In Lake Placid, NY, the Fawn Valley project was developed by a specially formed nonprofit to help people afford homes. When completed, it will house about 50 people in capes and townhomes costing between $180,000 to 220,000. Video by Eric Teed for Adirondack Explorer
Organizations putting people before profits help fill in housing gaps
By Tim Rowland
At the end of the day when they would leave their jobs at Saranac Lake’s Trudeau Institute, Carrie and William White dragged their feet at the thought of going home to their small apartment. Any offer of going out or stopping at a friend’s instead was readily accepted.
They had good jobs with solid pay, but nothing like they needed to afford a home in the Lake Placid area, and the apartment was a constant reminder that the dream of homeownership was out of reach.
“We had a feeling that we were just going to be stuck renting for life,” William said.
And then they got the call. Homestead Development, a Lake Placid nonprofit, was on the line telling them their application for a townhouse had been accepted. They were going to be part of the new Fawn Valley development on Wesvalley Road .
One of the first families to move in, today nothing can keep them from charging straight home after work.
“We had gotten a little bit down, but then we kind of just accepted that maybe (homeownership) is just not for us,” Carrie said. “And then when we got the news, we just looked at each other like, ‘This is really happening for us.’ And so now we can’t wait to come home.”
In the Adirondacks, the Whites’ story is becoming increasingly typical. Middle-class housing is by necessity sidestepping the traditional vectors of real estate listings and homebuilders, which have become the domain of pricey vacation homes and the short-term rental market.
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.
A nontraditional approach to housing
Central to this are nonprofits that are re-imagining housing through creatively funded small developments or rehabs, and also individuals throughout the park who contribute to a solution by selling homes privately for less than they could get on the open market. Companies are increasingly providing housing to entice prospective employees to relocate. Others have created Facebook pages to match off-market buyers, sellers and renters, or even established social circles that share gallows-humor housing stories and buck each other up when the latest lead hits a dead end.
Nontraditional channels are necessary because private investors have shown little interest in the sort of housing that the Adirondacks needs. To take advantage of the economies of scale that makes projects profitable, developments need to be large. But large projects seldom work well in the Adirondacks, with its sparse population and constraints such as a lack of infrastructure or land that’s flat enough and dry enough upon which to build.
“Finding support for small projects is a challenge,” said Lori Bellingham, vice president of community impact for the Adirondack Foundation, which helped fund and rally support for Fawn Valley.
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The “Taking Stock of Housing” series wraps with an event Nov. 1 at The Wild Center in Tupper Lake.
But nonprofits are uniquely positioned to help in ways private and public entities can’t, or won’t. They can raise philanthropic dollars and award grants without the red tape that can make government grants unattainable or subject to lengthy delays.
They also tend to be closer to the communities they serve, and more aware of their individual challenges. Bellingham said that when the Foundation discerned a growing housing crisis in the Adirondacks, it had the flexibility to quickly move the issue to the top of the priority list.
And almost as important as funding is a nonprofit’s stockpile of goodwill and the ability to unite communities behind projects that, were they pitched by government or private developers, might be a harder sell.
After funding, community support is the most important element for an affordable-housing project, advocates agree. These projects are often a complex and delicate blend of public, private and nonprofit resources and without almost universal support they can easily fall apart.
Emily Kilburn-Politi, a North Elba town board member and Homestead Development trustee, said a key to the 22-home Fawn Valley project was the collection of data that proved the need, and presenting the results to the community to generate support.
Unlike what would happen in the private sector, Homestead also asks applicants to write an essay stating what makes a home, and also a community, important to them.
“This isn’t on the free and open market, so when people document to us that they understand what we’re doing, it shows they believe in community,” Kilburn-Politi said. “And then there’s also a component about volunteerism and we love to see when people volunteer because everyone on our board is a big volunteer, and that shows commitment to your community too.”
Help is on the way: Both Meadow
Four affordable cape-style homes in the hamlet of Keene.
Projects that in some way give back to the community increase their odds of success, said Leslie Karasin, Adirondack Program Manager for the Northern Forest Center, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit with the goal of helping Northeastern communities to thrive, said nonprofits are skilled at assembling pools of funding from a variety of sources in order to produce an impactful project.
In Lancaster, N.H., for example, Northern Forest spent two years rehabilitating a dilapidated, 11,000-square-foot commercial building in the heart of town into six apartments and commercial space. “Many people had speculated that it would turn into a parking lot, so this project helped keep the urban fabric and quality of life together,” she said.
Northern Forest is working on a similar project in Tupper Lake, and has its eye on two other Adirondack properties. Karasin said the plan is to establish these housing projects then sell them at market rate back into the private sector, using the proceeds as seed corn for the next project. “It’s a business model that’s been proven to work,” she said.
It also dovetails with the center’s mission of attracting young, energetic people into communities that have been losing this demographic to an alarming degree.
Providing an actual roof
Sometimes nonprofits literally house their employees. Cameron Green is director of interpretation at Fort Ticonderoga and his wife Nicole is director of the nonprofit community advocacy group Pride of Ticonderoga. Both positions represent a high degree of value and involvement to the community, but their move to Ti was only possible because the Fort properties include subsidized housing set aside for staff.
“I would not have been able to accept the position if the Fort hadn’t had housing for our family,” Green said.
Beth Hill, president and CEO of Fort Ticonderoga, said her organization is on the cutting edge of 18th century scholarship and attracts interest from around the world. But to maintain that edge depends on something as basic as shelter.
“Some of the best talent we have on our team wouldn’t have been able to come here if it wasn’t for our housing,” Hill said.
This house in Jay, NY is the first rehabilitation project to be undertaken by the Essex County Land Bank, overseen by Pride of Ticonderoga. Houses like this are referred to as zombie houses and the land bank seeks to bring this and houses like it back to life and to sell them at below market rate to people in need of housing assistance. Video by Eric Teed for Adirondack Explorer
The co-op model
In Lake Placid, nonprofits, a private philanthropist and a group of prospective homeowners — have teamed up to establish a self-governed housing co-op, the details of which are being sorted out by democratic vote.
The project began with a donated parcel of land and a blueprint provided by the Adirondack North Country Association and Cooperative Development Institute of Northampton, Mass.
ANCA Executive Director Elizabeth Cooper said 15 applicants are drawing up governing documents and deciding on what type of housing will suit them best.
The co-op uses economies of scale to achieve affordability, yet offers the opportunity for members to build equity and grow wealth. As with other nonprofit efforts, the organization’s unique ability to marshal multiple forces has been key, and Cooper said she believes it can become a model for future success.
“As this comes into focus, I think yes, we can effect change, but everyone has to step forward,” she said. “I am optimistic that more and more people are going to be taking that step.”
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.