Ben Ikenson is a New Mexico-based writer whose work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Metropolis Magazine, and Architectural Record.
The transformation of Albuquerque’s Sundowner Motor Lodge appears to be part of an emerging trend where non-profit developers are seizing opportunities in old motels to create decent housing for those living on the fringes and most in need.
In the mid-1970s, long before they were household names, Bill Gates and Paul Allen spent four years in Albuquerque, New Mexico, trying in vain to solicit venture capital for their computer start-up. They lived at the Sundowner Motor Lodge, a two-story, U-shaped midcentury modern affair built in 1960 at the height of Route 66’s heyday; it’s depicted in vintage postcards as a swanky joint where well-dressed guests sip poolside cocktails beneath the ambient glow of a neon sign beckoning passersby on the storied road bisecting town. Not long after they decided to move on, the construction of I-40 precipitated a period of decades-long decline for the Sundowner, and for dozens of other city motels now long associated with transience, drugs and prostitution. The Sundowner was eventually shuttered in 2009, left to languish behind a moat of chain link.
But in 2013, local non-profit developer NewLife Homes pursued a $9 million project that transformed the old 110-room motel into a 71-apartment facility with an on-site support and resources center. Most units are reserved for individuals making less than half the local median income; a quarter are for formerly homeless tenants and those with special needs.
Brothers Roy and Ken Turner, 50 and 49, respectively, both diagnosed with schizophrenia, have shared an apartment here for about two years. They resemble each other, but it’s easy enough to tell them apart; during a manic episode years ago, Roy tattooed an abstract design onto half of his face. They’ve remained close throughout their ordeals, which have included bouts of homelessness and stints in public housing they describe as “institutional,” with a frequent law enforcement authority presence. Ken writes poetry, and Roy, a University of New Mexico graduate of fine art, is a photographer. They’re planning to exhibit their work in the Sundowner’s public community space this summer, and they seem sincerely glad to be here. “The landscaping and the architecture is dignified,” says Roy. “This doesn’t feel like a place where you’re marginalized. You feel like a person.”
Five years since the Sundowner’s reincarnation, John Bloomfield, executive director of NewLife Homes, which manages eight other affordable rental properties in town, calls it “one of our great success stories,” and a replicable, permanent supportive housing model.
The project appears to be part of an emerging trend. Just two miles east of the Sundowner, NewLife Homes also oversaw the transformation of Luna Lodge, built in 1949 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, into 30 apartments for low-income residents, including veterans, elderly, mentally ill, and formerly homeless. Described by local Route 66 historian Keith Koffard as one of the “best examples of an unaltered tourist motor court” from that era, the project required asbestos and lead remediation, but ultimately met stringent historic preservation requirements and achieved LEED platinum certification.
Similarly, an hour north, the Housing Trust of Santa Fe oversaw the conversion of another 1940s Route 66 motel into a 60-unit affordable multifamily rental facility with a quarter of its units reserved for people transitioning from homelessness or who have special needs.
And these projects are gaining traction not just in New Mexico, but elsewhere in the West, and beyond. In Flagstaff, yet another old Route 66 motel was converted into transitional housing, as described in a 2016 NPR segment. A small motel in Phoenix was reportedly transformed for veterans to live rent-free for six months while readjusting to civilian life. In California, Mercy Housing commandeered two older motels for similar purposes: The Budget Inn Motel in Sacramento is now the Boulevard Court Apartments, housing disabled formerly homeless individuals; In San Leandro, the Islander Motel, with a notorious reputation for crime, has become Casa Verde, with rental units reserved for those earning between 30 and 45 percent of the area’s median income. And, in 2016, Los Angeles launched a program to enable developers to convert “nuisance motels” into housing for some 500 homeless vets. The city also passed an ordinance last year to streamline the approval process for such conversions.
Clearly, these endeavors are more than mere singular feel-good human interest stories or remarkable stand-alone adaptive reuse projects that often preserve historic landmarks.
According to a January 2017 HUD report, more than 553,000 people in the U.S. are homeless. That’s an increase over the 2016 estimate, although homelessness rates per capita actually dropped slightly as a result of population growth. But that hardly offers a promising trajectory given the housing supply context: The National Low Income Housing Coalition documents a shortage of 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes for extreme-low-income renter households—those with incomes at or below national poverty guidelines or 30 percent of the area’s median family income.
Of this segment, the most vulnerable are those with mental illness and the disabled, who largely subsist on social security disability incomes that barely cover the average rent. And the outlook appears to be worsening with disproportionate rates of increase between disability compensation and rent prices.
“People with disabilities or mental illness facing these circumstances are, for the most part, a voiceless constituency,” says Bloomfield. “There’s a lot of sentiment that they’re the government’s responsibility and pervasive myths that housing them properly will lower surrounding property values and increase crime rates, and there’s a lot of stigma.”
Helping dispel some misperceptions, proponents of Housing First, the evidence-based approach to ending chronic homelessness, developed a model with two key features: affordable housing for the most vulnerable; and onsite support to ensure that residents have access to the services they most require, providing stability for them.
“There’s this notion that having a stable place to live is the reward for a stable, productive lifestyle, when in reality, stable housing is a prerequisite,” says Albuquerque native Rolf Pendall, a fellow with the Urban Institute. “So shifting from squalid, temporary, unreliable conditions in a dilapidated motel room to decent, stable housing is definitely a step in the right direction.”
