Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Taking Stock of Housing: What constitutes a crisis?

woman standing on a bridge

The Explorer’s “Taking Stock of Housing” series kicks off this week with an overview of the affordability problem, how the problem came to be (the origins are more complicated than you might suspect), and a few teasers about potential solutions. (Click here to sign up for updates on the series)

In putting this package together, we debated whether the Adirondacks is experiencing a housing “crisis.” (Housing Conundrum or Housing Pickle doesn’t have the same ring.)

In the end, it’s like the old economist saw about the difference between a recession and a depression: “If you’re out of work it’s a recession; if I’m out of work it’s a depression.

If you’re comfortable in your own housing there’s no crisis. But the answer will be different for a young couple who, despite working multiple jobs, is shut out of the American Dream.

Or a professional with an advanced college degree and a good job but no good prospects of finding a turnkey, sub-$500,000 home without driving a half hour or more from Lake Placid.

Yet the question runs deeper than that, and it is particularly acute in the rental market.

Being an English major, my eyes glaze at the sight of too many statistics, but one number that really matters is the percentage of families paying above the standard 30% of their income in housing costs.

If homeownership is too expensive, renting is typically the solution. But not in the North Country, where the cost of long-term rentals, if they can be found at all, are running nearly apace with mortgage payments. This is the worst of both worlds: mortgage-like payments with no accompanying accumulation of equity.

In the North Country Town of Altona, according to the Lake Champlain/Lake George Planning Board, there is little discount for renting. Tenants pay an average $837 in rent, just $250 less than the average mortgage. And 82% of these renters are spending in excess of 30% on housing. Some people, studies show, are paying more than half their income on their home.

This is where a problem morphs into a crisis, when housing costs so much that people can’t adequately feed their families, can’t buy gas, succumb to substances to deal with the stress, and get beaten down in a generational cycle of poverty. It’s a crisis when shops, businesses and restaurants begin to close because there’s no workforce housing.It’s a crisis when not just wait staff, but scientists, nurses and teachers can’t find affordable housing. Housing stands in the way of attracting talent.

But to end on less of a doomsday note, there are innumerable people working on the problem/crisis, many of whom — from nonprofit employees to elected officials — are themselves unable to find an affordable house.

Seeing this selflessness, as people work to get others suitable housing when they lack it themselves, has been a heartwarming antidote to a situation that can be exceedingly grim. We may be facing a crisis, but, as you’ll see in the upcoming months, a whole pack of crisis-busters are on the job.

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.

Photo: Ashley Griffin, 28, on the pedestrian bridge in Keeseville has looked at 10 houses with her fiance and made offers on four, without success. Photo by Eric Teed


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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

One Response

  1. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “If you’re out of work it’s a recession; if I’m out of work it’s a depression.”
    > Good one! Which is the same as saying “There’s two sides to every coin.”

    “elected officials — are themselves unable to find an affordable house.”
    > Yes, and I have a mansion on a mountain that I’d like to sell. Elected officials! The same ones who are cozy with their lots in life, who make the laws who got us into this hole in the first place! This didn’t just happen overnight, nor was it induced because of the pandemic. Deep inside I feel this is all part of a major scheme which is very much tied to those very few at the top, or those in control!

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