The struggles are intertwined, say public health employees
By Tim Rowland
At a time when he should have been enjoying retirement and a permanent retirement home, Gene Hoffman was taking a job with the town highway crew and living in an RV, parking his rig at the houses of snowbird friends in exchange for watching their homes.
Housing insecurity wore on his mental health. “It’s been a daily struggle, not knowing where I’ll be staying next time around,” he said. “You don’t want to be a burden to people.”
Hoffman, 67, has ties to the Adirondacks going back more than 40 years, and has served the community on the local fire department and the Essex County Medical Corps. This is where he wants, or wanted, to spend his retirement.
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.
Looking for a permanent residence, he purchased a lot in Ausable Acres in the town of Jay in 2020, put up a tent and began calling around for someone to come pour concrete. Adding to the stress, contractors made appointments and never showed, if they returned his calls at all. “The forms sat there all year because I couldn’t get someone to come pour,” he said.
When, after 18 months of waiting, he finally obtained a contractor to pour the cement into pre-formed walls, it was too late. The Covid-related spike in building supplies had put them out of reach. The job Hoffman had taken to afford to pay for his home went south when he tore up his shoulder trying to jockey heavy equipment not meant to be handled by men of retirement age. A five-hour surgery, complications from the operation and a protracted hospital stay hampered any future opportunities for work.
There was one ray of light: Due to escalating Adirondack prices, the bare walls and otherwise empty lot in Ausable Acres were now worth the price of a nice home in Florida. “I just couldn’t find anything in this area that someone on a fixed income can afford,” he said. “Think about it, for the price of a lot, with minimal improvements in the Acres I could buy a complete home in Florida, and a very nice one too. I’ll miss the mountains, but other than that, there’s not much holding me back.”
Hoffman’s tale illustrates the connection between housing and health, and it is not unique.
Health officials say that housing insecurity can affect people of all ages, diminishing their physical and mental well-being.
People worry where they’ll stay, how they’ll pay bills and whether they’ll meet the needs of their children. They become depressed. They don’t eat right. Blood pressure rises; stress levels spike.
The deficiencies show up beyond the housing data. County-level health and mental health departments are not directly involved in housing, but do deal directly with the results of housing insecurity. So close is the correlation between housing and health that officials say they can, with a great deal of accuracy, predict someone’s specific health conditions just by looking at their zip code.
‘Housing is health’
“Housing is health,” said Linda Beers, director of the Essex County Health Department, as she walked past her colleagues’ offices. And many of the people whose mission is helping others have had housing issues of their own. “Just about everyone along this hall could tell you a (housing) story,” Beers said.
Like many employers, the health department has lost potential employees who were unable to find a place to live without commuting from Plattsburgh. “We had an epidemiologist who wanted to take a job here, but declined because she couldn’t find housing; we have it in writing,” Beers said.
Not surprisingly, people with deficient housing are likely to be lacking in other areas as well. In Essex County, 700 women and children are in the Women Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program, said Emily French, a nutritionist for the county. They typically do not have their own homes, but live with parents or grandparents, French said, and the number served has fallen precipitously because single moms increasingly have nowhere to live and a standard of living in decline.
“All this ties back into housing and child care,” French said. “There’s no housing, so they keep leaving.” And they take the labor they provided for retail, service and hospitality businesses with them.
Help is on the way: Hamilton County workforce housing
Funds from a previous land sale will be put into building affordable housing for workers.
Home ownership — like access to child care, transportation, higher education and medical costs — is one more impediment to building a solid family life in the Adirondacks that can escape the generational gravity of poverty, addiction and petty crime.
Even those with deep roots who are better off are challenged. “This is why so many people are moving out,” French said. One by one, longtime Adirondack families are disappearing, their homes bought by remote workers, wealthy retirees or vacation-home landlords.
Tough for families
This family deficit is a canary warning of a failing community, said anthropologist Eliza Jane Darling, a native of the southern Adirondack foothills and associate adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
“A really good barometer of the health of a community is the health of its women,” Darling said. “We seem to be losing mothers; they’re either choosing not to reproduce or choosing to leave.”
Schools in multiple Adirondack communities have consolidated or closed after student populations plunged from what they had been only 10 or 20 years ago.
A population that is simultaneously shrinking and aging — both trends that are fed by inadequate housing — loses services central to women’s physical and emotional health, from hospitals to daycare centers. It also leaves fewer people to do essential work.
“If the population keeps dwindling, there won’t be enough people to do the things that need to be done,” Beers said. “If you at least know that you have a bed to sleep in, food in the fridge and a job, maybe not even the best job, to go to, you can make it. But these things are not always easy to come by.”
Beers sees vagaries and pitfalls in policies — public and private — that lead to insecurity. Month-to-month leases can be pulled if the owner decides, for example, to put rental property into the more lucrative vacation market. “At any given moment, they may say ‘We don’t want you,’” she said.
One mom got out of an abusive relationship by taking on more work, only to see her housing and food assistance cut because she was earning more money. Then the full-time work fell through. “It took seven months to get this assistance back,” Beers said. “It didn’t take seven months to get it cut, I can tell you.”
This constant uncertainty causes both physical and mental drain that tears at the community, advocates say. “Chronic stress can lead to chronic illness — heart trouble, high blood pressure, dementia,” said Terri Morse, director of the Essex County Mental Health Department.
Fear of losing one’s home piggybacks on existing financial worries. Substandard housing can negatively affect self-worth or discourage addicts who are trying to turn their lives around, Morse said. Parents can impart these feelings of unrest to their children.
“Stress can be contagious, and if stressors in caregivers reach a given level, absolutely it can filter down. Any kind of disruption to continuity and stability is going to affect (children’s) well being.”— Terri Morse, director of the Essex County Mental Health Department
Rental properties are so scarce that landlords can be selective. That can shut people with poor credit out of the market, or make them choose between housing and their pets. “If you have two dogs, that’s the kiss of death,” Beers said.
Working class people are pushed into neighborhoods that are farther away, or into undesirable locations and substandard housing where drugs are dealt and carpets are moldy, further endangering health. And their loss is felt by those who remain. “Children aren’t going to school here, people are not shopping here and the tax base declines,” said Andrea Whitmarsh, program coordinator for the health department. “Housing influences literally everything else — education, medical condition — poor housing is a self-perpetuating problem.”
Vulnerable populations are the most exposed — women escaping abusive relationships, families displaced by fire and people with disabilities hoping to leave institutions for independent living.
“Right now we’re having trouble placing anyone outside of group homes,” said Jack Mudge, executive director of Mountain Lake Services in Port Henry. Holding down a job, having a place of one’s own and being a productive member of a community are critical for those with special needs — and increasingly hard to achieve. Without their own place, they often wind up back in an unhealthy family situation that exacerbates their problems.
While inadequate housing has been the topic of studies dating back to the 1990s, the alarms they raised were largely ignored, leaving the area vulnerable when calamity struck. “There has never been a good development plan to reach middle- and low-income individuals,” Mudge said.
Not only does this affect those with disabilities, it affects employees and families of agencies such as Mountain Lake, which helps people with physical and mental challenges, and employs 650 people in Essex County.
In the past, Kristin Millington, assistant director for community services at Mountain Lake, said $800 a month might have been sufficient for a decent, multi-bedroom apartment sufficient for a young family. Now, it only covers a one-bedroom apartment with a small kitchen and bath. “That’s not family living,” she said.
This 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. Click here to help fund community reporting such as this.