By Tim Rowland
For two hours on Wednesday, a broad array of advocates diagnosed the ailing Adirondack housing industry, and batted about plans for one day restoring it to health.
The “Taking Stock of Housing” event at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake was organized by Adirondack Explorer, and brought together a wider-than-usual cross section of around 100 attendees: from finance to construction to government, nonprofits, philanthropists, educators, planners, economic development players, regulators and concerned citizens.
For many, this work is personal. Nicole Justice Green, executive director of the PRIDE of Ticonderoga community advocacy group, said it’s her job to find suitable housing for the agency’s clients. Yet with five kids, she and her husband were unable to find affordable housing in Ticonderoga even though they both have masters degrees and earn good money. “We have lived this struggle,” she said.
The housing issue has been studied in depth, and to the point where the causes for the workforce housing shortage are largely understood.The subprime mortgage crisis in 2008 halted local construction and sent trades workers looking elsewhere for work; Covid drove urban populations that were deemed healthier, but were already short on housing; with an influx of visitors, lucrative short-term rentals drove locals out of the market. And of course housing prices rebounded far in excess of local salaries.
In Essex County, said Allison Gaddy, senior planner for the Lake Champlain/Lake George Regional Planning Board, typical household income falls $80,000 short of buying the typical home. An agency study also shows that in four Adirondack counties, 7,500 new housing units are needed and a total of 20,000 “housing interventions,” where living conditions are too expensive, substandard or otherwise less than ideal.
But with the terms of the challenge defined, more potential solutions are presenting themselves, a more realistic timeline for success is coming into view. So the question has shifted from “Can something be done?” to “Can something be done in time?”
“It really scares me that the school population has dwindled to the point where we don’t know if we’ll have more than three or four kids in the classroom,” said Daniel Kiefer-Bach, community development coordinator for Living ADK in Old Forge.
Terri Morse, director of mental health and community services for Essex County added that the bottom of society does not end with workers having trouble staying current on the rent. Others, perhaps 30% of Essex County, have even deeper issues, “Please do not leave the vulnerable population out” of housing solutions, she said.
The evaporating student populations have Kiefer-Bach questioning whether he will be able to remain in the Adirondacks — even after taking leadership positions on potential solutions such as home sharing among young people and seniors, and deed covenants that prevent workforce housing from transitioning into seasonal properties.
Another compound sticking point — the sum, perhaps, of all the other individual sticking points — is that an affordable market rate home simply does not exist. “We really want to build houses that people can afford,” said Nicole Martinez, owner of Wildlight Business Solutions in Keeseville. “(Contractors) need employees, but to get employees you need housing. It’s a circular thing that makes you crazy.”
Even projects that appeared to be on the runway had run into frustrating delays. Land banks, for example, are currently in limbo due to a Supreme Court decision that wasn’t related to land banks, but by extension, threaten their funding mechanism.
Michael Tucker, executive director of Columbia County Economic Development Agency and Wednesday’s keynote speaker, said that sounds about par for the course. “Housing is mostly frustration mixed with exhilarating moments,” he said. “We make an art of driving round pegs into square holes. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We have to show up and we have to stay focused.”
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.