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Santa Fe considers tax on mansions as housing prices soar

by MORGAN LEE Associated Press
| November 5, 2023 12:00 AM


SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Voters are deciding whether to tax mansions to pay for affordable housing initiatives in a state capital city prized for its desert-mountain vistas, vibrant arts scene and stucco architecture rooted in Native American and Spanish-colonial tradition.

The tax on homes sold for more than $1 million is being pitched as a lifeline to teachers, service-sector workers, single parents and young professionals who can't afford local mortgages or struggle to pay rent amid a national housing shortage and the arrival in Santa Fe of high-income digital nomads and affluent retirees.

The Nov. 7 ballot measure is the latest bellwether for the popularity of so-called mansion taxes to fund affordable housing and stave off homelessness. It comes on the heels of a voter-approved initiative in Los Angeles and new proposals from Chicago to Massachusetts.

THE PROPOSAL

If approved, the measure would add a 3% tax on residential property sales of $1 million or more — with no tax on the first $1 million in value.

On a $1.2 million home sale, for example, the new tax would apply to $200,000 in value. The buyer would pay $6,000 to the city's affordable housing trust fund.

The city estimates that the tax would generate about $6 million annually for the trust, which underwrites price-restricted housing, down-payment assistance for low-income homebuyers and rental assistance to stave off financial hardship and evictions.

The trust awards funds each year to affordable housing providers who can secure matching funds from other government and nonprofit sources, explained Alexandra Ladd, director of Santa Fe's affordable housing office.

But Santa Fe voters have shied away from prominent tax initiatives in the past, rejecting a proposed similar 1% tax on high-end home sales in 2009 and defeating a tax on sugary drinks to expand early childhood education in 2017.

AFFORDABILITY CRISIS

Second-term Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber, a Democrat, supports the tax and says soaring housing costs are threatening the "heart and soul" of the city.

"We're attracting folks who can Zoom to work elsewhere and live in an outstanding place with great climate and culture and history and food," he said. "We've become a magnet, and we don't want to lose the local community that has lived here all their lives, or for generations, and to suddenly see that diversity give way to only higher-income people."

The proposal has earned endorsements from an array of local businesses, trade unions, school board members, former mayors and Democratic U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich.

"The housing crisis in this town is outrageous," said Susan Coulter, a retired scientist, who supports that tax despite concerns about the city's financial controls.

MANSION TAXES

Cities and states are showing renewed interest in taxes on high-value real estate transactions to address housing affordability, according to Samantha Waxman, a deputy director for state fiscal policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Voters in Los Angles last year approved a tiered-rate tax on residential and commercial real estate sales — starting at 4% for sales above $5 million — to address housing shortages. Chicago may ask voters next year whether to raise real estate transfer taxes, starting with sales over $1 million, to fight homelessness.

A proposal in October from Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey would allow local governments to impose a real estate transfer fee of up to 2% on property sale proceeds above $1 million — or a county's median home sale price if greater.

"We're looking at these high-value homes that are being bought and sold," Waxman said. "Then there's also these challenges with affordable housing, housing prices increasing in general, and it being really difficult to afford rent and difficult to afford purchasing."

BUILDING BOOM

Perched at the southern end of the Rocky Mountains, Santa Fe is in the midst of a building boom, with thousands of recently approved housing units gradually coming online within city limits since 2021 — including an array of multifamily housing projects.

Advocates for subsidized housing say that hasn't translated into accessible prices, with most of the new units renting at free-market rates that can strain personal or family finances.

Meanwhile, the city's median home price has nearly doubled since 2017 to about $600,000, a city-commissioned analysis found.

"People moving here with wealth that far exceeds the buying capacity of local workers, that pulls housing costs away from those workers," said Daniel Werwath, executive director of New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing, a nonprofit developer of income-restricted housing. "I think we're into a pretty crazy feedback loop."

SKEPTICS

The Santa Fe Association of Realtors says the proposed tax oversteps the city's authority under state law, and has filed a preemptive lawsuit to block it.

Drew Lamprich, the association's president, says the change would take a bite out of home sales, and ultimately the local economy.

"There will be folks that decide to buy somewhere else, not liking the divisiveness of this element," he said.

At a downtown polling place for early voting, retired architect Rita Meek said she fears the tax will increase tensions between relatively wealthy enclaves and predominantly working class neighborhoods.

"I think we should be more united," she said.

But her husband, Peter Meek, supports the tax.

"We're losing a lot of our workforce: teachers, police officers, construction labor," he said. "The people who can afford a million-dollar home should want to help."