Sunday, May 2, 2021

Housing in the Adirondack region: one crisis away from crumbling

House fire adirondacksBy Alexis Subra, Membership & Events Coordinator, Adirondack North Country Association

The COVD-19 Era is not the first time a large crisis spurred an affordable housing shortage in the North Country. From pandemics to terrorist attacks, communities across the Adirondack Park have felt the economic shockwaves of global events. As a region, as long as we remain passive towards the issue of accessible housing and the negative impacts it has on our workforce, we will always be one crisis away from crumbling our economy.

Why is housing on my mind? 

I am one of the many individuals who moved (back) to the area during the COVID-19 pandemic. I drove my overpacked SUV across the country and started a new job based out of Saranac Lake in March of 2020. I tried to line up housing before the cross-country move, but my efforts were unfruitful as places came and went in a blink of an eye. I and everyone else was trying to move out of a city.

Thankfully, I grew up in the Adirondacks and my parents live here, so I had a place to land while I continued my search. For ten months I looked high and low for an affordable apartment. I could not believe what places were going for, as the race to the Adirondacks continued as COVID-19 waged on. I saw it all, from basement dungeons to ridiculously expensive apartments that would take 75% of my income. After months of hunting, I settled on an affordable decent option in my hometown that happens to be a 114-mile round trip trek to my office. Yikes.

My experience is not an isolated incident. At the moment, I can name ten individuals and families off the top of my head in the Adirondacks who are currently seeking housing and can not find an affordable decent option.

This is the second time that I have experienced housing “insecurity” in the Adirondacks due to a mixture of a larger crisis and competition with seasonal vacation rentals.

My childhood home located in the Adirondack Park burned down on a frigid January night in 2001. Our family of five was able to secure temporary housing until the summer. Come June, our place was used as a seasonal vacation rental. My parents earnestly searched for a long-term option, but they could not compete with the summer rates. Out of desperation, my dad prepared the septic tank in the backyard of our burnt-down house so we could live in our motorhome. Glamorous, I know!

Thankfully my parents were able to purchase a vacant farmhouse, so our motorhome stint was short-lived. At the time, the motorhome seemed much more attractive than the haunted house my parents informed me was our new home. This decrepit property was the only option for our middle-class family, as the horrific events that happened on September 11, 2001, caused the housing market to skyrocket in the North Country.

How does affordable housing affect the health of the local economy? 

The North Country region housing market is already competitive, as second homeowners can often outbid local residents, and rental options are increasingly being converted into short-term properties. If we look at the last twenty years, I don’t think it is wrong to assume there is a trend developing here; when a crisis hits, people want to move to more rural areas, i.e. the Adirondack Park. Now that we are facing the beginning effects of climate change, the frequency of crises will continue to increase with time, and history will repeat itself. A disaster will occur, people will want to move to this region, the housing market will go up, and more people will be displaced.

Some might read this and argue, “housing options should go to people who have the highest purchasing power.” This perspective does not account for the nature of the economy in our region. A large percentage of jobs here are not high-yielding professions. If housing continues to be inaccessible, our community members and workforce will not be able to stay here. Who will cash you out at Stewart’s if housing prices continue to increase? Who will work for your municipal highway department and plow the roads in January if there are no affordable housing options? Who will clean vacation rentals, run local hotels, or restaurants if housing is not within a reasonable commute?

This last year has taught us many lessons, including the need to localize our economy to become more resilient. To do that, we need to ensure that we have a local workforce, which is only achievable if there are affordable housing options. Collectively as a region, we need to take a closer look at the housing needs of all people of all income levels. We can neither afford to lose our current local population nor shut the border at the Blue Line.

As we slowly recover from COVID-19, we need to create a housing plan before the next crisis hits.

Photo: The night of the Sabras’ house fire it was a blustery -25 degree Adirondack winter night before wind chill. This photo was taken inside the house a few days afterwards.  

Editor’s note: This first ran in ANCA’s “What’s up North” blog: https://www.adirondack.org/whatsupnorth

 

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Guest Contributor

The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at [email protected]




33 Responses

  1. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    The lack of affordable housing was one of the problems identified by Preserve the Adirondacks a couple of years ago.

