Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Taking Stock of Housing: Is help on the way?

housing graphic

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s ambitious, statewide housing agenda might have gone down to legislative defeat, but her administration is plugging away with incremental solutions that don’t get the ink of a massive state initiative, but still show some promise.

For the Adirondacks, one of the more intriguing prospects is the Affordable Homeownership Opportunity Program, which will provide $150 million in housing-development subsidies over the next five years.

According to its mission statement, “The funding will take advantage of advances in technology to control construction costs, reduce the cost of ownership, and meet New York’s climate goals through new construction of single-family homes and townhomes, or the new construction or adaptive reuse of multi- family coops or condo projects.”

This is the vehicle being used by the Housing Assistance Program of Essex County (HAPEC) to build a four-home development in Keene, and if it comes to fruition it will become just the second project in the state to take advantage of this funding pool.

What’s compelling about this program is its ability to fund very small projects (four homes is the minimum, said HAPEC Executive Director, Megan Murphy).

Many Adirondack communities have been stymied on the housing front because grants and tax credits for affordable housing developments are typically awarded only to large projects with dozens of units. And it hardly needs to be stated that such a development would be a nonstarter in Keene, or any other small Adirondack community.

Keene’s Both Meadow project also reiterates the truth that multiple entities and angles are needed to make an affordable housing project work. It took land sold at a discount by Tom and Alaina Both that was dedicated to affordable housing; it took funding from the state and town; it took cooperation among HAPEC, the state Office of Homes and Community Renewal, the Town of Keene Housing Task Force, Adirondack Community Housing Trust and a local bank and builder; it took a creative approach to construction, leaving the second floor unfinished to save costs; and it took the general support of the community at large.

Even with all the moving parts, Murphy believes the Affordable Homeownership programis one that can be used to good advantage throughout the park.

Read the latest article in our housing series.

Two opportunities to talk housing are on the horizon. This Friday at 6 p.m. I’ll be at the Adirondack Center for Writing at 15 Broadway in Saranac Lake for an informal chat about the Adirondack Explorer’s housing series and what it’s been like to report and write it.

Then on the morning of Nov. 1 at The Wild Center in Tupper Lake, the Explorer is presenting a housing symposium with experts in the field and solution-oriented discussions about the problems the Adirondack Park is facing and how they might be addressed.

Speaking of small developments, the Northern Forest Center hosted a web conference on small-scale development. Featured speakers were  Jeremy Evans, CEO of the Franklin County Economic  Development Corp., and Shawn Duheme, a Saranac Lake contractor who has experienced the challenges of small rehabilitation projects first hand.

Evans said Franklin County has several large projects in the works with more than 200 total units — but in the future, it’s the small to mid-sized projects that will be key.

“There is progress being made and we should celebrate the progress,” he said. “But are we going to see those projects  three or four more times over the next 10 years? The answer is obviously no.”

Housing tends to be thought of as either single-family, free standing homes, or high-rise apartment buildings, but Evans said the focus needs to be on the “missing middle” — the townhomes, duplexes, land-bank projects and auxiliary dwelling units that are more size-appropriate for the Adirondack Park.

Duheme said small projects have gotten harder post-pandemic, one of the reasons being the cost of materials, which never retreated to pre-pandemic levels. Construction projects that were possible in 2019 are less so now.

Are higher interest rates having an effect on home sales? Yes and no. The Washington Post reports that “Sales of new U.S. homes hit a 5-month low last month as sky-high mortgage rates continue to strain prospective homebuyers’ ability to afford a dwelling.”

Even so, sales are up slightly for the year over 2022, and there’s no sign that home prices are retreating as a result. Adirondack real-estate agents I’ve talked with say their market, especially at the higher end, has not not shown much sign of change, and prices are not coming down here, either.

It stands to reason that people who can afford a high-end house can likely afford the higher interest as well, or avoid interest altogether by paying cash. And, as was seen back in 2021, a slowdown of sales is not necessarily reflective of a cooling market — in the Park, there just hasn’t been that much inventory to sell.

Just a reality check for those who think 7.5% mortgage rates are obscene, low interest rates are mainly a product of the 21st century. In the early 1980s, mortgage rates were pushing 20% and states sold bonds to subsidize interest payments for first-time homebuyers at the outrageously low rate of — 7.5%.

This first appeared in the Explorer’s “Taking Stock of Housing” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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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.

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