10 takeaways from a 6-month series on housing issues in the Adirondacks
By Tim Rowland
If you are just finding out about Adirondack Explorer’s “Taking Stock of Housing” series, or have been reading along as we dove into the housing puzzle, here’s a recap of findings:
1) Like the rest of the country, the Adirondacks are vulnerable to outside forces
An overview of the affordable-housing issue shows that – as decades of housing studies suggest–these problems are not new. But generally speaking, Adirondackers in search of housing were making do. (In 1997, 23 years before COVID-19 filled New York City hospitals and made upstate retreats more attractive, authors of the Town of Jay comprehensive plan felt confident housing would be adequate in the community, barring some unforeseen mass influx of outsiders.)
A critical change occurred when the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 brought housing starts across the country to a halt. By 2012 housing markets in much of the nation were recovering, but not in the Adirondacks, where trades workers had relocated to other parts of the state which were recovering faster.
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.
2) The gap between home prices and affordability is increasing
After COVID hit, creating a real estate boom the likes of which the Adirondacks had never seen, home sales spiked.
Average Adirondack homes selling for $178,000 before the pandemic now commanded $284,000. And many of these structures needed a considerable amount of work.
Home renovation had not been a problem in the past, because one thing the Adirondacks had was a lot of cheap wood. Outdoor junkies or young families just starting out could buy a beater of a home or a small vacation cottage for a song and fix it up or add on as money allowed, building the equity it took to trade up.
Today, advocates wonder if the middle class itself isn’t a thing of the past, as income from professional and skilled blue-collar jobs are insufficient for one of life’s basic necessities.
“The gap between rich and poor has become so big,” said Hannah Neilly, a grant administrator for Essex County. “I see people struggling who shouldn’t be struggling.”
Today if those same run-down homes are affordable, they are just barely so.
3) Short-term rentals have altered the housing landscape
One class of buyer, though, was uniquely positioned to take advantage: short-term rental investors from the cities, for whom $350,000 seemed like pocket change. A phenomenon that didn’t even exist 15 years ago was suddenly having an outsized impact on housing in multiple ways.
For the STR investor, a $350,000 house generating $500 a night at a time when mortgage rates were virtually nil was akin to printing money. COVID was sending people from the cities to the wide open spaces of the park in droves, where, realtors say, they would stay for a week or a month and like it so much they would buy a second home for themselves, renting it on Airbnb when they weren’t using it.
Nicole Martinez of Wildlight Business Solutions talks with reporter Tim Rowland about how contractors and builders fit into the housing puzzle. Video by Eric Teed for Adirondack Explorer
4) There’s a definite link between housing security and health
In the crosshairs are ALICE families, an acronym referring to people who make too much to qualify for help but not enough to comfortably get by. ALICE families also represent the backbone of the workforce, and as they are displaced, the Adirondack labor market suffers. Young parents face combined costs of housing and childcare.
With less money for food and medicine, and more stress and worry about their domestic situation, health and welfare suffers
Increasingly, these low-income families weren’t alone. Houses that had been unaffordable to the chainsaw and chambermaid workforce were now unaffordable to people who made what had always been thought of as decent money.
This series wraps with an event Wednesday, Nov. 1 at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake. Click here to sign up.
5) We can’t simply build our way out of this
With so many people clamoring for basic housing, it might have seemed there would be money to be made meeting the demand. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Instead, any new construction happening trends toward high-end, luxury homes. Even an entry-level home can cost $350,000. The costs of lumber and other building supplies have escalated to the point that rehab work can cost twice as much as the house itself. So two previous sources of affordable housing – rehabilitation and modest new construction – are no longer affordable at all. What this points to is that no one reform is going to help; it will take a concerted and coordinated effort across multiple disciplines to reverse a trend that looks a lot like the housing haves and have-nots of the Great Camp era.
6) Affordability depends on density and scale, but to get there you need stronger infrastructure
The more units in a development, the more the cost comes down. The problem in the Adirondacks is that density is difficult to achieve. And even these developments tend to rely on government help, usually in the form of tax credits.
