The nonprofit developer and mortgage lender has changed the face of the neighborhood, though often indirectly and in small ways
Two bigger projects are on tap for this year
It has come in for criticism at times, but the key elements of its agenda remain popular
Twenty years ago, Doug Simon moved into the sort of classic old house that requires an almost archaeological eye to understand. Originally built in 1935 (or thereabouts) near Eighth and Avenida Dolores Huerta, it started as a one-bedroom affair but these days has three. Some sections of roof are pitched, some are flat. Part of it may be adobe, but that will require further investigation.
“I have three front doors,” said Simon, who retired from a job at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in 2016. “It’s funny that way.”
Though he is enamored with the place, the relationship hit a rough patch beginning in 2019 when some tree roots broke up his sewer drain line, resulting in water welling up through the floor. An inspector subsequently told him that his roof, made with tin not rated for the job and not backed up with the usual decking, had to be replaced. Then a circuit breaker broke, but it was so old that he couldn’t find a newer one that fit, indicating an electrical overhaul was also in the cards.
He took care of the sewer issue himself, but having heard about a home improvement loan program operated by Homewise, he decided to finance the rest. In the end, the $18,000 bill will be taken care of by two loans: One that lasts for 20 years and comes with the usual monthly payment, and another that is zero interest and comes due only when the house is sold.
In exchange, Simon gets to live in a safer and considerably more energy-efficient house.
“It’s a really reasonable payment that I can add every month and still keep up with everything,” he said. And thanks to savings on utility bills from having a proper roof, “I really do think I might break even – especially in winter.”
This sort of project is perhaps emblematic of Homewise, the nonprofit developer and lender that first set up in Barelas nearly five years ago but has been operating elsewhere in the state since 1986. By themselves, few of their efforts are the stuff of blaring headlines. The organization writes a lot of individual mortgage loans, often to people whose financial history would otherwise make it difficult to work with conventional banks. Those home improvement loans are likewise fairly low-profile.
But even its commercial projects trend away from the flashy. Greater Downtown in the last decade has seen the marquee redevelopment of El Vado, two new food halls, the construction or renovation of several hotels, and a continued explosion of brewpubs, but the Homewise development agenda has included renovating the former B. Ruppe Drugs (Fourth and Hazeldine) and leasing out its storefront to a gallery focused on minority artists, a separate project involving a new daycare center, and the addition of 16 townhomes to the area around Silver and Second, a project that more-or-less completes the much larger Casitas de Colores apartment complex.
Some developers, in other words, swing for the fences. Homewise seems content with singles and doubles.
Still, the cumulative effect is not to be underestimated. Apart from the city, which continues a steady drumbeat of work at the Rail Yards and the zoo, Homewise is likely the biggest development force in the Barelas area. So far, it has acquired and rehabbed 22 homes there and in South Broadway, where it also maintains a special focus. It has made loans to nearly 80 households in those neighborhoods, and another 40 or so are in the pipeline.
Projects have also added up on the commercial side, beginning with the acquisition of the former Orpheum Theater (Second and Coal), where Homewise now operates a headquarters and still maintains some apartments. The daycare center mentioned above will be located in a presently-vacant building at Second and Hazeldine that is set to undergo a year-long renovation starting in a matter of weeks. Across that intersection, it owns a few vacant parcels that could be available for future projects. Over on Fourth, it helped finance the acquisition of the Appliance City Building by Por Vida Tattoo. It also helped with the renovation of the new Flamenco Works location at Fifth and Central.
The most prominent near-term project, however, is likely the construction of a two-story, 10,000-square-foot building amid a complex of older structures it already owns across Fourth from the Barelas Coffee House (diagram). The second floor will be devoted to artist studios or offices, with the first floor becoming a new home for the Street Food Institute, a nonprofit that trains students looking to start food service businesses. The layout will include a shared kitchen and prep space, as well as a separate baking kitchen and specialty kitchen for things like vegan and gluten-free food prep.
SFI has already secured a $2 million congressional appropriation for the project. Construction, which will also include landscaping improvements around the larger campus, is slated to begin soon and finish up by the summer of 2023.
Homewise has done some commercial development in Santa Fe, but the last five years in Barelas have provided something of a proving ground for a new approach they’ve taken to what is broadly called community development. The basic idea is to research what people in the neighborhood need and/or want to see there, through surveys (DAN, 3/29/21) and various group planning exercises, see how it could fit in with what’s already there, and then find the people and money to make it all happen.
“The most fun and enjoyable part is getting to help really dynamic entrepreneurs have a bigger impact,” said Johanna Gilligan, the senior community development director at Homewise.
To be sure, the process is less straightforward than renting space to anyone whose money is green. Instead, it involves “thinking about how individual projects can amplify the strengths of the community,” Gilligan said.
But the people and businesses who could help make that grand vision a reality don’t just respond to want ads, so finding and recruiting people is a big part of the job. And it’s expensive, particularly when old buildings come into play.
“When you’re doing everything ad hoc,” Gilligan said, “it’s really hard and it requires a high level of partnership and a high level of subsidy to make it work.”
