family and MVPHA. She has to pay the difference in rent that the voucher does not cover.
She calls the tenant market in Las Cruces “ruthless.” This sentiment is supported by Natalie Green and Erin Boyd, who both analyze the local housing market.
Boyd, the housing manager for Mesilla Valley Community of Hope — which provides services to indigents in Doña Ana County — said before the pandemic, it was easy to connect with landlords with available and affordable housing. Today is 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 homes…” Boyd said.
Why are rents increasing?
From 2019 to 2021, Las Cruces has seen a bonanza in the housing market. The number of active listings rose from 700 to 350 and the median price of a home rose from $197,000 to $250,000 during those two years. More competition for fewer homes means higher prices, good news for real estate agents and sellers, but not always for buyers.
Those who cannot find housing will remain tenants, which means fewer units to rent. More competition for fewer units to rent means higher prices for rental units.
“It’s like a domino effect,” said Green, housing and neighborhood services manager for the city.
Factors such as natural inflation, the pandemic and the transformation of some potential rental units into short-term rentals, such as AirBNB, have also led to an increase in demand and rents.
What is affordable rent in Las Cruces?
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as housing in which the occupant pays no more than 30% of their gross income for housing plus utilities.
Green said that by this calculation, the average Las Cruces family should pay 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 around $742 per month, according to Fair Market Rent, and that doesn’t include utilities.
Data from the city’s Department of Economic Development indicates that 70% of renters in the city spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs.
“It’s a tough challenge and there are just no easy answers, and while it feels like it’s just Las Cruces, it really is nationwide,” Green said.
Recipients of government assistance face additional barriers
Currently, more than 10 million Americans use federal rental assistance to afford modest housing.
However, those who use federal rental assistance face barriers, including the fact that vouchers rarely cover enough to afford a modest standard of living and that there is a stigma that accompanies assistance.
Many landlords refuse to accept vouchers because the person doesn’t have a reliable or high enough income outside of help, according to Green.
At Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, Boyd says they have more than enough vouchers available for people who need them, but there are no units to use them on.
Various programs help recipients of government assistance find housing.
The City of Las Cruces is partnering with the New Mexico Department of Children, Youth and Families in a project called “The Landlord Incentive Mitigation Fund,” which will provide landlords with additional funds to renew housing if they are willing to take more people with vouchers.
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In June, the city of Albuquerque passed a ban on “discrimination based on source of income,” which aims to help low-income renters find safe and stable housing where they see fit. Las Cruces will monitor how that mandate works in Albuquerque so it can eventually do something similar, Green said.
Medina said the owners refusing the vouchers took into account her struggle to find a new place to live. Its current owner does not accept government assistance vouchers.
Additionally, Medina said that after a disagreement with another tenant in a former apartment complex, she was evicted. She said the landlord claimed the eviction was because she didn’t pay rent, a claim she says is untrue. Unable to fight eviction, Medina said eviction for non-payment of rent is now on her tenant record, adding to the fact that landlords aren’t 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 the opportunity”
Annya Loya is a generalist journalist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or @annyaloya on Twitter.