    I am not aware of solutions to date.

    One idea which was outlined was for Adirondack communities was to emulate the Vermont program which has been very successful in matching able young people who are willing to assist elders with elders who are willing to offer housing and who need help with domestic chores. I don’t know why this excellent idea has not gained traction.

    I will offer another thought, I think that many communities believe that they are too small to promote affordable housing projects. That said, communities at the town and country level could join forces to have housing built.

    Affordable housing is important across the boards, but particularly for young working people who we need so much. In that regard, newer environmentally efficient designs would be most helpful.

    I certainly am no expert in this department, but I hope that the experts will coordinate efforts to create solutions.

  2. Shane M Sloan says:

    It’s disgusting and disturbing to see what the Adirondacks and a certain swath of America has become. The settlers got in a boat with no promises at the other end and made a nation. Now we let a despotic set of governors and media fool us into thinking we need them to save us. This is not how the park was built nor how it flourished. The only thing gained by a handout is the chance to wait for the next handout. If you can’t live the Adirondack life, it’s time to learn or find a nice Democrat “run” city. They love it when people beg.

    • Joan Grabe says:

      Your compassion is astounding ! In recent times when has the Adirondacks “flourished “ ? We have an inadequate housing supply, food insufficiency, a child care desert, a declining population to mention only a few deficits and the most innovative solutions and proposals are coming from the non profit organizations which have taken up the fight ! They are local, they understand the problems and they work very hard because they don’t have to work for re-election every 2 years or so like politicians. You should look at the work that has been done by non profits during this Covid year and give thanks !

      • Shane M Sloan says:

        Thank you for your talking points. Your ideology is exactly what I was talking about. There were no handouts when the park was economically viable. People worked. Back then, they cut trees and knew how to do things. We have the internet, now. Figure it out before the clowns from the cities come in and ruin the park like they ruin everything else. Wait. I’ve got it. Certain people are only environmentally conscious until money is involved.

        • Dana says:

          Ah yes – days of yore! If only we had a WayBack machine!

          We can wait for those days to return, or attempt to shape the future.

        • Ethan says:

          Someone better versed in history can back me up on this, but I’m pretty sure that many of the original settlers of Long Lake were given land just for showing up. Sounds like a handout to me!

  3. Sher says:

    This is notable and sorry situation, but truly, not new. Not new since the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and on, and on, and on. I hope your message reaches the people who can create change.

  4. JB says:

    I think that everybody these days is trying to prognosticate upon how to best “support our economy”. That is probably natural in crisis times. But it seems like we have been in one perpetual crisis that “needs solving” for a long time now, and all of the measures to increase economic growth have just left us hungry for more. There are many proponents of various brands of economic promises who share only their common difference. But we forget that economics is far from a science.

    Kudos for voicing what many Park residents have known for fifty years–demand consistently outstrips supply. On the other hand, I think that framing the solution as this article has is an oversimplification. The way I see it, the region suffers from being too attractive, not the other way around. It would be nice to think that more housing would make the region a more affordable and equitable place to live, but I have seen that very philosophy turned on its head by real-world outcomes throughout the Northeast. Building more amenities, especially in the Adirondacks, means further long-term gentrification and, if it has not happened in places already, a vicious cycle of runaway local government growth feeding into increasing costs and commodification. In fact, this scenario, which is playing itself out constantly across small-town America, illustrates why places in which we strive to limit development, like the Park, are so important. If we want to tackle problems of inequality because it is ideologically justified, then that is fine, but we would need to do that from the top down, not the ground up. Who remembers that forgone era from back when the guy who wanted to build the resort was the villain? Now he has somehow become the hero, and no one dares question that. We have floated away clinging to our lofty ideals. Sadly, I have since become weary of anyone with a mission.

