What’s missing from the housing equation? Infrastructure, such as public sewer systems. And although the price tag is more than small towns can afford, grants are often out of reach
By Tim Rowland
By land mass, the village of Speculator in the Southern Adirondacks is bigger than Buffalo. But instead of Buffalo’s quarter of a million people, Speculator has about 400, which is to say it has room to grow.
Except it can’t take advantage of its size. Some of its territory is state-owned, some is on the side of a mountain, some is underwater. A disconnected, inaccessible, triangular chunk of the village is off by itself near Raquette Lake somewhere, miles from the village proper, because, well, this is the Adirondacks.
But there’s a bigger issue. No one driving through Speculator would call it a wealthy community. So lean is its budget that Speculator Mayor Jeannette Barrett says the village in some areas relies on volunteers to do what is traditionally government work.
But enough wealthy homeowners live on the village’s scenic lake shores to boost Speculator’s Area Median Income to $77,000 — some $13,000 more than Hamilton County as a whole — which in practice disqualifies it from receiving the grants that build the sewer lines that support new home construction.
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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.
So the conundrum is this: Speculator’s population is too small and too poor to pay for sewer — yet, according the the metrics that determine these things, it is too wealthy to need any help.
“We keep running up against rejection after rejection after rejection,” Barrett said. “A lot of it comes down to median income.”
Adirondack housing advocates pretty much agree that density is the key to affordability. Even with incentives such as grants or tax credits, housing projects need a half dozen units or more to be cost effective. But that housing density depends on something the park in general does not have: public sewer systems.
In most Adirondack communities, there aren’t enough potential customers among whom to divide the millions of dollars it takes to dig lines (which planners say can run $2.5 million a mile) and build treatment plants. Only with state and federal grants can these systems be built.
On the face of it, that might seem reason for hope. Thanks to generational government appropriations over the past two years, billions of state and federal dollars are on the table for projects that will have an outsized impact on housing, including transportation, construction, water lines and public sewer.
But the Adirondack Park qualifies for surprisingly little of this motherlode, and North Country officials fear the park is quite likely to be left behind as backhoes and bulldozers break ground in other, more populated and impoverished parts of the state.
“Places like Albany and Rochester will have access to all this money, but these grants have requirements that the Adirondack Park cannot meet,” said Hannah Neilly, a grant administrator for Essex County, the second largest county in the state and one of two entirely within the park. “The Adirondack Park itself should count for something, and the state needs to realize that.”
This is a growing refrain, that the Adirondacks’ worth and its needs transcend the representation that comes with 123,000 full-time residents. The park has great value to the state for its ecology, open spaces and carbon sequestration, but these attributes score no points on grant rubrics, and in some cases actually hurt. Instead, these formulas give weight to things the park does not have, like minority populations, dirty environments, dense residential neighborhoods and even access to American-made steel.
Grants out of reach
“We used to get every grant we tried for,” said Anna Reynolds, director of Essex County’s department of community services. “All we had to do for a CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) was ask. Now we’re not eligible at all.”
Evolving guidelines are in theory designed to make grants more fair, awarded on the basis of data points instead of political connections. But however well-intentioned, these metrics make communities in the Adirondack Park all but invisible to Albany computers.
In particular, U.S. Census data, which drive grant applications, are not friendly to the Adirondacks in two key areas: population and wealth. From 2000 to 2022, when remote-workers were fleeing the cities and virtually every available home in the Adirondacks was sold, Census modeling estimated that Essex County actually lost almost 400 residents.
While highly suspect, such a counterintuitive scenario is not entirely impossible: Rural areas across America have been losing population for years, and that’s been the trend in the Adirondacks as well. And unlike colleges, which can count “full-time equivalency,” the Census counts population based on what is effectively a person’s home base.
So in its most granular form, if a person spends 51% of the year in Hoboken and 49% of the year in, say, Speculator in southern Hamilton County, it is New Jersey that will receive 100% of the grant-related benefit that population affords.
Grants are intended to capture poorer rural areas by taking income into account, but to a computer program, the Adirondacks is rural, but not poor at all. Wealthy people who can afford valuable lakefront property or great mountain estates can mask the existence of rural poor by inflating AMI.
Essex County— an attractive landing spot for wealthy retirees — has similar demographics to Allegany County on New York’s southern border, yet Essex’s AMI is nearly $10,000 higher than Allegany’s, and its poverty rate is 2% lower than the state as a whole.
The real-world effect of this is evident in the state’s Environmental Bond Act, which is primed to hand out $4.2 billion to a broad array of projects, including public utilities. More than a third of this money is targeted for “disadvantaged communities,” but officials in Essex County — home to faded industrial communities like Witherbee, Mineville, Port Henry and Au Sable Forks — were stunned to learn that, based on state criteria, they didn’t have any communities that were considered to be disadvantaged.
