Middle-class residents cut off from affordable homes
By Tim Rowland
A scarcity of long-term and a surfeit of short-term rentals, escalating home costs and diminishing housing opportunities for average workers were all part of a now-familiar landscape, this one painted by a new housing report written on behalf of Warren County.
Warren County is on the southeastern edge of the park, and its storied Adirondack holdings include Lake George, Gore Mountain Ski Center and the upper Hudson River. It also includes remote Adirondack parkland, but also suburban Queensbury and the city of Glens Falls.
But these assets also create what planners call an “amenity trap,” which attracts tourists, vacationers and second-homeowners, who pump considerable money into the economy, but also create shortages of residential housing and the workers of limited means.
“While many of the housing issues that Warren County is facing are not unique, its geographic location and internal variation (of community sizes) certainly are,” the report states.
The study, prepared by Novogradac of Bethesda, Md., indicated that many middle-class residents cannot afford the typical $300,000 home in Warren County. Their ranks include the backbone of the community: teachers, health care and social services providers, construction workers, police officers, sales staff, farmers, foresters and hospitality staff.
At a presentation to county supervisors on Tuesday, Novogradac analyst Julia Smith said there are strong indicators of a housing shortage in Warren County, which occurs when less than 5% of the housing stock is empty. In Warren County the vacancy rate is 3.6%, and for long-term rentals it’s .4%. People looking for an apartment at some complexes have to wait up to five years, according to Novogradac’s research.
The county’s official vacancy rate is more than 27%, but that’s because so many housing units are short-term rentals or vacation homes which count as “vacant” for census purposes. (A small percentage of homes are vacant because they are in disrepair.)
This tabulation quirk – counting seasonal homes as vacant – can hurt in an additional way, as they tend to discourage investors from building in the community. “They might see 27% and say, ‘whoa that’s really high’ and walk away,” Smith said.
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Warren County, like the rest of the Adirondacks, saw a prodigious increase in short-term rentals, up 58% between 2020 and 2023. STRs can eat into existing housing stock, as they are more lucrative than long-term rentals that serve the workforce. “Essentially you can make twice as much money per month,” she said.
Still, she said, caps and moratoriums on STRs don’t always work, as limiting them doesn’t appear to lower housing prices, and it penalizes people who want to rent out a room just to make ends meet.
STR landlords in locales where caps have been tried have gotten pretty clever to avoid them, including marketing them on dark websites or treating them not as an STR but a sublease.
Smith said it might make more sense to levy higher fees on STRs and use the revenue to fund affordable-housing projects such as land banks or housing trusts. “Those strategies have been more successful than blanket moratoriums,” she said.
The report also recommends adding to the housing supply through the use of incentives, targeting “gaps” in inventory that exist in, for example, smaller homes for seniors and young people just starting out.
It also advocates adding to a form of housing known as the “missing middle” housing stock that is denser than single-family homes and smaller than apartment buildings, such as duplexes or townhomes.
To do this often requires change in zoning laws in neighborhoods that only allow for single-family homes.
In accepting the report, supervisors said they are open to solutions, while noting the difficulties involved. “We’d all like to encourage more affordable housing,” said Queensbury Supervisor John Strough. “But saying it is easier than doing it.”