Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Let’s Take A Look At An Adirondack Park Community Housing Act

The recent public forums organized by the Common Ground Alliance and the Adirondack Explorer shined bright spotlights on housing needs and challenges in the Adirondack Park. The various housing advocates and housing non-profit leaders who spoke at these events outlined the problems and challenges facing their work and Adirondack communities. Tim Rowland’s ongoing reporting on the Adirondack housing challenge for the Explorer (see here, here , and here for some good ones) has admirably gone deep into this issue.

The common denominator among advocates and in Rowland’s reporting points to inadequate public funds to deal with the issue, meet the challenge. With more money, it seems, many of the advocates and non-profits who work on this issue every day could bring more affordable/low income/work force housing onto the market. State funding is a big question now with the State’s projected $9 billion deficit and state leaders unable to develop a statewide affordable housing program. The various existing programs, spread widely across New York, don’t meet the current need, and are often a hard fit for small rural communities.

The two forums spotlighted recent housing successes in Lake Placid, Keene, Ticonderoga and other communities. But these successes, which could be replicated in other communities, show the ad hoc, incremental nature of housing programs in the Adirondacks.

The housing challenge in the Adirondacks is not that we don’t have enough houses, but rather it’s about how we choose to use those houses. In Hamilton County, where I live, we have more houses than people and we’re not alone. There are plenty of other Adirondack communities where we have more houses than people. At current rates of slow population decline and ongoing building trends, we’re likely see a point in the near future where the Adirondack Park has more houses than people.

Many of these houses are used only a few weeks a year and stand empty the rest of the time. They’re usually heated, and all the utilities are running, but they stand empty except for a few weeks or months here and there. More than half of Adirondack towns have more than half of their total residential buildings owned by non-residents. The towns with the lowest rates, still have 20 to 25% of their homes owned by non-residents. Many towns have more than 75% of their housing stock owned by non-residents. Some of those may be rented long-term, some may be rented short-term, but a great many stand empty most of the year.

Housing advocates and Rowland’s reporting tells us that the Adirondack housing construction market is largely geared towards the vacation home market. The demand for a vacation home in the Adirondacks is both steady and high. Many contractors choose to work exclusively in the vacation home market because these projects are far more lucrative, and the work is reliable and steady.

Beyond the strong vacation home market in the Adirondacks, the housing challenge is compounded by the short-term rental market where many long-term rentals have been converted to the short-term market or lower-cost housing has been bought up and converted to short-term rentals. Property owners tell me that the money is both better in the short-term market, sometimes more than double, sometimes triple, compared with the yearly rents of long-term rentals, and the headaches of renting to affluent customers are far fewer.

In short, in many ways, the Adirondack housing market is driven by the vacation home and short-term rental markets. In talking with local leaders about the housing challenge there’s not a lot of solutions about how to change these dynamics or disrupt the overall Adirondack housing marketplace. Is the Adirondack Park housing marketplace hopelessly skewed towards vacation homes and short-term rentals and is there anything to do about it?

I’m 61 years old, but at one point, believe it or not, I was a young person in my twenties who freely chose to move to the Adirondacks. In the 1980s in Saranac Lake, where I first moved, there were lots of young people around who had bought crappy houses that they slowly fixed up around the Village or in the outskirts in places like Bloomingdale, Onchiota, Lake Clear, and Vermonville. It was pretty common to go to a party or spaghetti dinner at somebody’s house and none of the doors or windows were framed, the floors were plywood, or there was a wall with just insulation, but folks were living in these places as they fixed them up, and they owned the place. I remember visiting one house where the owner proudly showed off the well he was hand-digging. I could barely see the bottom; it seemed like a ladder to the ends of the earth. In North Creek, where I have worked for years, the rafting industry that grew up there was underwritten in a way by cheap housing around the area in the 1990s and early 2000s. Rafting company owners and rafting guides bought up beat-up houses and these beaters were slowly fixed up.

My wife and I bought a beater in Blue Mountain Lake in the mid-1990s, and we did a lot of the rehab work ourselves (and, unfortunately, it shows). Today, the fixer-up/beater housing stock is now far less available for working families because there’s fewer of them around, and the beaters that are available are drawing high prices. Paying $250,000 or more for a beater doesn’t add up for most working folks in the Adirondacks.

