Adirondack communities take stock of housing inequalities
By Tim Rowland
The Covid-19 pandemic and short-term rentals are typically blamed for a critical shortage of housing in the Adirondack Park. But while they were certainly catalysts, the predicament was born of a complex web of cultural shifts, public policy decisions, land-use regulations, new technology and other disparate factors, some dating back to the 19th century.
Housing in the Adirondacks today, if it can be found at all, is unaffordable, not just to long-time residents, but to the young professionals with kids — the very demographic the Adirondacks is trying to attract. Some fear this is leading to hyper-gentrification, a Great Camp 2.0, where the poorest are living in their cars while massive amounts of wealth and resources are spent on palatial compounds deep in the forest with “spirit dens” and floating boathouses that might be used only a few weeks out of the year.
So complex is the issue that some believe there to be no solid solution.
About this series
Adirondack Explorer is highlighting the region’s housing challenges, with a multi-part series running in our magazine, online and in a regular newsletter you can sign up for here. Award-winning Freelance Journalist Tim Rowland investigates causes of the housing shortage, housing’s effects on other aspects of Adirondack life, hacks that people use to get into a home and potential solutions being tried here and elsewhere. His reporting is based on review of real estate data, documents and extensive interviews.
Others, while acknowledging the absence of a quick fix, endorse chipping away at multiple levels in hopes of alleviating the problem. Ideas range from microgrants of a few thousand dollars to shore up or insulate older homes to universal health care, which could remove significant costs from the building industry.
What’s in common is the belief that the shortage of affordable housing has transgressed the bounds of shingles and siding, and bled into a threat to communities across the Adirondack Park.
Based on a series of interviews, review of documents and analysis of real estate data by the Explorer in recent months, the region is at a crossroads and forced to deal with long-term structural inequities in Adirondack society.
“The canary has been in the coal mine for some time, so it’s no surprise we’re in the situation we’re in,” said Terri Morse, director of Essex County Mental Health, an agency that is among the first to detect community malaise. “If this problem is not solved people are going to flee from it.”
Long-time residents remember that housing in the Adirondacks has always been challenging, due to the high percentage of vacation homes and aging stock that needed excessive repairs.
But with typical Adirondack ingenuity, there was usually a workaround.
North Elba councilor and housing advocate Emily Kilburn-Politi said that 20 years ago or more a young couple could, if all else failed, scrape together $70,000 for a small chalet on wooden pilings in a vacation-home neighborhood. Today, Realtors say those same chalets are bringing $300,000 or more.
How did we get here?
This subprime mortgage market collapsed in 2007, and housing collapsed along with it. For the next 15 years, much of the nation rebounded from this plunge in homebuilding, but the Adirondacks did not.
One explanation is that there were few construction workers left to do the building. Older contractors retired, and younger contractors left for busier regions. As for new builders graduating from trade schools and entering the workforce? There weren’t any.
Touting the economic advantages of an advanced degree, adults urged high school students to attend college at the expense of the trades. Since 2018, according to the consulting group Camoin Associates, an economic development consultant in Saratoga Springs, the North Country has lost a quarter of its carpenters and electricians.
These one-time starter homes today are being converted into rental properties, and no affordable replacements are being built. According to a spate of recent housing studies, the last appreciable wave of Adirondack construction occurred in the mid-2000s, when banks were on a lending bender, awarding loans regardless of details like verified income and work history.
On the front lines of the industry, Nicole Martinez, president of Wildlight Business Solutions, a construction-support company based in Keeseville, said that Camoin’s estimate sounds about right. But she says there’s more to it. The emphasis on college fed a community divide and that, on the eve of the pandemic, was wide and about to get far wider.
“It gave children the message that if you don’t go to college, you can’t be a success,” she said. “It made them feel like dirt.” Many who went away to college failed, returning home with nothing to show for it but a simmering resentment of an economic model that seemingly had no place for them.
Those who succeeded at college did indeed benefit financially, said Nicole Justice Green, executive director of PRIDE of Ticonderoga, a housing and community development nonprofit that serves three North Country counties. But with housing prices in the stratosphere and saddled with student loan debt, many applicants have no chance at a mortgage.
Or, if they did, they would soon be outgunned by a new wave of competitors. The Town of Keene has a housing problem, but before that it had a hiker problem. More and more visitors had been coming for recreation, causing trailheads to overflow with cars that spilled onto roadsides and into private neighborhoods. Social media was choked with resplendent photos of Mount Marcy, Rainbow Falls and Indian Head. Phone apps made it a snap to check the forecast, book a room and zip up or down the Northway at the drop of a hat.
In the late teens, record visitors hiked the mountains, paddled the waters and understandably fell in love with the region. When contagion struck, these visitors knew where they wanted to be — a place with which they were already quite familiar. They traded congestion and sickness for open spaces, natural beauty and a lifestyle closer to family and the land.
“Everybody wanted to come where it was safe,” said Kristy Deyo, owner of Cedar Run Bakery and Market in Keene. “What we in our communities already knew was important, suddenly became important to the rest of the world.”
