Essex County considering land bank as one way to address problem
By Tim Rowland
An Essex County housing task force is moving to create a state-sanctioned land bank whose job would be to rehab blighted properties into affordable housing.
The task force will iron out the details, including how that land bank would be structured, staffed and funded, and then introduce it as a resolution to the county board, which would be responsible for final approval.
The task force has been working since last summer, studying land banks, but also other strategies for affordable housing to combat a market where values are soaring, and existing homes are morphing from full-time residences to short-term rentals.
The task force has listened to local advocacy groups and leaders of land banks in other parts of the state to gauge whether such an entity can be fitted to a sparsely populated Adirondack county.
“We’ve listened to enough podcasts and zoom meetings, I think it’s time for us to begin the application process.”— Housing task force chair and Lewis Supervisor Jim Monty
Speaking last week, Monty said the county, if the full board agrees, will apply to the state for a land-bank slot on its own, rather than in conjunction with other North Country counties, as was initially discussed.
If successful, it would be the first land bank to be fully contained within the Adirondack Park. The Greater Mohawk Valley Land Bank Corporation touches the southwestern Adirondacks, but its work is primarily focused south of the park.
Ken Hughes, a task force member and Essex supervisor, said the land bank would ideally operate independently, but with direction from the county. The land bank would work with properties that have fallen to the county for non-payment of taxes.
Typically, the county annually sells these properties at auction, but due to the Covid-related moratorium on foreclosures, the sale hasn’t been held in more than two years. But the county is not bound to put the properties on the auction block, and could hold back a few that it believes would be good candidates for affordable housing.
Essex County Realtors say that, contrary to what might be expected, there will not be a flood of properties remanded to the county or banks as the foreclosure moratorium is lifted. That’s because the rising values and strong demand have bailed out homeowners who had fallen behind in their payments, allowing them to sell or refinance.
According to Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava, another idiosyncrasy of the tax sale is that the same properties tend to show up at auction again and again. He said this could be due to unscrupulous buyers buying them for a song, renting them for a year and then abandoning them, or from well-intentioned people underestimating the cost of fixing them up.
Under the most likely scenario, the county hopes to eventually partner with private contractors to do the work, and sell to low- to moderate-wage earners. Proceeds from the sale would pay the contractor and also provide funding for additional projects.
“We’re looking to help people who want to live here year round and have their own home, but don’t make a lot of money.”Ken Hughes, Essex supervisor
An indicator of the Adirondack housing problem was on display earlier in the meeting, when a supervisors’ economic development committee approved a tax incentive for a workforce housing project where eligible households can earn up to $108,000 for certain units.
That’s far above what is paid to service industry, or even municipal employees, Hughes said, who work hard but have few housing options. “The market is up against them,” he said.
Veteran Jay Realtor Mike Straight, speaking to a March meeting of the Au Sable River Valley Business Association, agreed. “Local kids without professional jobs can afford a house that’s $120,000 to $130,000, but that market’s been missing here for years,” he said. “It’s gone, and frankly I see no fix for it.”
That has pushed the Adirondack service workforce further from their jobs, some having to go as far as Plattsburgh or Malone to find a place they can afford.
This exodus has exacerbated an already tight job market. A second Essex County task force, created at the same time as the group studying housing, is trying to solve its hiring and retention problems. Since the pandemic, about 10% of county positions have gone unfilled.
“The two big issues we need to focus on are jobs and housing, and they are inextricably linked,” Hughes said.
Deputy County Manager Mike Mascarenas said a land bank would have a parallel benefit of removing blighted properties from Adirondack hamlets, many of which have been eyesores for years. A land bank could potentially bulldoze these structures and sell the lot, or partner with a contractor to rebuild.
Buildable space is at a premium, since conservation regulations prohibit development on a majority of Adirondack lands. In Keene, for example, town officials frequently note that just about every piece of ground where development is allowed has already been developed.
Mascarenas said there is urgency to act now, not just because of the tax auction, but because the county is in an unusual situation where it has extra cash, courtesy of the American Recovery Program Act. The county received $7 million in stimulus and could use some of it to seed the land bank.
The land bank would be only one part of a multi-pronged approach to add affordable housing in the county’s 18 towns.
Lake Placid developers are in the process of adding about 400 new homes in three separate projects, a state-backed apartment building is being discussed for Ticonderoga and Wilmington is in the process of parlaying a sewer grant into a small neighborhood where land and utilities will be provided, thus lowering the cost of houses.
While a land bank hasn’t been tried in a rural New York county, officials believe there is enough “low hanging fruit” to be converted into affordable housing for a reasonable cost. Hughes said the process will likely be incremental and to some degree experimental, but “I still remain very optimistic; I think we’re going to be trend setters.”