As mentioned above, one common denominator in the housing challenge is available funding for affordable/low income/work force housing projects. It’s clear that more money is needed to fund the good works of housing advocates and non-profits across the Adirondacks. It’s also clear to me as somebody who has long lobbied in Albany that state funding is often inconsistent and inadequate for Adirondack projects.

Perhaps one thing to look at is using the existing skewed Adirondack real estate marketplace and make it part of the solution.

Other communities place a surcharge on residential property sales for non-resident purchases. Currently, the State of New York has a Real Estate Transfer Tax. The tax is computed at a rate of two dollars for each $500 paid for the residence. For homes that sell for $1 million or more, an additional transfer tax of 1% of the sale price is imposed (the so-called “mansion tax”). The seller is generally responsible for the tax. Nantucket Island, which has struggled with intense housing challenges, where local families cannot compete with the vacation home market, funds an aggressive affordable housing program through a surcharge on its Real Estate Transfer Tax. The Adirondack Park could do the same. A surcharge on non-owner-occupied residential property sales could be one way to generate useful and sustainable funding.

Across the Adirondacks, many counties also manage an Occupancy Tax, or bed tax, on motels and hotels and Airbnb and other short-term rentals. This is not uniform across the Adirondacks, but it could be. Bed Taxes have also been used to fund affordable/low income/work force housing programs elsewhere in the U.S. and that too could be done in the Adirondacks. A surcharge on lodging and short-term rentals could help to generate funds for an Adirondack housing program.

Some type of Adirondack Housing Fund, funded by Park-wide surcharges on non-owner-occupied residential property sales and on hotel beds and short-term rentals, could generate several million dollars each year, which year-in and year-out, could help with the overall Adirondack housing challenge, in addition to what Albany and federal programs support. Such an Adirondack Housing Fund would need state legislation to authorize a tax on non-owner-occupied residential property buyers. Local and state leaders could determine how the fund is equitably administered.

One model for Adirondack communities is on the east end of Long Island. In 1998, the five towns of East Hampton, Southampton, Shelter Island, Southold and Riverhead established a “Peconic Bay Tax.” This is a Real Estate Transfer Tax that applies to all home purchases in the five participating towns. The first $150,000 of the purchase price in Riverhead and Southold and the first $250,000 of the purchase price in East Hampton, Southampton and Shelter Island are exempt from the tax. After that, the remainder of the purchase price is taxed at 2%.

Revenue from the Peconic Bay Tax goes into the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund, which is used to protect historic structures, open space, farmland and wetlands. The Fund is also used to purchase development rights to keep building density under control. In 2018, the town of Southampton generated revenues of $27.3 million from the tax and expended $16.4 million on various conservation projects. This, of course, is driven by the exceptionally high real estate prices around South Hampton.

This program was expanded recently to deal with housing challenges in these communities. The Peconic Bay Region Community Housing Act was signed into law by Governor Hochul in 2021. The legislation allows the towns of East Hampton, Shelter Island, Southampton, Riverhead and Southold to create a dedicated fund to assist with affordable/work force/low income housing. Among other things, the fund can be used to provide financial assistance to first-time homebuyers, production of community housing, and housing counseling. The Act, as adopted by four of the five East End towns (Riverhead is the exception), provides for an increase in the real estate transfer tax of 0.5% to fund the affordable housing initiative. The tax increase went into effect on April 1, 2023. The text of the Act can be found here. This shows that collective local action can gain traction in the State Legislature. This is something for Adirondack leaders, housing advocates, and Adirondack lobbyists in Albany to take a hard look at.

In this way, some kind of Adirondack Park Community Housing Act may be able to use our dominant skewed real estate marketplace as part of a solution to the Adirondack housing challenge.

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.




