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New Mexico has a population crisis
NM should attract residents with affordable housing and more rights for immigrants
Population growth in New Mexico has slowed to a halt over the past decade despite unrelenting growth in New Mexico’s neighboring states. This is something New Mexico should be worried about as it looks to shake many of the issues that have plagued it forever - like poverty.
Strong population growth is a good omen for a state’s economy. A higher population in New Mexico would lead to all the good things New Mexicans crave - better jobs, higher wages, less crime, better-funded education systems, better infrastructure, etc. Population growth could be a great thing for New Mexico, but NM is missing out on the population and economic booms happening in surrounding states like Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. The Land of Enchantment should be attracting people through strategies like building more homes and incentivizing immigration from Central and South America.
To better understand the issue, let’s dive into New Mexico’s population stagnation.
New Mexico’s population once saw a steady increase until around 2010, when growth halted. Meanwhile, neighboring states with similar climates, geographies, and politics have experienced increased population growth:
The cause of New Mexico’s growth stymie is hard to pin down, but it’s likely due to a number of factors - poor public education, lack of desirable jobs, high crime rate, and outside of the TV show Breaking Bad, people just don’t know much about New Mexico.
While these issues are complex and don’t have a single causing factor, there is a common culprit for the State’s poor education and high crime rate: the lack of economic opportunity. New Mexico has long been one of the poorest states in the US which perpetuates the issues of crime, poor education, low birth rate, and low job growth. At the same time, these issues perpetuate economic stagnation - it’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario.
What New Mexico can do now is lean into the things that it does offer: affordable housing (compared to other western states), a welcoming political environment, beautiful scenery, delicious food, historic culture, and reliable jobs in the public sector.
The first, and arguably most important, piece of New Mexico’s population efforts should be housing affordability.
New Mexico and the rest of the country desperately need more affordable housing, but New Mexico still has the cheapest housing in the west. The state should lean into this stat and build ever more housing to keep prices low and attract young people and retirees alike looking for an affordable place to settle.
The strategy is simple: we lower the barrier to entry for people wanting to own their home, which incentivizes people and businesses to pick NM over other western states.
An increase in housing supply would satisfy the high demand in today’s market and relieve the upward pressure on housing prices. In turn, the affordable cost of living (and NM’s strong higher-education system) would incentivize job-creators to set up shop in New Mexico. College grads would then decide to stay in New Mexico to work instead of moving to Denver or Salt Lake City, where housing is much more expensive. The trick is building enough housing and the private sector hasn’t been able to do this alone.
Public housing should be part of the solution because 1) the State and local governments already own a lot of land, which speeds up development and lowers the upfront costs of building multi-family homes, 2) it would increase competition and supply in the housing market, and 3) governments could subsidize ownership for first-time home buyers and other disadvantaged communities.
Another solution to the housing supply crisis would be to eliminate single-family zoning altogether. Instead of building sprawling, single-family housing outwards, New Mexico and the US needs to build denser, multi-family housing upwards. We’ve now reached the limits of urban sprawl and car dependency that don’t exist anywhere else in the world, so it’s time to build housing that makes sense.
The mayor of Albuquerque is trying to do something about it, but NIMBYism within the ABQ City Council has kept the city from making progress on housing. I wrote an article last year that touched on Mayor Keller’s plan to build more housing:
The Keller-backed bill aims to roll back restrictions against “mother-in-law units” or “casitas” on land that is currently zoned for single-family housing (R-1). The Mayor also seeks to reduce restrictions imposed on multi-family housing developers. The plan would reduce requirements on parking space minimums, loosen height restrictions on new developments, and allow for more commercial spaces to be remodeled into housing units. Through these initiatives, Keller hopes to add 5,000 more housing units to the city by 2025.
Since then the Albuquerque City Council has stumbled over this policy with some members not comfortable with the change. The Council decided on Monday, June 5th to discuss the bill at a later date.
Meanwhile in Montana, the conservative-leaning Montana legislature passed pro-housing bills that allow all single-family housing lots to add accessory dwelling units in response to their respective housing crisis.
Historically, one of the draws to living in New Mexico, besides the food, nature, and culture, is the low cost of living. This benefit will only remain if New Mexico can adopt housing policies that lower the barrier for first time home buyers and real estate developers alike, and allow higher density in our cities.
Side note: High-density cities have many benefits - like producing less climate-changing carbon emissions:
As New Mexico thinks about fixing its population issue, affordable housing should be on the forefront of its policy initiatives, but we can attract migrants in other ways too:
Record numbers of immigrants from Venezuela and elsewhere have been crossing the US’s southern border in recent months. While many cross the border directly into New Mexico, they don’t tend to stay here. Most immigrants are going to New York, California, and other well-populated states:
Immigrants don’t settle in New Mexican towns because of the reasons mentioned before, but also because immigrants typically have family members and other connections in big cities. To turn this around, New Mexico should accept immigrants with open arms by expanding their rights and opportunities. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes:
By adopting policies that create paths to prosperity — in areas such as college tuition, driver’s licenses, and access to health care — states can dismantle systemic barriers for people without a documented immigration status and allow them more opportunity to contribute to their states, communities, and economies.
Furthermore, immigrants in the United States are far more likely to be entrepreneurs than non-migrants, increasing job growth that would not have happened otherwise.
In-state tuition for immigrants
Drivers licenses access
Workers rights and wage protection
Legal right to an attorney
Health care access
Attracting immigrants from Central and South America would be a way for New Mexico to gain residents and job creators, especially given its existing hispanic culture and convenient southern border with Mexico.
New Mexico’s population issue has not received the attention that it ought to be. As the US continues to grow, States like New Mexico need to be attracting their share of the growth in ways that make sense for them. For New Mexico, that looks to be housing and immigration policy, but there are many other policies that could attract people, like improving working conditions for teachers and public employees, or increasing rights for LGBTQIA communities.
The state should be looking at all of these strategies and more to tackle its population problem and put an end to the centuries-long poverty that has plagued the state.