Comprehensive study digs into roots of Adirondacks’ housing issues, offers solutions
By Tim Rowland
The region’s housing market is negatively affecting more than 20,000 households in a four-county region. That’s according to a comprehensive new study that outlines the multiple barriers that stand between people and a place to call home.
The report also suggests 10 policy initiatives to help right the ship, and calls for a regional housing planner to help coordinate agencies and tasks.
To help mitigate this swelling crisis, the report says the North Country will need to add more than 7,500 residential housing units over the next decade.
“We’re not being cavalier about this, these are big, eyebrow-raising numbers,” said Dan Stevens, Director of Real Estate Development Services for Camoin Associates of Saratoga Springs. “They speak to the scale and magnitude of the problem that’s facing this area. The housing issue is one we’re going to have to build ourselves out of to a certain degree.”
But for that to happen, much groundwork needs to be done — some of it daunting — from zoning and regulatory changes to multi-million-dollar infrastructure projects. Even then, something would need to be done to make these homes affordable in a region where the gap between housing costs and income has widened in recent years.
The report, “Building Balanced Communities for the North Country,” was written on behalf of the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board with funding from the Northern Border Regional Commission. The full report will be available by week’s end at lclgrpb.org. Two years in the making, it was unveiled at a gathering of housing advocates at the Westport Golf Course Wednesday evening.
The study area represents a broad swath of the Adirondack Park, including Essex and Hamilton counties — the two counties entirely within the park — along with Clinton and Franklin.
Housing ‘interventions’ needed
The report states that 20,167 households need “housing interventions” because they are paying more than they can afford, live under substandard conditions or have been displaced from the area because they can’t find housing at all.
The causes of the housing shortage are varied, and as such will need multiple strategies to solve, the report notes. There has been little in the way of new single-family-home construction over the past decade, and virtually no “dense” development like apartment complexes, condos or senior living quarters.
Much of the existing housing has also been shifted into the short-term-rental inventory, which skyrocketed during the pandemic. Lake Placid (731) and Saranac Lake (270) have the highest number of STRs, followed by Wilmington (160) and Jay (125).
In these four municipalities, median monthly STR income was generally well in excess of $4,000, far more than a property would generate as a long-term rental.
Also eye-opening is the gap between what housing costs and what people can afford to pay. That gap is most severe in Essex County, median incomes are $80,000 short of what it takes to buy a home.
Rising building costs
Building costs have escalated as well, even as the number of trades workers have steeply declined.
“New home construction in the region generally falls in the range of $250-$350 per square foot, resulting in prices of at least $375,000 to $525,000 for a relatively modest home of 1,500 square feet,” the report states.
The report is also suggestive of how tricky the problem will be to solve. For example, initiatives to expand hamlet boundaries, thereby adding buildable lots, still would require new sewer and water projects that are frequently prohibitively expensive.
To that end, the report indicates that no single program will be effective, and a broad array of agencies, programs and policy shifts will be needed.
Still, some creative solutions, or at least partial solutions, do exist. The report suggests using student teams to build modular homes off-site and transporting them to waiting lots. This has the potential to create more affordable housing while training young people in the trades.
Overall, housing in the Adirondacks has been an issue for years, but the Camoin study depicts a more urgent and far-reaching problem than was previously understood. It also ties housing to the financial future of the region, warning that without new and more affordable housing, the region’s economic health is at risk.
Indeed, the declining Adirondack population is often framed as a lack of employment opportunities, but the report suggests it might be driven more by a lack of places to live.
“The North Country region is facing a severe and growing workforce housing crisis that threatens to further constrain economic growth, negatively impact local workers’ and households’ quality of life, and disrupt the balance between a year-round and seasonal population,” the report states.
Not only is there a shortage of housing, there is also an overall housing structure that is critically out of balance, with a surfeit of people across the demographic spectrum living in homes that don’t fit their needs, including young people living with their parents, families in dilapidated housing and seniors living alone in cavernous houses because there is nowhere else to go.
Even those who can find homes are doing so under burdensome circumstances — paying more than they can afford or living in decrepit homes they don’t have the money to fix up. Nearly a quarter of people in the region are paying more than 30% (the maximum recommended housing allowance) of their income in housing and 10% are spending more than 50%.
“Many of these households must sacrifice other necessities such as heat, food, healthcare, and childcare due to this burden,” the report states.