One additional component mattered considerably, something that didn’t exist in the short-lived property rushes attributable to 9/11 and the mid-aughts housing bubble: broadband. With the birth of remote work, those who came had the option to stay, and for many, that’s exactly what they did.
“There are definitely gig-economy workers in our district,” said Tim Seymour, superintendent of a Lake Placid school system where enrollment has plummeted from 1,000 students 20 years ago to just over 500 today.
Local governments and nonprofits collaborated to help connect the Adirondacks to the world, often in the face of corporate and state intransigence. The effect was palpable. “The first question buyers used to ask was, ‘does it have electricity?’” said Lake Placid Realtor Jodi Gunther. “Now the first thing they ask is, ‘does it have internet?’”
As the world wanted in, locals got squeezed out of the housing market. There were no long-term rentals, and “at one point there were no houses for sale in all of Keene,” Deyo said.
While residents compete for housing, outsiders arrive for brief stays and find accommodations. And that’s probably the most contentious point of the entire housing debate.
Houses for whom?
The Adirondacks are technically awash in housing, but it’s unavailable to full-time residents. The town of Arietta in the Southern Adirondacks, which includes Piseco Lake, has, according to the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board, 292 residents and 775 residences, or about 2.5 homes for every man, woman and child.
But 707 of those housing units are what the Census classifies as “vacant,” meaning they are second homes, vacation homes or short-term rentals. So in reality, those 292 residents are availed of only 68 of their town’s 775 homes.
Demand for homes of all sorts drove assessments up 23%, said Christy Wilt, Arietta Town Board Member and executive director of the Hamilton County Industrial Development Agency. “People want to come to work here, but a school bus driver can’t buy a house,” she said.
Communities further removed from a lake or popular trailhead have their own set of issues. On the other side of the park is the northeastern Adirondack town of Altona, where the average employee has to drive nearly half an hour to work at generally low-paying jobs; two thirds of families earn less than $50,000 and more than half of those live in poverty.
In terms of housing, a staggering 82% of long-term tenants spend more than 30% of their income on rent, 30% being the maximum they can pay for housing without it draining their budgets of money for food, medicine, transportation and the like.
Through this lens, housing and wages are entwined problems. But the disparity between what people earn and what they would need to earn to buy a home — PRIDE’s Green estimates this gap to be $80,000 to $100,000 — can’t be addressed by asking the boss for a raise.
Help is on the way
As part of this series, we highlight examples of attainable housing projects in the Adirondacks
Project: Fawn Valley, Wesvalley Road, Lake Placid.
What is it? Fawn Valley, when completed, will include 22 cape homes and townhouses on Wesvalley Road open to people earning up to 200% of median income, with home prices ranging between $180,000 and $220,000.
What made it happen? Fawn Valley was inspired by a 2019 housing report showing great disparities between incomes and housing costs, even for those with well-paying jobs. That led to the creation of the Homestead Development Corporation that is in charge of the project.
What was a key moment? The Homestead Development Corporation was able to convince the IRS that higher income people were being shut out of the market. The ensuing tax-deductible status opened the door to philanthropic funding.
How is it funded? Donations, a line of credit from Champlain National Bank and a $400,000 grant from North Elba’s Local Enhancement and Advancement Fund, which relies on money from the Essex County occupancy tax.
For more information or to apply for a home: homesteadadk.org.
Working on solutions
Still, there may be hope. Across the Adirondacks, local governments and nonprofits are working on housing projects to create hundreds of residential units. These include large apartment complexes in Lake Placid, a group of residences at an old industrial site in Tupper Lake, a four-home development in Keene and a single house in the town of Jay.
Leaders are calling for new policies such as hamlet expansion, land banks and voluntary deed covenants to prevent residential housing from becoming vacation rentals.
Also, something of an underground, peer-to-peer housing market is evolving, in which sellers channel homes to permanent, contributing members of their communities, taking less of a profit than they could by listing on the open market.
There is general agreement that the shortage is beyond market fixes, and for that matter, beyond the ability of any one individual outfit. In Keene, said Town Board Member Teresa Cheetham-Palen, a planned small development of four affordable homes required the participation of private philanthropy, the Housing Assistance Program of Essex County, the Adirondack Community Housing Trust, the Keene Town Board, the Keene Housing Task Force and multiple volunteers.
Obstacles have ranged from a difficult site plan to misinformation on social media to an apathetic power company that took years to relocate a problematic utility pole.
It is only with the help of many coordinated people and groups that this wearying but worthwhile work can be done. Some of this work will come to naught, but some will succeed.
Going down the list of helpers, Palen said, “We need a mix of all these just to have a chance. We need to join together so people can live and work in this unique location we call home.”
The series is funded in part by a grant from the Generous Acts Fund at Adirondack Foundation and by the Annette Merle-Smith Community Reporting Fund at Adirondack Explorer. If you would like to support our community reporting, get started here.