Adirondack residents struggle to find affordable housing
By Tim Rowland
The towns of Keene, Wilmington, Jay and Black Brook are typical of the Adirondack Park. Removed from the touristy villages, they are still attractive to vacationers and have a hint of the industrial past where homes are typically more affordable.
But good luck finding a home there. In an area that includes 7,000 residents, it is virtually impossible.
“There are 10 homes in Jay you can buy,” veteran Realtor Mike Straight said in early March during a video conference with the Au Sable River Valley Business Association. “There are two in Keene you can buy. There is one in Wilmington and one in Black Brook, and that’s a camp, it’s not even a home.”
For home buyers, it’s not so much a matter of being priced out of the market anymore— it’s that there is no market.
Newly released census data tells the story. Despite the paucity of homes available for sale, population in the Adirondacks is declining, dropping from 130,137 in 2010 to 123,316 in 2020. While the state population grew by 4.2%, the Adirondacks shrank by 5.2%.
But that doesn’t mean there’s a housing surplus—just the opposite. Housing is being snapped up by urban retirees or absentee owners, many well-off enough to pay cash—often tens of thousands of dollars above list price.
For a local resident, that’s tough competition. “I wanted to stay in Lake Placid,” said Josh Pelkey, whose job as a corrections officer would, in the past, have afforded a middle-income home. “My family grew up here, but I was pretty much forced out of the market.”
A volunteer firefighter, Pelkey is active in the community, and hears the same story repeated at the station: Those who grew up locally either reside in a family home or are pushed out of the area—or out of the park entirely—to locations where a house or apartment can still be secured.
Emily Kilburn Politi, a North Elba town councilor, has studied North Country housing for two decades, long before the pandemic pushed the issue to the fore. Finding a home priced to fit Adirondack salaries has always been challenging, but the past two years have charted new ground.
North Elba and Lake Placid recently established a six-month moratorium on short-term rentals while the town considers ways to protect long-term housing options. “We felt things were getting a little out of control—everything was becoming a short-term rental,” Politi said.
Several affordable housing developments are in the works in Lake Placid, and activists are looking at other creative options, such as deed restrictions that are similar to conservation easements: A homeowner receives a cash payment in exchange for a perpetual provision that it be sold or rented exclusively to people who work locally.
That’s a financial counterbalance against the soaring profits to be had by selling out to an investor or turning a long-term rental into a short-term rental, which in certain locations can generate in a long weekend what a long-term rental would in a month.
Straight said he’s noticed a subtle but meaningful shift in the way people buy vacation homes. Where they used to consider their own tastes first and the property’s appeal as a rental second, now the first question is, how much will the home earn on the rental market?
If the census recorded where people lived on July 1 instead of April 1, the population of the Adirondacks might double. Hamilton County, one of two counties entirely in the park, suggests why.
The county’s median age is 56, compared to the median age in New York of 39. That indicates that people who have moved to Hamilton County the past decade are empty-nest retirees seeking to spend golden years in a mountainous retreat. Thirty-one percent are 65 or older, nearly double the statewide percentage. Yet the number of people per household, 4.7, is going up, which planners said points to multi-generational families—adult children and their children living with their parents for lack of an affordable home to call their own.
Park-wide, nearly half the housing stock is dedicated to vacation or rental homes, effectively off limits to people who would live and work in the park full time.
Dan Cash, a senior designer for the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, wonders whether he should have bought a few years ago, when the market was hot but not torrid.
While he’s been fortunate to have a good landlord, the house Cash rents with his wife and three children is inefficient—a January electricity bill came in at $800—and is on a busy highway that lacks the feel of a neighborhood.
Cash said the numbers reflect the difficulties of finding and affording a home. What they don’t show is the damage done to families and schools, which in many ways are the soul of a community.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the shrinking enrollments,” he said. “There’s no permanence, no sense of putting down roots. We’re essentially gutting our communities.”
Cash and his wife are professionals with children in the Lake Placid school system they love. It’s a community they have strived to remain a part of, but even with income that would afford upwards of a $300,000 home nothing was within reach until Lake Placid and North Elba’s Homestead Development Corp. put together a workforce housing initiative to provide homes for people who have been shut out.
Cash said he’s heard people lament that the problem is too big to be tackled with a handful of new housing developments, but he disagrees.
“It would be huge if (the schools) had 10 new students,” he said. “We always have choices, and we can make the choices that are right for the future of the community. (Otherwise) you’re just giving up on Lake Placid altogether.”
Lauren Trostle, a Lake Placid counselor at St. Joseph’s Rehabilitation Center, reported a similar experience, as houses are not affordable to buy, and property owners have moved their homes from the long-term to the short-term market. Increasingly limited by encroaching tourist traffic, her family has had to move five times in the last eight years.
“We’ve had wonderful landlords and great places to live, but we haven’t had a stable place to call home,” Trostle said. “There’s a persistent feeling that it isn’t yours.”
Not long ago, her household income of $80,000 would have allowed for a home costing $175,000 to $230,000, a range she and her significant other were considering.
“All of a sudden there was nothing on the market for less than $350,000, and the closest we could afford was in Plattsburgh,” she said. “Things feel impossible. People who live and work here have been excluded.”
That’s hurt people and businesses too. Trostle said she’s seen the effect in the workforce. “A lot of new employees have moved out of town—or they don’t take the position in the first place,” she said.
When she saw a notice about Fawn Valley, an affordable housing development—whose lower prices are predicated on their remaining workforce housing—planned for Lake Placid, Trostle said she scurried to submit an application and was thrilled when it was accepted. “I kind of felt like I’d won American Idol—I have a lot of gratitude,” she said. Among the first things she did was break the news to her 8-year-old son: He’d be able to have a dog.
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