In Saranac Lake and around the Adirondacks, rise of short-term rentals mean fewer choices for residents
By Mike De Socio
Open up the popular house-hunting site Zillow and search for rentals in Saranac Lake. You might, as I did on a recent search, come up with a surprising answer: “No matching results. Try changing your search.” In other words: No available apartments here; move along.
Maybe try a different site. Fire up HotPads and do the same search. “No listings found.” Trulia? “Unfortunately, there are no available homes in Saranac Lake, NY.” Facebook Marketplace? A few listings in nearby Lake Placid or Wilmington pop up, but again, nothing in Saranac Lake.
This confounding process has greeted many residents in recent months as the real estate market in the Adirondacks has been dominated by a pandemic-fueled migration and growth in vacation rentals such as those listed by Airbnb or VRBO. The effects might be most visible in home purchases, where sale prices have gone up by as much as 40% in some areas. But the impact is also being felt by renters in the region who are struggling to find affordable places to live.
“It’s a problem that is very front and center for a lot of communities, and certainly for Saranac Lake,” said Melinda Little, a village trustee.
The struggle is real: Three experiences
The Adirondack Explorer spoke with a number of residents in the region who have struggled with this very problem. Below are stories from three of them:
Rising rent prices
The median rent in Franklin County for a three-bedroom apartment — $1,086 — has gone up by 10 percent since 2019, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data. In Essex County, three-bedroom median rent has increased 5 percent since 2019, now reaching $1,246.
Those numbers may not seem drastic, but Little and local residents say the lack of affordable rental housing in the area is a combination of many factors that have been building for years. Historic, aging buildings are expensive to maintain. There is little remaining land available to build new housing in the village. And an increasing presence of short-term rental units is crowding out residents.
“There’s so many pressures that are making it really difficult for anybody to find decent places to live that aren’t over the sky in terms of price,” Little said.
This phenomenon is playing out far beyond the Tri-Lakes area. Town officials in Old Forge, Elizabethtown and Hague all said high property turnover and a growing inventory of vacation rentals during the pandemic are putting pressure on the local housing supply.
David Berkstresser, supervisor for the Town of Webb, which includes the Old Forge hamlet, said the pandemic has transformed many of the town’s apartments into more profitable short-term rentals, making it hard for residents to find year-round rentals.
“We’re suffering the same as the rest of them,” Berkstresser said.
Working toward solutions
Little, the village trustee, has been focused on housing issues since she was first elected three years ago. Some of the efforts have been stalled due to the pandemic, but Little said these are some of the recommendations her working group has been discussing:
- Creating local programs to assist homeowners with repairs. Little said the condition of older multi-family homes in the village is a serious issue. Providing financial assistance could help more property owners take on renovations of these historic homes. “There’s some willingness on the part of local banks to be more helpful in this area,” Little said.
- Developing a land bank. The village is in the early stages of creating a local land bank, Little said, which would have the power to seize so-called “zombie properties” and find a means to rehabilitate them.
- Encouraging development of vacant parcels. Little admits there aren’t many of these left in the village. But she points to a new affordable housing development on Broadway as a model for the type of housing the village should try to build more of. “That is going to be a really, really nice development,” Little said. (A similar development is in the works in Lake Placid, too.)
- Registering (and potentially regulating) short-term rentals. The rise of vacation units has happened too quickly for the village to keep up. The village board wants to create a tracking and permitting system for short-term rentals to get a better handle on the situation. Others have advocated for further regulation or taxes, similar to the approach Lake Placid has taken.
The regulation of short-term rentals, however, could also harm long-time residents who use the platforms to supplement their income and afford their homes. One of those, Mary Bartel, lives in a home on Broadway in Saranac Lake that also includes her yoga business and two short-term rental efficiencies. She says the Airbnb income allows her to continue running her business. And while she’s already registered with the county and paying bed taxes, she says she would prefer not to see an additional permit cost.
Ultimately, figuring out a way to solve these issues is a matter of preserving Saranac Lake as a place where families can settle down. Otherwise, the village could be dominated by second-homeowners and short-term tourists.
“People want to be here, but they can’t find anything to rent, so they get completely discouraged and don’t end up staying here,” Little said.