What happens when landlord lawmakers vote on tenant protections?
Property owners in the New Mexico legislature are well-represented, with a number of lawmakers reporting they make money from real estate, and lobbyists campaigning for real estate agents and landlords.
KUNM sat down with Andrew Oxford with the Santa Fe Reporter to chat about legislation barely scraping by in the Roundhouse that would boost tenant protections and his story digging into the influence landlords have on the lawmaking process.
ANDREW OXFORD: We found about a dozen legislators are also landlords and those are just the ones we could identify. There are likely more because New Mexico's financial disclosure laws provide lawmakers a lot of wiggle room –– they have to report all sources of income over $5,000, for example, and that would include rent payments from tenants. But, lawmakers can be vague. Several lawmakers just report that they have income from real estate. While they have to disclose any real estate they own in New Mexico besides their primary residence, they don't really have to say much about that real estate. So some lawmakers are very transparent like Senator Bobby Gonzalez, a Democrat from up in Taos, who reports owning seven residential rentals. Others just report that they make money from real estate and it's hard to to track what that means exactly.
KUNM: So what connections did you find when looking into rental and landlord policy and the influence these property owning lawmakers potentially have?
OXFORD: Yeah, it's not black and white. You know, some lawmakers who are landlords have voted for tenant protections, but other lawmakers are very blunt that their experiences as landlords inform how they view this issue. People who work on tenants' rights at the legislature tell me that there's a really a culture where landlords are very well-represented and their voices are heard pretty clearly. But tenants just aren't as visible. And you know, this is exactly a part of it.
I've watched committee hearings where lawmakers will ask a lot of questions about how a bill might impact landlords, but they asked few or maybe no questions about who the bill might help. So, as one advocate told me, everything kind of gets spun from the perspective of landlords. Tenants, after all, aren't a big organized group. They aren't hiring lobbyists who can show up at these hearings like the Realtors and the Apartment Association are. So people who work on this issue see that voice is largely missing from these debates. And part of that's inevitable when you consider that our legislature isn't really paid, right? So if you're a renter, and you have to work to pay that rent, you probably can't afford to take two months and go to Santa Fe for that session. We've got a lot of retirees, landlords like we talked about, lawyers who can set their own hours and that kind of shapes the culture of who's making the policies in Santa Fe.
KUNM: There's a couple bills spiraling in the big pot of legislation waiting to be heard in the committees and potentially on votes in the House and Senate relating to this. What tenant protections are lawmakers currently mulling over?
OXFORD: The bills that are making the most progress right now are HB6 and a similar measure in the Senate––SB 411. These bills do a few different things, but most significantly, they would change the timelines for evictions. So, when a landlord gives notice to a tenant that they're behind on rent, they can go to court after three days right now. These bills would change that to 11 days and supporters say that's really important to give tenants a chance to pay or work something out with their landlord to stay in a home. It's passed the House in previous sessions, but it stalled in the Senate. And this year, it has opposition from the Apartment Association and the Association of Realtors. The version of the bill that lawmakers are considering this year doesn't include some big provisions that backers would really like to see too, like a provision prohibiting landlords from refusing to take tenants who are paying with vouchers. Some folks who get vouchers, which is no small feat, say it's really hard to find a place that will take them sometimes and communities around the country have been cracking down on this, but New Mexico legislators aren't really touching that issue this year,
KUNM: We've been seeing this fire erupt from New Mexicans voicing concerns over the increasing cost of private and rental property since the start of the pandemic. What have other advocates been telling you? Are they confident the tide can turn here?
OXFORD: There's definitely more talk about housing at the Capitol than there was, say, five years ago. I think there's a recognition by lawmakers that there's a real issue here. But whether that translates into better laws for tenants, I think, remains to be seen. A lot of the interest is building more housing, which the data shows us is really needed. But, advocates for tenants rights note that that could take years to really hit the market. And in the meantime, they said that doesn't necessarily help people who are dealing with big rent increases today. So they argue it's got to be kind of an everything above approach. I'm not sure the legislature is really at that point yet.