18 Responses

  1. Henrietta Jordan says:

    Peter, this is a very good and timely commentary on a problem that will eventually sap the vitality of small communities. In addition to the tools you have proposed, I would like to add another: the community land trust model. Non-profit, non-governmental community land trusts typically acquire real property, renovate existing buildings or build new ones, and sell them to low- and moderate-income families at an affordable price. In some (but not all) cases, the non-profit retains title to the land, and in almost all cases, includes in the deed a restriction that the property must remain affordable. Another great tool that has been used in Vermont and elsewhere is an affordable-housing tax credit that can be transferred to a for-profit entity. In this model, the non-profit partners with a bank or developer that finances the project. The non-profit does not pay taxes and cannot benefit from the tax credit, but it can sell the credit to the financing entity, usually at a somewhat discounted price. Affordable housing tax credits do exist in New York, but I’m told that they are typically snapped up for big projects in urban areas. I don’t know what the answer is for the Adirondacks, but I do believe that it will need the participation of both the public and private sectors and a mechanism to ensure perpetual affordability. And a commitment to address the shortage of affordable housing in rural areas as well as urban ones.

  2. George L says:

    Thank you for writing on this subject. A suggestion: Determine the number of units of affordable housing needed in the Adirondacks, by community. Multiply by $200,000/unit, which arguably is the cost of construction if the land is already owned by the public, and the cost of construction is paid for through taxes, not borrowing. Perhaps create a 21st century high-quality pre-fab housing industry in the Adks for home use and for export. Whatever the total number is, that number represents the cost to create a stock of affordable housing in the Adks.The housing would be rented by the locality for 12-month living, not recreation, at controlled rates. This housing could never be sold. Some places call this social housing. We already have social schools, social roads, social public works, etc., so the idea isn’t new, or radical. Arguably, no other approach has, or ever will work, in the quantity needed. In fact, the shortage will only worsen. This is true everywhere. The myriad of ways that NYS could raise money from the wealthy part of the economy to pay for affordable housing would take a few pages to list. Money is not the problem. There is no political will.

    • Paul says:

      Here you would prevent lower income people from building any wealth. For many Americans – their home is the only asset that can gain in value.

      • George L says:

        I am suggesting one approach to build affordable housing.

        You are discussing wealth management, which can be pursued in many ways.

        By the way, American homeowners collectively lost more than $2 trillion in home value following the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

  3. Bill K says:

    I’m a summer resident of a seasonal camp in the Adirondacks. I think it’s interesting that nobody addresses the residents that escape each winter and go to Florida, etc. They leave their seasonal job and turn on unemployment and enjoy the warmer weather for the winter as their home sits empty. It’s been done that way for decades and also decreases the number of trades people available to build new homes as well. Zoning has been tweaked to make it harder to build a small home on a small lot. That’s been the answer in the booming cities. The smaller house movement is alive and well around the country and provides starter homes to many. In the Adks, many of the current town configurations could never have been built to todays standards. Maybe a review of that and a rollback of lot size would provide more affordable lots to the inventory to build on. Pumping up the inventory at Habitat for Humanity resale source should be reviewed. The store in South Glens Falls looks more like a gift store than a place to donate or acquire reasonably priced building materials. I tried to donate windows and was told they had enough windows. A walk around the building material inventory would be enlightening for you. And lastly, train more high school students in the trades required to build affordable homes. They would ad to the needed workforce and have the income required to buy or build homes for themselves. Try hiring someone to so a task around your home and see what you experience.

    It’s not an unsolvable problem. It will take some planning and work over time, but can be successful.

  4. Paul says:

    “In 2018, the town of Southampton generated revenues of $27.3 million from the tax and expended $16.4 million on various conservation projects.”

    I don’t understand – why did they spend the money on “conservation projects”, it doesn’t sound like that is what it is for. This is the last thing that the Adirondacks needs. Half of the land here you are barred from building a house on, that is part of the reason that real estate is so expensive up here. Peter has spent quite a lot of his time advocating for moving more land into state coffers and increasing the price of buildable land.

  5. George L says:

    Undeveloped land in Eastern Long Island is precious. You measure it out like caviar, and price it like diamonds. About fifty years ago, Suffolk County government recognized this and began to buy up and protect farmland, pine forests, old military bases, ocean front acreage, and so on. Today, the only reason there is any protected and accessible open space in gorgeous Eastern Long Island, is because local government created and funded programs in the 1960’s that took action.