The closest it came was the hamlet of Keeseville, but to add insult to injury, “disadvantaged” status was only awarded only to the north side of the hamlet that’s across the Ausable River — in Clinton County.
“We know it’s a problem, and we’re trying to find a solution,” said Maureen Coleman, president and CEO of New York Environmental Facilities Corporation, a bank of sorts that provides funding and technical assistance to municipalities, businesses and state agencies for environmental and public health projects.
Coleman said Adirondack communities should not be discouraged from applying, and remain eligible under state guidelines. She said communities that believe they have been wronged have the opportunity to prove the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
That’s happened in Moriah and Elizabethtown, where income numbers were successfully challenged, but the process isn’t easy, and involves going door-to-door to verify income in an age when residents are wary of government representatives and, according to Neilly, prone to inflate their income as a matter of pride.
A data disconnect
The problem, said Leslie Karasin, Adirondack program manager for the Northern Forest Center, is that “sewer districts and Census districts don’t line up.” Census tracts generally have a minimum of 1,200 people, far in excess of an average hamlet in need of a sewer grant that would allow denser, and more affordable housing. So the tract, geographically, reaches out into less populated areas, capturing wealthy estates in the process.
That happened in Au Sable Forks, which didn’t qualify for a utility grant because it was, according to a computer program, too rich — a revelation that would come as news to most of the people living there.
In truth, hamlets have poorer populations because that’s where most of the (relatively) affordable housing is located, said Jay Supervisor Matt Stanley. Wealthier newcomers want unspoiled, forested views and are generally uninterested in hamlets, he said.
That means that the financial burden of sewers falls on the relative handful of people in the hamlet’s sewer district, making housing costs more expensive than they already are.
The irony, said Minerva Supervisor Steve McNally, is that higher income homes inside the Census district but outside the sewer district, won’t have to share in these higher costs, putting an even greater burden on those who can least afford to pay.
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And population and income are not the only headwinds to government grant money that could make Adirondack housing more affordable.
Reynolds said the grant metrics that choose winners and losers have become more targeted and complex, and the more narrow the constraints, the less the Adirondacks qualifies.
An obvious example is minority populations, which are important to grant metrics, but which the Adirondacks does not have. Grants are also understandably targeted to communities that are experiencing the greatest environmental threats — which does no good to a region that prides itself on its pristine forests and rivers.
To illustrate, Reynolds’ office compared two water systems, one in Albany, a $35 million project with 98,000 users among whom to share the costs, the other in the Ttwn of Essex, a $4 million project with 177 users.
Both qualify for state Water Infrastructure Improvement grants. But even though the 177 users in Essex would encounter a far greater financial burden based on raw numbers, it is the Albany project that gets far more help. Albany is eligible for hardship, environmental justice, disadvantaged communities, federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and state bond-act grants — funding for which Essex does not qualify.
The bottom line, Albany’s users are responsible for only $11.80 of the project’s debt load, while Essex users will pay $1,876.
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The sewer, housing connection
The sewer systems that are so crucial for affordable housing are problematic in other ways as well. Many towns won’t consider public sewers in the first place, because the initial outlay is just the beginning. Water-treatment standards are continually changing, and state-mandated upgrades to existing systems can leave a handful of residents on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars more, before the loans from the initial system have been paid. Public sewer is unlikely in the Town of Keene, because “It would bury any hope of people in Keene to keep their homes,” said Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson.
As housing advocates increasingly agree that hamlets are a key — perhaps the only key — to affordable housing, it is the lack of sewer that stops most projects before they start.
Wilmington Supervisor Roy Holzer said his central hamlet could have had more housing, or maybe a hotel, with public sewer, but studies have shown it to be cost prohibitive, and his town is wary of the debt.
But Holzer said this fiscal conservatism works against the Adirondacks too, because grant metrics in a sense penalize responsible government; towns with less debt and no environmental violations are less likely to get help.
These changing and more complex metrics have also made grants more accessible to big governments with big staffs. Reynolds is bemused when teams of Albany lawyers will ask to speak to Essex County’s legal “team.” (Essex’ team consists of County Attorney Dan Manning.)
Grants, historically, had not been about lawyers and numbers, they had been about personal relationships and political clout. But an effort to take politics out of the equation has shifted the politics rather than eliminated it.
State politicians want big projects that will allow them to take credit for impressive numbers of new homes. That burned Essex County, said town of Essex Supervisor Ken Hughes, when it tried to get a state grant to rehab a zombie house into affordable housing. The application was rejected, he said, because even though it would have been meaningful to an Adirondack family, “It wasn’t enough bang for the buck.”
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.