Rising housing prices outpace incomes for average Adirondack households
By Tim Rowland
Five years ago, the average home price in a broad slice of the Adirondacks was $178,000, according to the New York Association of Realtors. By 2023, that average sale had ballooned to $284,000.
Even this number is misleading, because it includes homes outside the park (Plattsburgh, for example) and many dwellings selling for below-average prices are handyman specials needing perhaps $100,000 of work.
Assuming a homebuyer has the 20% down payment of $56,000 for a $280,000 house, the monthly payment including taxes and insurance is still beyond affordability for the average household.
About this series
Adirondack Explorer is highlighting the region’s housing challenges, with a multi-part series running in the print magazine, on the web and in a regular newsletter you can sign up for here. Reporter 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.
Jay Realtor Mike Straight said local young families can generally afford a house costing $120,000 up to maybe $150,000. But the inventory of livable homes in this price range is gone, maybe forever.
“These are good kids, struggling to survive at $15 an hour,” he said. “They work Monday through Saturday, sometimes two jobs, and the only homes they can afford are in such deplorable condition you wouldn’t want to live in them. It makes me feel hopeless and helpless.”
All of this has come to change the definition of what’s “affordable,” a metric that’s loosely tied to AMI, or Area Median Income, which in Adirondack counties ranges between $55,000 and $68,000. Median income means half of the population earns less, half earns more. The national AMI is $71,000 and in New York it’s $75,000.
People at the bottom of the economic ladder qualify for Section 8 assistance, their rent paid for by the government. The properties are inspected for livability, and landlords are paid directly, said Megan Murphy, executive director for the Housing Assistance Program of Essex County. Eligible families can make up to 50% of AMI; for a family of four in much of the Adirondacks, that’s about $36,000.
But Murphy said advocates particularly worry about the next group, families earning from $36,000 to $78,000. These are known as ALICE families (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). They earn too much to make them eligible for direct housing assistance, yet not enough to buy a house on their own, at least not in much of the Adirondack Park.
Further, they tend to spend more on heat and transportation than much of the nation.
According to a study prepared for the Essex County Health Department, local transportation costs are considered affordable if they are no more than 15% of a household’s budget, or $8,514. But the study found that typical Essex families were spending $17,280 a year on transportation — in other words, their vehicles are costing them what they should expect to pay for housing.
Thus, the paradox: Homes away from population centers might be cheaper, but as housing costs decrease transportation costs increase. “We’re not like other counties, we don’t even have a traffic light,” said Christy Wilt, executive director of the Hamilton County Industrial Development Agency.
But the remote locale hasn’t kept housing costs down, she said, as houses are selling at 23% over assessed value.
Said Wilt, also on the Arrieta Town Board: “Places that sat for a long time sold.”
Help is on the way
Examples of attainable housing projects in the North Country
Homeowners in this photo purchased a 40 unit manufactured housing park in Maine. Cooperative Development Institute, the organization that helped facilitate the purchase, is working with Adirondack North Country Association on a cooperative housing project in Lake Placid.
Photo courtesy of Cooperative Development Institute
The area has no shortage of contractors, but it does have a shortage of locals who can pay for a home built from scratch. Without sewer and water in most communities, homebuilders must pay tens of thousands of dollars for driveways, septic systems, wells and “uh-oh, there goes half your house,” Wilt said.
Affordable housing is defined as not exceeding 30% of a household’s budget. But with transportation, utilities and childcare, even 30% can be a strain. That’s highlighted by the Essex County Health Department’s bare bones “survival budget,” a projection of what a typical ALICE family’s spending might look like.
‘Bare bones’ budget
After food, child and health care, transportation and other necessities are subtracted, only $864 is left for housing. This is a far cry from the monthly $1,880 it would take to afford that average North Country home costing $278,000.
Renting is worse
Those for whom a house is out of reach might be expected to rent, but the rental landscape is, if anything, even worse. According to the Asterhill Research Company, median home prices between 2010 and 2020 (a change that does not reflect the pandemic housing rush) increased 8.3%. At the same time, rent increased 20%.
The town of Dresden, is a municipality of storied beauty, tucked between Lake Champlain and Lake George. But the rental market is not so pretty. According to the Lake Champlain-Lake George Regional Planning Board, the average monthly rent is $1,096, just $40 below the average mortgage payment. Nearly half of these renters are “rent burdened,” meaning that they spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
“That is a very clear indicator that this is a serious problem,” said Nicole Justice Green, executive director of PRIDE of Ticonderoga, a nonprofit focused on community improvement. And the gap between income and expenses is widening, following an unexpected wave of inflation that followed the pandemic. The pandemic-era wage increases seem for workers almost like a cruel joke, as these short-lived gains were wiped out by higher prices.
“The gap is a hard thing to fill,” said Murphy.
And antiseptic calculations of what people can theoretically afford are often overly optimistic and do not consider credit card, student loan, car loan and other debt. “A lot of people have tapped out their credit and don’t qualify for a loan,” Green said. “What they can afford will not buy them a safe, code-compliant house.”
And while the bidding wars of 2021 may have subsided (although not always), the market hasn’t retreated, even as interest rates have risen. Keeseville Realtor Kira Witherwax said if there’s been a decline going into the summer of 2023 it’s hardly been slow. “I think the biggest difference from 12-18 months ago until now is buyer behavior,” said Witherwax. “They are more cautious and that is a good thing. I think the rise in interest rates has made them take a step back and consider the purchase a little more before committing.”
If there is a ray of hope, Green believes it’s because so many nonprofits, local governments and state agencies are now focused on solutions, something that hasn’t always been true.
“This has been building for the past decade, but it really came to a head during the pandemic,” she said. “I like to think we’ve turned a corner, but if so, it’s only because we’ve reached such a crisis.”
The series is funded in part by 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.