Consultants reveal initial findings to Adirondack communities
By Tim Rowland
Multiple factors are contributing to the Adirondack housing crisis, but signs of trouble can conceivably be traced to the housing crash and subsequent financial meltdown in 2008, according to a new analysis by a Saratoga Springs economic development firm.
Camoin Associates is studying the housing market in Clinton, Essex, Hamilton and Franklin counties on behalf of the Lake George-Lake Champlain Regional Planning Commission. The group is currently visiting the four counties to present the findings to interested parties and collect community input. The last in the series will be held Monday in Moriah (Essex County).
At the Franklin County meeting last week at Paul Smith’s College VIC, Dan Stevens, director of real estate development services for Camoin, said that housing construction in the North Country took a dive in the second decade of the new century.
From 2001 to 2010, the four counties added an average of 607 new units to its housing inventory each year. But from 2011 to 2020, these housing starts dropped 39%. “The Great Recession happens and housing construction never really bounces back,” Stevens said.
So when the pandemic hit — an event that escalated housing prices beyond the reach of many workers — the North Country housing market was already in a weakened position.
“Long term rental units are in incredibly short supply, and one of the reasons is that new ones are not being built,” Stevens said.
Some of the forces that have affected Adirondack housing are typical of trends nationwide, but some are not. For example, Stevens said one stat that stands out is that the four counties lost 25% of their carpenters and electricians from 2011 to 2022.
Even if developers wanted to build, indications are that they lacked the skilled labor to do so. “How do you address the housing crunch when there aren’t enough workers to do the job?” Stevens said.
Another hurdle is the growing gap between wages and housing costs. In the five years between 2015 and 2020, median wages were up 14% while median housing prices were up 28%. “It’s not hard to pull the story out of this one. There’s a growing affordability gap.”– Dan Stevens, director of real estate development services for Camoin
The numbers also confirm that real estate was a particularly hot commodity during the pandemic. Sales in the North Country counties studied were relatively stable through 2019, but in 2020 “Sales began to skyrocket,” Stevens said. “Most (of the demand) was coming from people outside the region who wanted to come here because of the high quality of life.”
The demand also drove property into the realm of much maligned but economically important short-term rentals, which box out year-around workers from the housing market.
As demand drove up prices, the local workforce was forced to spend more of its household budget on housing and/or move further away from their jobs.
Eighty percent of low-income renters are spending in excess of 30% of their income on housing, leaving less for other necessities such as food, medicine, clothes and heat.
Meanwhile, said Jeremy Evans, CEO of the Franklin Economic Development Corporation, service jobs in Lake Placid are being filled by people living in Malone, more than 50 miles to the north, a commute that requires lots of time and gas.
With public and private assistance, some worker housing is being built in Lake Placid, but members of the audience noted that few contractors, left to their own devices, want to build workforce housing, because there’s no money in it. Stevens agreed. With today’s cost of labor and materials, “you can’t build a house close to a workforce housing price point,” he said.
That fact, Evan said, morphed the housing crisis into a labor crisis. Many employers are reporting that new hires never spend Day 1 on the job because they can’t find a place to live. “After failing to find adequate housing, they have to decline the job,” he said.
Audience members also noted that the Adirondacks is different from the nation as a whole in that half the land is owned by the state and protected from development, while much of the private land is zoned for light development. That means that much of the land that can legally be developed already has been, leaving contractors with little place to build.
Expanding hamlets — where it’s easier to build — might be a way to help, audience members said.
Participants in the forum were encouraged to vote on a list of proposed solutions presented by Camoin. Alexandra Tranmer, director of strategic planning, said the most popular offerings were programs to assist with the renovations of existing housing units, limitation on short-term rentals and public investment in infrastructure to support housing development projects.
These proposals coincide with some existing if nascent Adirondack initiatives, including local STR regulations, a land bank in Essex County that would rehabilitate some properties seized for nonpayment of taxes, and a project in Wilmington that is parlaying a utility grant into a small subdivision.
Solutions that weren’t as popular included assistance for employer-built housing and deed restrictions to steer properties into permanent, long-term housing. While not as well-known in the East, Tranmer said deed restrictions have proved popular in Rocky Mountain resort towns.
Camoin will release an analysis and narrative of findings in 2023, Tranmer said.
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