Friday, August 18, 2023

The potential, promise of condos

woman and two girls, one of which is holding a chicken

Might condos, Adirondack style, be at least a partial solution for the region’s housing crisis?

The Northern Forest Center posed that question during an online brainstorming session last week that included Adirondackers with first-hand experience with condos.

Adam Bailey, Adirondack program manager for the center, said the envisioned affordable housing condos are not the sprawling luxury developments associated with resort towns. Instead, condos can be fashioned a handful at a time out of older, sometimes historic properties, or be built at scale.

They are cheaper to build and maintain  and the costs are amortized.” That’s according to Adam Feldman, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Northern Saratoga, Warren and Washington Counties.

But there are pitfalls.

Concluding that single family homes were increasingly out of reach to single moms, Habitat planned a condo development in Queensbury. It would allow people of modest means to begin building equity and put them on a path to greater financial security.

But the project is being transitioned into rental units, Feldman said, when it became apparent people weren’t interested in buying one-bedroom dwellings.

Feldman said this points to a cultural divide that sometimes leaves city and rural communities talking past each other when discussing housing. In urban areas, one-bedroom units are popular, while rural residents are accustomed to more space.

Condos are also tricky for developers. As opposed to apartment complexes where they can show bankers a steady income stream, condo developers need to convince bankers that the units will sell quickly. And while big projects pay, smaller condo developments — the type needed in the Adirondacks – don’t.

“Most developers don’t want to do five units,” Feldman said. “But if you could do 25 across the region they’d be excited to come to the Adirondacks.”

These projects need state aid if they are to be affordable. Advocates are hopeful of new state programs targeting a pool of funding for smaller, upstate developments.

And while rentals are generally more attractive financially for developers than condos, there are some situations in which condos will work. Phil Brown, former editor of the Explorer, said he purchased one of four condos carved out of a large, historic home in Saranac Lake.

“Overall it’s been a good experience,” he said.

Condos build equity on one hand, but owners must share capital costs if, for example, a utility line fails. “It can be quite a hit,” Brown said.

But the informal self-government is working, as owners meet to agree on matters such as quiet hours.

If a rule-breaking owner comes along, said Plattsburgh planner Elisha Bartlett, some condo bylaws have “three strikes and you’re out” policies.

As the condo model demonstrates, it can still be very difficult to achieve a price point that is attainable for a single mom.

Even building to scale with government help, the mortgage can be $1,500 a month. Which still represents a purchase price that is $100,000 more than many Adirondack workers can afford.

In this week’s installment of Keeping Track of Housing, I talked with Emily French, an Essex County nutritionist. She says that the clients she sees in the Women, Infants and Children food program typically live with their parents or other family members.

The number served has plummeted, not because fewer women are financially distressed, but because they are leaving. These are women who typically do a lot of the unglamorous but important work in the community, further stressing an already tight job market.

Like many people whose job is to help others, when it comes to housing, French and her partner found themselves in need of help. In 2019, “We went looking for a house and were met with nothing,” she said. Both had good jobs, but “the houses in our price range were just a step up from a shed.”

They finally stopped looking and instead ordered a home to place on land owned by her family.

The future of a planned community in Lake Placid that included an affordable-housing element appears in doubt.

The Peaks at Lake Placid is approved by the town and Adirondack Park Agency for 355 total units — 265 market rate apartments and 90 condominiums plus a clubhouse with fitness center, swimming pool, office center, day care, recreation fields, community gardens with greenhouses, and walking trails.

But the property is now for sale. The asking price for the whole project is $17.5 million, with options to buy individual components of the project. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported that no construction has happened yet at the site.

Photo at top: At Craigarden in Elizabethtown, Metta Jennings 4 holds a young chicken with the help of WIC Nutritionist Emily French. Everleigh Nary 2 gives the chick a pet. Photo by Eric Teed

This first appeared in the Explorer’s “Taking Stock of Housing” email newsletter. Click here to sign up for this short-term series.

Related Stories

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.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox