Friday, July 14, 2006

Housing Expert says solutions are local

Express Staff Writer

In Santa Fe, N.M., there is a 20 percent turnover rate per year among school district employees due to the high cost of housing. Real estate agents compose 2 percent of the population, and the number of million-dollar homes has surpassed homes valued under $200,000.

To fight the housing crisis, the city of Santa Fe passed progressive housing ordinances last year.

"If we don't intervene in markets that are out of whack, your only choice is to do nothing," said Mike Loftin, executive director of Homewise Inc. Homewise is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit housing service that has helped more than 1,200 people purchase homes. Loftin spoke Wednesday, July 12, during the Community Housing Week in Ketchum.

He believes the Santa Fe affordability crisis is similar to the Wood River Valley's housing conundrum. In Blaine County, a $105,300 affordability gap separates the actual median income from the income level needed to purchase a median-priced home.

"It is true. Ketchum is worse off than the rest of the country ... but the rest of the country has a problem as well," Loftin said.

Nationally, the disparity between upper and lower classes is only increasing. Massive increases in debt, decreased growth in after-tax family incomes, and decreased home equity exacerbates the problem.

"We have not seen this kind of wealth disparity since the 1920s," he said. "The only two countries in the world that have a greater income disparity are Mexico and Russia."

Home ownership is key to the national income disparity issue.

"Home ownership provides that long-term asset you need for financial security," Loftin said.

To facilitate home ownership, simple tools like better home loans are effective.

"Besides providing affordable housing ... just getting people to buy a home in the right way can be an economic development strategy," he said.

Often, homeowners significantly overpay on their loans. "It's not just whether you buy a home, it's how you buy a home," he said.

Instituting change in local policy also plays into the housing equation.

"I think where the action is, is locally. Because it is possible to change locally."

To fight the housing crisis, municipalities must try policy changes like housing and living wage ordinances, Loftin said. The Santa Fe City Council, in fact, took matters into its own hands and raised the minimum wage citywide to $9.50. It will rise to $10.50 next year.

Policy change requires gumption, effective implementation, political support, developer alliances, regional cooperation and strong nonprofit housing advocates.

"There has to be a commitment to making sure that (policies) work ... (and) that has to be everybody," Loftin said.

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