  5. Allan says:

    Another cause of the shortage of affordable housing is remote work which allows higher paid workers to live anywhere. Construction materials have increased in cost substantially, so new affordable housing will not be built by the private sector, so government subsidized apartments seem like the only likely possible solution, unless the pay for the the service jobs increases enough to meet the new housing costs. The latter also assumes that there are currently enough housing units to meet the need which there probably are not.
    I live in the mid-Hudson valley where housing costs in my town over the last year have gone up 34%, so we are suffering some of the same problems as those inside the blue line.
    I’ve camped in the Adirondacks most summers for the last 53 years.

  6. Alan Fisher says:

    The wave didn’t only hit the Adirondack Park. Throughout New York, if not the entire country prices have jumped one hundred percent and more for building supplies as the demand outruns the supply. This looks more like a depression that a recession as many people struggle to make home repairs as already high tax increases loom. If covid 19 was coincident, it has certainly proven to be a crippler. Coming out of this time with hope of a better tomorrow will be something like balancing a rock on the tip of a ball point pen. But then why would anybody try that in the first place. Thoughtful common sense will prevail with God’s infinite help.

  7. Anita Dingman says:

    Housing in my little Adirondack foothills town used to be affordable for the locals. Then, two real estate firms from NY city moved in and city people started moving in. These people thought our prices were a great deal. Prices went up so locals had a hard time affording a house. Many, like my husband and myself (and many of his mill co-workers), built their own homes. That was the only way we could afford a new house. Around that time, the APA and zoning started (city people didn’t want someone with chickens or other farm animals or a trailer near their house). Now, you can’t build a cellar and live in it for a year or so while building the upper part-like my husband and I did. You need it to be finished and get the OK from a building inspector before you can move in. That has made it even more difficult for the less affluent to find housing. The mill and other industries that paid a decent wage have closed. Many jobs are minimum wage and involve at least 50 miles or more round trip travel-people need a car (another big expense) to get there since most small towns don’t have bus service. I had to drive 3/4 of hour one way to my job. Try that during one of our blizzards.

    • Brian says:

      Thank you for writing that. I hope that it is very widely read.

    • Stan says:

      You are correct. One exception: our grandparents and parents often had to drive 60-80 miles round trip for work and shopping in the Adirondacks. In blizzards far worse, in cars far worse, on treacherous dirt roads. It seems to me the differences are in the communities, which have changed from year round homes to 3rd homes. Most of this has been explored in these thoughtful comments.

  8. Wells Palmiter says:

    Are Airbnb’s and similar rental companies adding to the housing problem in the Adirondacks? People have found that they can make considerably more $$ with weekly and 3 day rentals, rather than renting to a person or family that intends to live and work here. While weekly rentals have always existed in the region, the lure of placing your property on Airbnb and other types of rental companies is growing.
    “While the introduction and expansion of Airbnb into cities around the world carries large potential economic benefits and costs, the costs to renters and local jurisdictions likely exceed the benefits to travellers and property owners.”- Forbes Magazine

  9. Bert says:

    Of course NY is crumbling to the ground . That’s what happens when you elect greedy , self serving , immoral , twisted freaks to public office.

  10. Patrick Munn says:

    “… In fact, this scenario, which is playing itself out constantly across small-town America, illustrates why places in which we strive to limit development, like the Park, are so important.”…. and because of this prices for living here will continue to rise. Supply vs demand. Pure economics.

  11. This article is so true and I am sure every town, including mine is living with the same problem. This housing problem affects every aspect of our communities. The schools are getting smaller not only because people are having fewer children, but also because people can’t find housing for their families. I do not know the solution. I did note that Tupper Lake is turning the old OWD into housing so maybe there is something to be learned from how that transaction surfaced. It is usually enlightening to look around and see what others have done.

  12. Sally L Wachowski says:

    Exactly what we are experiencing for our son. He moved from North Hudson to Lake Placid and looking for a house has been incredibly crazy. Prices are out of sight! We have watched dumps go for $170,000 – places I wouldn’t let my dog go in let alone my son!

  13. Zephyr says:

    Obviously, they are many reasons housing costs are high, but there seems to be a disconnect between the fact of population decline and the fact of high housing costs. Doesn’t the loss of population mean those people move out of housing? Shouldn’t that drive down prices? Apparently that is not happening because of tourism (rentals and Air BnBs), second home owners, and the fact that people are moving out of places that are not near jobs (or there aren’t jobs near where there are homes).