    I believe Mr. Bauer uses the Suffolk programs as an example of the benefit of government action, and that NYS is wealthy enough to pay for good and necessary things like parks and housing.

    People might reasonably disagree about the need for more Adk wilderness, but everyone can agree about the need for more Adk housing.

    The severe housing shortage in the Adirondacks will get worse unless government steps in to fill the need, as it has done over the last one-hundred for every other service (schools, hospitals, libraries, roads, canals, etc).

    By the way, the shortage of affordable housing on Eastern Long Island is far more severe than in the Adirondacks.

    And in NYC, one-third of renters are paying more than fifty-percent of their income for rent.

    The housing shortage is everywhere.

    • Paul says:

      “By the way, the shortage of affordable housing on Eastern Long Island is far more severe than in the Adirondacks.”

      It sounds like the program isn’t working. Why suggest copying it here?

      What the areas needs is higher paying jobs not cheaper housing. The switch to remote work created over the last few years in a huge opportunity for places like the Adirondacks. I have friends working very high paying remote jobs in places like Saranac Lake. They can afford the expensive real estate. They generate more of a tax base for the town. It’s not all bad news.

      • George L says:

        Suffolk County does not have the affordable housing program that it needs.

        It does have a good record of open space conservation.

  6. Beth says:

    Trying to socially engineer ‘affordable work force housing’ is not consistent with basic economics or with free market principals. Gouging the rich into paying an extra tax sounds illegal and definitely is discrimination. Houses built today are the future housing stock. Why would you want to stop new house construction that is not costing the public a dime? Doing that will also put people out of work. The buzz words ‘affordable work force housing’ being thrown around throughout our Country sounds a lot like government trying to push for a ‘second class’ of people to serve the ‘first class.’ OR, in reality, is most likely another new way to collect taxes that can then be looted. The models for constructing big public subsidized apartment buildings that are then rented out using subsidies in places that have no services is not a solid plan. Buying and fixing up homes that are in distress, owe property taxes, are not eligible for a mortgage, etc. are at least better ideas. Young people who don’t have the ambition to tackle repairs on a fixer-upper or figure out a way to share a beater home and work on it are probably not going to be ‘serving’ the ‘first class’ either.

    • ADKresident2 says:

      No solutions, just complaints. Not helpful.

      • Paul says:

        They are saying this is not a good approach and why. That’s constructive criticism. That is helpful.

        “Buying and fixing up homes that are in distress, owe property taxes, are not eligible for a mortgage, etc. are at least better ideas.” Suggested solution here.

  7. louis curth says:

    Peter Bauer’s essay is a welcome addition to a growing consensus among all who care about the Adirondacks. The long and the short of it is that we have a BIG problem here and affordable housing is just one piece of it-albeit a big one!

    In all my time living and working around North Creek, only one indigenous person’s name ever came up – ‘Free Burley*. All the rest of us were transplants, from somewhere else, who answered the call from the men of wealth to lumber, to mine, to farm and to guide the rich “sports” who came to hunt and fish after Murray’s book popularized our region. Over time, it became fashionable for the well-to-do to acquire Adirondack “camps” where wealthy families came to relax in nature, and to entertain their friends in rustic style.

    The people who took care of their every need gradually grew into a prosperous middle class that worked together and built local businesses, and all the trappings of “community” – schools, churches, civic, medical, local government and other necessary amenities.

    TODAY, our young people are leaving, and those who stay are struggling to survive. All of us have a stake in turning this problem around, or we risk losing the heart and soul of what makes the Adirondacks so special.

    It is time for us all to step-up and find solutions that will keep our communities alive, healthy and sustainable for our young people, while still preserving the fragile wildland nature that is our signature identity and makes this place so special to all of us.

  8. Paul says:

    These articles also make it sound like it often a problem created by non-locals or “outsiders”. In some cases it is often local people who are just trying to cash in on investment properties they have held for years. I know of a Saranac Lake person who lives in town that just bought a 900K house on the lake so they could tear it down and build a new one..

  9. Louis Burke says:

    I think this is a good idea to try before there are not enough locals and younger locals to provide essential services for the absentee homeowners. It’s already a problem in our fire department’s , ambulance services, town and local municipalities such as highways, and even doctors!

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