The organization’s broader mission to promote homeownership, rehab homes that have seen better days, and pursue economic development in low-income neighborhoods has won it friends and plaudits, but its relationship with some of its newly inherited tenants has at times been strained, particularly in the complex near Fourth and Bell.
“I was pretty much treated as a nuisance all along and I asked too many questions and was never enamored by how they were going to ‘make things better,'” wrote Marya Jones, the proprietor of the Tannex, an art and performance venue at Fourth and Bell, in a social media post announcing its closure (DAN, 8/25/21). “Being in flux since the transfer of ownership … and, frankly, subjected to indifference and poor management throughout was more than could continue to bear.”
Some renters at the Orpheum Building have similar complaints. Luke Davis, who has lived there since 2013, said a combination of staff turnover, maintenance problems, and the organization’s lack of experience as a landlord have made it difficult to negotiate issues like building upkeep, security, and the length of rental agreements.
“There’s a lack of concerted concise communication,” Davis said.
His time in the complex is running short, however, because he and several other tenants have been told they must leave ahead of some urgent plumbing-related renovations. Davis said he will be out by the end of May.
“They’ve done some good things,” he said, but added that “I don’t really want to do those fights anymore.”
Homewise, for its part, has in recent months acknowledged some missteps.
“Renting is a new skill for Homewise,” said Carl Davis (no relation), the organization’s community development construction manager, in remarks made at a meeting last year about a zoning variance. It has tried out several different property managers and also running things in-house, he said.
“We will agree that there have been mistakes made and things we can improve upon,” Davis continued, adding that “I think we’ve made improvements over time in that respect.”
Gilligan chalked up the turbulence to the challenges of dealing with old buildings and the disruptive and expensive surprises that they often hold, citing the Orpheum’s plumbing problems as one recent example.
“It’s really hard to become the owner of buildings that have experienced a lot of neglect – infrastructural neglect – and renovate those properties without it having some kind of negative impact on the people that live there or rent those commercial spaces,” she said. “If we were just purchasing brand-new apartment buildings … it would be much more straightforward.”
In becoming a Barelas community organization in recent years, Homewise has also had to contend with other community organizations with more seniority, and things have not always been smooth on that front either.
“Of course, we’re happy to have the Street Food Insitute in our neighborhood and of course, we’re happy to have a childcare center,” said Lisa Padilla, the president of the Barelas Neighborhood Association. “They’ve done some good work and I want to acknowledge that.”
But she faults Homewise for what she sees as a lack of transparency and willingness to collaborate.
“We want to know what they’re doing and they aren’t forthcoming,” she said, adding that the stakes are particularly high: “They’re kind of renovating the neighborhood … it feels like there is sort of an inordinate amount of power in one organization.”
The Barelas Community Coalition, which is in the thick of a broader renovation of the streetscape along Fourth (DAN, 4/7/22), has lately patched things up with Homewise after a more turbulent period that Alejandro Saavedra, the group’s vice president, characterized as part turf war and part communication problem.
“There’s a lot of drama around how people perceive Homewise,” he said.
Saavedra nonetheless applauds the work on residential rehab and recruiting the Street Food Institute to the neighborhood (the BCC wrote a letter of support for the project), but he too hopes to see “a lot more information coming down the pike.”
It is imperative, he added, that the two groups get along with each other: “To get more with less, you have to have solid partnerships, Saavedra said. “We don’t want to be the entity that shuts everything down because we don’t trust it.”
Gilligan declined to comment specifically on Homewise’s relationship with the Barelas Neighborhood Association but did say that her organization was always willing to listen and be responsive to community concerns. As for the Barelas Community Coalition, she said that “I think we’ve really started to figure out where there’s overlap and how we work together … we have enjoyed working with them as of late.”
The road ahead
Homewise enjoys some key advantages as it looks ahead to the next five years in Barelas and beyond. It is well-capitalized and has shown a particular knack for getting grants. Many of its projects are beloved, even by critics, and the two that are soon to break ground will be especially prominent by neighborhood standards, being located near the Rail Yards and the busy intersection of Fourth and César Chavez, respectively.
And controversies aside, it has also made plenty of friends in recent years.
“They were real pleasant to work with,” said Bale Sisneros, the owner of Por Vida Tattoo, which obtained a commercial loan through Homewise to buy the Appliance City Building at Fourth and Coal. “They are really focused on helping the community.”
“For us it’s been a great partnership,” added Tina Garcia-Shams, the executive director of Street Food Insitute. “We do what we do well but we are not in the construction and design business … they have an expertise that we don’t have.”
The plan for the next five years, meanwhile, is more of everything: More loans to more people, including a hoped-for expansion of an energy efficiency program. And more residential and commercial development that will bring more services and amenities to Barelas.
“We are very serious,” Gilligan concluded, “about working hard and bringing things to life.”
Downtown Albuquerque News covers Greater Downtown, which we generally define as the area surrounded by I-40, the Rio Grande, Av. César Chávez, and I-25. We publish weekdays except for federal holidays. If someone forwarded DAN to you, please consider subscribing. To subscribe, contact us, submit a letter to the editor, or learn more about what we do, click here. If you ever run into technical trouble receiving DAN, click here.