Smaller communities that can’t support big apartment buildings need smaller developments of duplexes or townhomes, But even these require public sewer and water that is unaffordable without state grants. Increasingly, these grants have been hard to come by because the Adirondacks lack qualifying elements, such as minority populations or dirty environments.
But there’s hope this could be about to change. Keith McKeever, Public Information Officer for the Adirondack Park Agency, said the state’s $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act represents a “generational opportunity for Adirondack communities to secure the necessary public water and wastewater systems needed to support higher density development.”
The fate of many small, rural towns rests on the success of its Main Street. Town of Jay Supervisor Matt Stanley walks reporter Tim Rowland through downtown Au Sable Forks, NY and outlines plans to revitalize the downtown. Video by Eric Teed for Adirondack Explorer
7) Communities are often hamstrung by inability to grow, expand
Lack of sewer and water pipes is a primary reason the park’s small communities — the jurisdictions designated by the state for housing and economic growth — have not been able to expand their boundaries in order to build more homes.
Many see hamlet expansion as vital to new housing projects, which would in turn accommodate more people to support local businesses.
8) Nonprofit organizations have become increasingly part of solutions
Also helping in arenas where governments can’t, or won’t, are Adirondack nonprofits that have stepped in to provide information, funding and even construction for affordable homes.
The most successful example to date is Fawn Valley in Lake Placid, a development of 22 townhomes and cape-style homes built by the Homestead Development Corp., with the help of other nonprofits, philanthropists and private interests.
Fawn Valley is both inspiring and cautionary. The entire community needed to be onboard, said Homestead board member Emily Kilburn Politi, and multiple organizations needed to help. Even so, to be affordable, one floor of the townhomes was left unfinished to save costs and people needed to donate their time doing the work.
Asked what it would take to replicate Fawn Valley elsewhere, Politi immediately replied, “Steve Sama,” referring to her fellow board member, a “retired” contractor who donated untold volunteer hours on the project.
More housing solutions
A recap of projects and organizations helping to meet housing needs
9) There are issues tied into housing we didn’t get to explore in this series but we will be keeping an eye on going forward
An aging population: While the physical construction of housing consumes most day-to-day thought and energy, there will be considerable associated issues looming 10 or 20 years down the road.
Eliza Darling, associate adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the “super-aging” occurring in the Adirondacks, as retirees move in and young people move out, is an issue that transcends housing.
Schools have closed, women of child-bearing age are unavailed of healthcare and when her Southern Adirondack town needed highway workers, Darling said, “they couldn’t find anyone under 70.” So the question becomes, when this older demographic needs nursing care, where will they go and will there be any young people left to attend to their needs?
Loss of generational wealth: Also unanswered is what the housing upheaval means to the Adirondacks decades from now in terms of wealth. Jacqueline Hallock, vice president and director of marketing for Champlain National Bank, noted that historically a home has been the primary, and often only, source of wealth for native families.
Equity gives homeowners financial security and flexibility and assure a brighter future. “A lot of parents tap home equity to pay for their kids’ college expenses,” Hallock said.
But when houses are primarily owned by outside STR landlords, much of that wealth leaves the community. Financial experts such as Hallock say it’s unclear what the fallout of this phenomenon will be in times to come.
10) The region continues to attract new people with a can-do attitude
Still, the Adirondack mountains, lakes and forests, maybe by their very nature, have a tendency to attract and hold onto people who have vision and an ability to figure things out.
When she discovered the Adirondacks, Colleen O’Neill, then a project manager for ADP in New Jersey, knew it was where she wanted to resettle. For her, the modern-day equivalent of 40 acres and a mule were “a rustic house in the woods and two Verizon bars,” which she found 10 years ago in Saranac Lake.
Today she telecommutes, shops and eats lunch in the village, volunteers for causes that include animals, arts and the outdoors, and strengthens the community fabric. She believes there are no challenges that the Adirondacks and the people who are lured by them can’t solve. She is surrounded by people who pitch in and are open to ideas and new perspectives, and she believes this problem-solving energy will carry the day, and is rewarding in its own right.
And that’s a good feeling.
“The first time I came here it had this pull on me and I felt like I had found my place,” she said. “I have this sense of belonging and feel contented every day.”