    • Zephyr says:

      As usual, I found a good article on this in the Explorer: https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/stories/housing-crunch-limits-adirondack-economy

      It doesn’t help, but this story is the same in every popular resort area around the country. Businesses that want employees often need to purchase housing for those employees, but that further pushes prices up for everyone.

      • JB says:

        Zephyr, property values in the Park have really shot up stratospherically since the 1970s, when the everyone wanted to develop and the APA needed to be formed–much more so than in other places in the country. There are many businesses that have closed for that reason. It doesn’t make sense to continue owning a small, 50-year old shop on a lakefront property that is now worth over $500,000. This is the price that we pay in order to prevent the kind of sprawling development that has been spreading throughout the country for the past 30 years, as public perception about the importance of preserving small-town life and rural areas has turned from positive to negative.

        There are countless places throughout the developed world, not often mentioned, where pre-existing communities carry on in environmentally protected places: National Forests throughout the US; Provincial Parks and treaty lands in Canada; wilderness preserves in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia; National Parks in China; and so on. But I have never seen the kind of development pressures, or lash-back from limits on development, that we have seen and continue to see in the Adirondack Park. I chock it up to a critical mass of regional groups who, by virtue of local cultural trends and ideology, increasingly see development as a panacea for larger social inequalities regardless of the greater good incurred thus far by limiting development.

        Despite what many are saying, what I have seen, and what some others in these comments have suggested as well, is that habitation in my area of the Park is increasing and has been for the past several years. Many people would say that this is an anomaly and communities are “dying”, but, as you say, that does not square up with the reality of the lack of vacant housing. Second-home owners fleeing from COVID are indeed moving in for the long haul, but I am also seeing new development and renovations. One theory that I have is that the “back-to-nature” movement of the past couple of decades that has increased the numbers of hikers so dramatically has also gave rise to many plans to develop private properties that we are now seeing incrementally come to fruition, despite being in the works for years. Those houses, and any other nice houses being put on the market, are being filled relatively quickly.

        Even if massive housing developments were constructed, in hamlets as per the APLUDP, I do not think that it would be enough to meet demand and bring down prices. At best, we would end up with the next Aspen or Lake Tahoe on our hands. The reality is that the capacity of the private in-holdings within the Park to buffer an influx of people just isn’t very robust relative to other places. That is why we are “one crisis away from crumbling”. But contrary to some, I see this as a fundamentally positive sign. The dearth of vacant housing in the Park is “a feature, not a bug”–a small price to pay in relation to the benefits wrought in the long run. But, alas, it is all too easy, in our current society, to only focus on the subjective here and now.

  14. Raymond Saint-Pierre says:

    And to think that 50 years ago the Adirondacks were a nuclear strike zone and feared by home buyers!!!

  15. Paula Zawadzky says:

    I retired to the Adirondack 20 years ago. I wanted to escape the traffic, crowds noise and ever increasing property taxes in NJ. I have seen a lot of change over the years in these small towns. Mostly good. There was no traffic light in town, now we have one and could use another especially in summer. People are renovating and building second homes on the lakes and with the pandemic coming earlier and staying longer. Housing prices have increased but primarily on the lakes. Businesses in town even with the virus are doing really well. I think this is a good thing and has created some new jobs, not big paying ones but this is primarily a tourist destination, not a high tech area, I leave that to the bigger cities.
    Its a great place to live and enjoy the environment.

  16. Jean Van says:

    I have affordable housing near Old Forge. A small cabin, apartment and Historic Hotel rooms. I am finding it very hard to find renters. They want to be where the action is! Nine miles from Old Forge, near Moose River and Otter Lake. Internet, Jo’s and Transportation a problem here! We have been here since 1952.

  17. My husband and I just renovated a house in Minerva. 3 bedrooms, 3 baths ,nice kitchen and
    Lovely backyard. Not on a lake and no great view but a nice,small home. It has been completely furnished (I am an interior designer) and will be ready to move in really soon. Our plan was to rent our house in Saratoga Springs this summer and stay in Minerva. However. My husband was recently in a bad auto accident and our plans have changed.

