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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  Cash In
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Cash In

Federal funds struggle to burn a hole in the state’s pocket

March 10, 2010, 12:00 am

The latest federal windfall for Santa Fe came on March 2, in the form of a $176,400 grant to expand public computer centers around the city. Democratic US Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall sent out a joint press release with the usual fanfare: “a positive impact on many lives” that would “bridge the technical divide.”

But for the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority, a government entity with an uncanny knack for securing federal stimulus money, it was a drop in the bucket.

Since the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009, the SFCHA has received more than $10 million in federal stimulus grants and contracts. But in a pattern that repeats itself across the state, very little of that money has actually been spent. Even a $792,000 contract awarded to SFCHA nearly a year ago, in March 2009, is listed on the federal-stimulus tracking website as “Not Started.”

According to SFR’s analysis of statewide data, of approximately 1,500 stimulus loans, grants and contracts awarded to New Mexico’s businesses, government agencies and nonprofits between February and October of last year, only 39 are listed as completed. A whopping 262 haven’t even started.

Near downtown Santa Fe, between W. Alameda and W. San Francisco, there’s an almost-empty lot. Dark dirt bears the scar of tractor treads and a dusting of snow: It’s the first phase of SFCHA’s $10 million baby. Someday, SFCHA Director Ed Romero says, it will be a 110-unit affordable housing complex called Villa Alegre, “the greenest multi-family project built in New Mexico,” Romero says.

For now, he’s mired in the “incredibly complicated financing process” of corralling the tangle of loans, tax credits, federal grants and local contracts.

Villa Alegre’s two biggest grants are both federal. The first, awarded last September, is a $5.3 million “green grant” slated for renewable energy and efficiency features—in this case, photovoltaic solar cells and ground-source heat pumps. In October, the development got another $4.8 million in federal assistance for the project.

When SFR first talked to Romero, he said he couldn’t touch the $5.3 million until SFCHA “closed”—housing-industry lingo for getting all his paperwork signed and sealed.

Romero later revealed that $521,000 in expenditures listed on the federal stimulus-tracking website, recovery.gov, was used for demolition at Villa Alegre. Romero also says some of the $792,000 federal contract—which SFCHA is using for efficiency upgrades in its existing senior and low-income housing—has already been spent. Even though recovery.gov lists the project as “Not Started,” Romero says he’s already spent approximately $35,000, and that the retrofitting will be done by July or August of this year.

“Every question you ask, it gets more complicated,” Leann Holt, state Mortgage Finance Authority communications manager, tells SFR. “Often projects have four, six, eight, often as many as 10 funding sources to make one project go,” she says.

Holt says the MFA—the self-described “quasi-public entity” that metes out federal funding to local recipients—is in the process of closing awards and that all stimulus projects should be “rolling” within a month.

Around Santa Fe, there are a variety of them.

Michael Loftin, the executive director of the affordable housing nonprofit Homewise, says he’s doing energy conservation with a fund-matching system with the city—but that Homewise is vigilant about keeping up its share of the burden.
“You’re always trying to figure out how to get more efficient, leveraging the money better so you [aren’t] dependent on a one-time grant,” Loftin says.

Nonetheless, Loftin acknowledges the complexity of the many programs under the federal stimulus umbrella.

“Anytime you get government money, the red tape increases a lot,” Loftin says. “Sometimes the rule becomes more important than whether somebody actually gets some help out there.”

Sharron Welsh, executive director of Santa Fe nonprofit The Housing Trust, acknowledges the complexity, while describing the stimulus as “ingenious and essential.” She has reason to be upbeat: The Housing Trust breaks ground March 12 on a new, affordable stimulus-funded 60-unit green development.

As for Villa Alegre, Romero says, “We will have people standing in line to get into the place.” Once they put that money to use.

 

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