The governor’s new adviser wants action on affordable housing

Nov. 18 – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has appointed a woman with a diverse public service background to a new advisory role to help address the statewide challenges of homelessness and affordable housing.

Amy Whitfield, 44, has worked in Lujan Grisham’s administration since 2019 in support roles in both the Office of African American Affairs and the Department of Children, Youth and Families. She previously served as executive director of the Albuquerque Domestic Violence Resource Center.

“We’re seeing a growing lack of affordable housing and a rise in homelessness, so we want to make sure we can bring a comprehensive strategy to New Mexico [to address those issues]’ she said on Friday.

Her first step, she said, will be to draft and push legislation to provide more affordable housing in the upcoming legislative session, which is scheduled to begin in January 2023, with assistance for the homeless, and rental support agencies and government agencies to put together that legislation.

While lack of affordable housing and homelessness often go hand-in-hand, many other factors play a role when someone becomes homeless, she said, including mental, behavioral and emotional health issues, and a lack of employment or education.

A 2020 report by the New Mexico Finance Mortgage Authority on housing needs in the state said nearly 44 percent of renters and 21.6 percent of homeowners have expenses — meaning 30 percent of their annual income goes on rental and housing payments are used.

“We have many New Mexicans spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, which puts them at risk of homelessness and leading them to choose to stay in rented housing rather than buy homes,” Whitfield said.

This report, as well as other sources, say there are between 3,000 and 3,300 homeless people in New Mexico.

Whitfield said those numbers don’t fully reflect the reality of the situation because “it’s only counting people that we can count, that we can reach.” She said it doesn’t account for the many homeless people who aren’t easy to find and domestic violence situations where the abused may not have the resources to leave without being made homeless.

Several recent attempts to protect tenants or create more affordable housing initiatives have failed in the legislature. Last year, a bill aimed at expanding legal protections for renters failed, as did an attempt to set up an affordable housing task force to study ways to alleviate the problem.

Such efforts are not only taking place at the state level. Earlier this year, the Santa Fe County Commission passed a joint resolution with the city vowing to end homelessness. The city proposed plans to legally camp homeless people on a former Midtown college campus, but ultimately dropped them due to opposition from the property’s neighbors.

Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, who has co-sponsored a number of affordable housing initiatives that have stalled in the legislature, said she’s confident Whitfield’s presence will help get those bills — on which Romero wants to push again in the next time session – more attention and focus.

“Having Amy in the governor’s office focused on shepherding what matters most to New Mexicans when it comes to housing is beneficial not only for the Legislature but for New Mexico as well — once it’s in the governor’s office for her signature,” she said. “Having that support is the gold standard for any type of legislation where you want support from the governor’s office.”

Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, said Friday his group plans to meet with Whitfield next week to discuss both budgetary and legislative action to reduce homelessness.

“We are pleased to have her on board as a voice for homelessness programs in the governor’s office,” Hughes said. “She seems very enthusiastic about getting things done.”