As you drive onto a college campus in the up-and-coming Midtown neighborhood in Santa Fe, N.M., you run into a security gate where you might expect to be asked for some identification. But no one is manning the gate under the wide, wan blue sky of a mid-November day. The College of Santa Fe, which relocated to the Midtown property in 1947, closed in 2009, succumbing to the financial pressures of the last big recession. What’s left is a city-owned plot of 64 acres that’s almost entirely empty, save for some space leased by the Santa Fe Art Institute’s artist residency program and a few other businesses.
The campus, purchased by the city in 1942 to create an Army hospital during World War II, is dotted by small, graffiti-speckled buildings with corrugated metal roofs that served as wartime barracks, and low, square brick buildings that were college dorms. Some of the dorms are being used to house homeless residents who were moved there during the pandemic. In between the buildings are vast, empty parking lots and open stretches of brown ground dappled with shrubs. The only green is a patch of Astroturf near a patio area outside of the old, vacant cafeteria.
It’s a huge piece of land in a city that’s only about 46 square miles total. At its height, the college housed over 1,000 students. It would take most of an afternoon to walk the entire plot. “It’s a whole neighborhood,” pointed out Tomás Rivera, a founder of the Chainbreaker Collective, a local economic and environmental justice organization.
It’s a whole neighborhood that, if developed appropriately, could provide a haven for thousands of Santa Fe residents who are currently struggling to afford a place to live. Like many places in the United States, Santa Fe had a housing crisis long before the pandemic. Median renter income was lower than what was needed to afford a two-bedroom home, and nearly half of renters were already spending at least one-third of their income on rent. Santa Fe is a small city, with a population of about 87,500. But as housing scarcity drives people out of larger metro areas, an influx of newcomers are vying for its limited housing stock. Santa Fe has just three public housing complexes with a total of 198 units, a number that has declined thanks to renovations and sales. The city is short an estimated 5,000 affordable units. Just 77 of the 1,128 housing units under construction in November 2020 qualified as affordable, meaning that they will be rented at below-market rates. Meanwhile, arty-looking studio apartments and juice bars are cropping up in the neighborhood around the campus.
Then the pandemic shut down businesses around the country and threw millions of people’s lives and jobs into chaos. Santa Fe was hit hard, given how much its economy depends on tourism, and the unemployment rate stayed far above pre-pandemic levels for all of 2020. As of June 2021, the average Santa Fe County resident had accumulated $3,400 in rent debt, the highest in the state.