  18. Mark says:

    You are dead right .so often overlooked in seasonal/recreational areas is the livability for the people who work in the service industry. I am not a fan of government regulations but some sort of compromise has to be made or those who can afford the housing will some day have to be ok with a long trip for gas and groceries because those things will become limited to non existent in these areas.

  19. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Shane M Sloan says: “It’s disgusting and disturbing to see what the Adirondacks and a certain swath of America has become.”

    What do you mean ‘has become?’ It didn’t happen overnight! Take New York alone, never mind nationwide….a microcosm. When you read our early history you come to realize history repeats itself. Poverty has been a problem since them days when those early pioneers took to the wilderness that this state once was (except back in them days they were kinder to each other generally speaking.) There’s been cycles of poverty ever since, and if anybody has been paying attention it has been on the rise, especially these years of late, and especially since Covid-19! Very strange times indeed. The worst crisis we’ve ever known and look at how prices are sky-rocketing! As if there’s not enough blood to squeeze out of us! Strange I say! Or is it? Another difference between then and now, and which probably explains much of the greed going around nowadays, is that back then most people were on equal grounds with each other, most were all just getting by and making the most of what little they had…..so there was a commonality amongst them, and there was more of a ‘getting along’ sort of thing if you know what I mean!

    This morning I went and did my laundry at 4 AM and there in the laundromat was a homeless man sleeping on a bench. I see more and more of this of late. Me! I’m a good hours shopping spree away from piss-poor. This is all I have known my whole life. I’ve done well so far, have always paid my bills, but that can change. I’ve been working on my mind, feeding it positive energy which I believe has been keeping me alive. But I can only imagine what so many people must be going through psychology-wise what with all of our woes, all of the responsibilities and the insecurities that come with such.

    Not in a selfish way, but I often get to thinking… things could always be worse! Which may very well be eventually. In the meanwhile….the moments are all I have, which I am pro at taking advantage of. I suppose I am a fortunate son. How long will it last! The big question! I do have much empathy for others who aren’t so fortunate, and am often of the mind, “there but for the grace of the ‘Great Spirit” goes I!

  20. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Shane M. Sloan says: “Certain people are only environmentally conscious until money is involved.”

    Or if it benefits them! Fortunately there are more than just those large swaths of two alike who thinketh the same!

  21. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Sher says: “This is notable and sorry situation, but truly, not new. Not new since the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and on, and on, and on.”

    Not new yes, but most certainly on an uptick….like many things else, and most certainly times they have-a-changed since the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s….. The best things in life are free Sher! The air we breathe, the art in nature presented to our eyes….. Unfortunately we are stuck in this trap we call capitalism where money is God at whatever cost, and because of our commitments to this trap, and the responsibilities that come therein…. a sorry situation as you say. We should be taught morals, and science, and natural history, and things that bring about intellectual stimulation like it used to be. Things are not what they used to be….. and so here we are!

  22. Susan says:

    Every individual needs to figure out what is right and appropriate for them, then do it. If you cannot afford a chic little bungalow in Lake Placid, then maybe you should consider Saint Regis Falls. Real estate is dirt cheap there. My point is everyone needs to figure out what they CAN do, then do it, even though it may not be your first choice.

  23. Allan says:

    How are those that live in Saint Regis Falls supposed to work in a restaurant or hotel in Lake Placid? That is the issue–low paid workers cannot either find or afford housing even relatively close to their jobs.

  24. Zephyr says:

    The world has changed. When I went to college I worked a couple of part-time jobs at the same time and paid for my own apartment off campus, my own food, my own books, etc. Ended up with college loans equivalent to about a year’s salary at my first job after college. My father paid for his entire college room and board with his summer construction job. He bought a 12-room home we grew up in for $6000. When I was growing up in a nice town near the Adirondacks there was never a question of being able to afford a place to live or feed yourself if you just worked any old job. The first jobs I had after college had full medical and dental coverage included, and they weren’t high paying jobs. None of these things are possible today.

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