Pendall says cities should work carefully to balance their housing needs with their projected growth and economic forecasts. “And in doing so,” he cautions, “… it would be a huge mistake to overlook the value associated with addressing homelessness proactively.” Providing housing generally results in cost savings for communities because housed people are less likely to use emergency services, including hospitals, jails, and emergency shelters, than those who are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Scores of studies support this conclusion.
Case in point: A pilot program in Denver launched in 2016 provided supportive housing for 100 people, mostly men in their 40s and 50s each with extensive arrest records. Financed through a social impact bond, the program appears to be an unqualified success. Only one person has left.
For those pursuing motel-to-supportive housing conversions, an unshakable conviction that the benefits will offset the costs is a distinct asset; the work requires a special breed of perseverance. Bloomfield readily admits these undertakings are fraught with challenges—from negotiating with cities on zoning and contending with often vehement opposition from neighborhood associations, to navigating the byzantine universe of application paperwork for scarce funding sources both small and large, from obscure grants to federally-administered umbrella subsidies.
“You need a thick skin,” says Bloomfield. “And to stay focused on the big picture, even as you’re going through a minefield of relentless details.”
While there are several programs that incentivize affordable housing development, not many specifically promote the retrofitting of old buildings. Of those that do—whether their emphasis is on historic preservation, adaptive reuse, or green building—they often involve stringent, sometimes conflicting requirements, and varying tiers of local, state and federal interpretations on meeting them, not to mention ADA requirements. The immense competition for financing and a multitude of preconditions place a huge onus on the developer to deliver a quality product.
Mark Okrant’s book No Vacancy: The Rise, Demise and Reprise of America’s Motels, claims the number of operating motels has plummeted from a peak of about 61,000 in 1964 to just 16,000 in 2012. As with their neglected surroundings, many defunct motel properties may just need to be reconceived, rather than left to rot. At least, that’s what Bloomfield and his counterparts across the country are hoping to demonstrate.
And many seem to be doing just that, creating myriad positive ripples with projects that expand the tax base, promote public transportation usage and local business patronage, and, hopefully show that when vulnerable people are stabilized, they can, in turn, help stabilize their neighborhoods.
Of its Sacramento motel conversion, Mercy Housing’s Stephan Daues says, “In one fell swoop, we eliminated an epicenter of crime and blight and replaced it with an architectural gem on its own, where staff and residents have established a sense of community, and the surrounding neighborhood has a new stitch in its fabric.”
Realistically, these projects almost always rouse concern about crime and property values from neighbors that raw data analyses or peer-reviewed scholarly studies cannot always alleviate.
Bloomfield makes a point of consistently engaging in dialogue with neighbors, routinely offering PowerPoints with charts and graphs that illustrate reduced police activity and crime in the vicinity of his projects, and maintaining an active community presence,.
For these projects to more effectively radiate their outward potential, they should include a strong community resource component, says Bloomfield. The Sundowner’s street-facing public community space, for instance, is provided at no charge for a variety of meetings and conferences, musical performances, and art exhibits.
Situated across from a new Albuquerque Rapid Transit station kiosk, part of a public transportation project recently established along nine miles of Central Avenue, the Sundowner retains much of its early mod aesthetics. Local architect Garrett Smith wanted to preserve the property’s original Del Webb-style motor lodge layout while adding accommodations for an outdoor grower’s market and front-facing commercial space. The LEED-platinum project includes water-permeable parking areas and water-harvesting cisterns used for a community garden. There’s a playground, a sand volleyball court, barbecue grills. And there’s a memorial area for residents to reflect on others who have passed away, like Naomi Martinez, who, had been living on and off the streets and had lost both legs to diabetes.
In a communal space with floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto Central Avenue, residents sip coffee, socialize, scan the local headlines. Bloomfield, an affable man with a bushy head of salt-and-pepper, shows up to chat with tenants on an almost daily basis. There are a few offices for the barebones staff of six. Bloomfield’s is small, cramped and windowless, with towers of paperwork teetering on a desk and a portrait of Nelson Mandela hanging from the wall.
With bright morning light flooding into the common room and the distant sound of blaring sirens, Bloomfield acknowledges the surrounding neighborhood is still beset by crime, but he is nonplussed. Since the Sundowner’s transformation, Bloomfield says the biggest challenge is “neighborhood predators taking advantage of residents and using their units for illegal activities.” But evictions have been rarely necessary, and “at our oldest property, the majority of residents have been with us for over 20 years,” he says.
That’s likely a testament to the nonprofit’s housing management apparatus, which encourages that staff know every resident. Support service reps occasionally intervene on behalf of tenants; routine welfare checks are conducted. The general atmosphere is imbued with a cordial sense of mutual respect between staff and tenants who, says Bloomfield, “often form deep, personal connections.”
While it no longer features an inviting swimming pool, the Sundowner does house a small museum space that pays tribute both to its Route 66 heritage and to its now-famous former tenants. Browsing the quiet space, it’s tempting to imagine what Albuquerque would be like now had Microsoft actually planted roots here; Gates and Allen, after all, helped transform dying Pacific Northwest logging communities into prosperous tech-driven hubs, as they spawned an industrial sector whose enormously transformative social and economic ramifications may never fully be comprehended.
No matter, some things don’t change. As Bloomfield says, “any city aspiring to be world-class must retain its humanity, which is demonstrated through respect and support for its most vulnerable citizens.”