Lake Placid housing co-op moves forward

The planned cooperative housing development is located on a 100-acre plot off of Averyville Road in Lake Placid. The land was donated to the Adirondack North Country Association two years ago for the express purpose of fostering a housing co-op. (Enterprise photo — Sydney Emerson)

LAKE PLACID — A planned affordable housing cooperative in Lake Placid is slowly becoming a reality.

The co-op, which is located on a 103-acre plot of land off Averyville Road in Lake Placid, was announced in early 2022 when an anonymous private donor handed the parcel of land over to the Adirondack North Country Association. ANCA, which had little experience in co-op housing projects, enlisted the help of the Cooperative Development Institute, a non-profit that helps co-ops across the northeastern United States get organized and grow. The project has been slowly progressing ever since and now has an interim board and a mission statement.

The board is hosting a public information session for people interested in joining the cooperative; the session is on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at the Mirror Lake Beach House.

Cooperative housing

In a housing co-op, instead of individual people or households purchasing or renting property, a group of members collectively own the buildings and land in which they live via a corporation. The members buy a share in the cooperative and pay a monthly amount — called a carrying charge or maintenance fee — to cover operating expenses, which can include a mortgage on the land or homes. The mortgage is taken out by the corporation, not by individual members.

“In a cooperative, especially in an affordable housing cooperative, there’s no middle man making a profit,” said CDI Cooperative Development Specialist Shana Siegel. “The residents are members. They elect a board, they work together to decide what the budget is and what the rents are going to be and what their policies and procedures are going to be.”

Co-ops are run democratically. The board must stand for election and re-election, and each household gets one vote.

The Lake Placid co-op intends to be an affordable housing cooperative, sometimes called a limited equity cooperative. CDI often advises this kind of co-op projects. In a limited equity cooperative, there are restrictions on a unit’s sale price, ensuring that housing will be affordable in the long term.

Co-ops have two unique traits that allow them to be more affordable than other housing options, according to Siegel. One, no single member has to have hundreds of thousands of dollars up front to purchase land or a home. All they need to pay up front is the price of their share, which can be borrowed in the same way people borrow to purchase a home. Two, when a co-op is created with the mission of affordability and accessibility over profit, it is easy to keep it that way. Members do not expect to get rich off of a co-op; they expect to have secure housing.

“It can be perpetually affordable and a permanent, safe place to live and build community,” Siegel said. “The other thing that it can be (is an) intentional community. It’s not just that whoever buys the house is going to move in. It’s: Are you going to participate in the co-op?”

Siegel said that a co-op is a good model for the values that often seem lacking in modern society.

“We’ve lost the ability in a lot of ways to cooperate with other people, to collectively build the type of society that we want or the type of community that we want,” she said. “(We need) to learn how to compromise, to learn how to collectively find what’s in the best interests of the common good for all of us and to move forward in that way.”

The co-op model, especially a limited equity co-op, is not for everybody, according to Siegel. If a person chooses to leave a housing co-op, they will not stand to profit from selling their share in the way they might profit from selling a house they own. This practice keeps property speculators and house flippers from taking up valuable housing and making it unaffordable. But, it may also discourage some people who want to gain equity from their home from joining a co-op in the first place.

“It’s not market-rate and it’s not usually near market-rate. So, when somebody’s going to sell their stock, they may make some sort of equity when they leave, but it’s not like they’re selling a house and the land. They’re selling their stock,” she said. “So, there’s pros and cons. Some people want to make all the money from selling their house.”

Local solutions

ANCA does not typically participate in housing projects. The organization focuses mainly on local food systems, clean energy, small businesses and DEIB — diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. When an anonymous donor approached them about a housing cooperative, however, ANCA officials say it seemed to exist at the intersection of all their efforts.

“All of those things kind of weave together and interact with each other in a lot of different ways, and housing is definitely a through line with all of them in a huge way,” said ANCA Small Business Services Coordinator Lauren Richard. “Especially lately. It’s always been there, but really, really now.”

ANCA saw the project as an opportunity to try something new. If the project was ultimately successful, affordable housing would be expanded in the area and the organization would have a new model to apply across the 14 counties it serves. Richard said that a co-op is a way to circumvent the inequality and imbalance of power that often exists in more traditional housing situations.

“So often, we have these really skewed power dynamics, and I think especially in housing, I’ve really noticed this from a personal perspective. Your housing is so fundamental and you often have no control or power over it and it’s really terrifying,” she said. “I’m really excited to put that control into the hands of the people who actually live there and let them build a community that’s going to last. They don’t have to be worried every 10 seconds about (their) house is going to get sold or (they’re) going to have to move or whatever that looks like. They can have longevity. They can really build meaningful connections with one another.”

Richard had her own fraught housing journey in the Tri-Lakes that informs her work with the Lake Placid co-op and ANCA. When she permanently moved to the area a decade ago, she couch surfed, stayed in spare bedrooms and even lived in basements. Eventually, she found a more stable housing situation with her partner, where they lived for about seven years.

“Then, all of a sudden, it was sold,” she said.

The couple wanted to buy but couldn’t afford anything in the area until they found what Richard affectionately refers to as “the caved-in barn.” They’ve been working around the clock to make the barn habitable since 2020.

“We don’t have a housing shortage. We have a lack of safe, livable, affordable housing. There’s houses all over the place, but so many of them are not habitable,” Richard said. “We really want to be here, and we have to do crazy things sometimes.”

She hopes that a new housing option like the co-op, with affordability enshrined in its mission and a democratically-elected board, will ensure that people who want to be in the Adirondacks can find adequate and appropriate housing.

A chance at legacy

Martha Pritchard Spear, the vice president of the co-op’s interim board, dreams of a strong, close-knit community and a vibrant legacy — things she hopes will abound in the housing co-op once it is built.

“I have always been attracted to the idea of living in community,” she said. “It has something to do with the way I was raised, with lots of people in and out of the house all the time, different kinds of people with different cuisines. I just loved the richness of sitting down to a table with friends and family and people you don’t know.”

Pritchard Spear moved to Upper Jay from Manhattan in 2003 as a part of the flight out of the city following 9/11. She and her then-husband bought a small farm where they raised pigs and chickens and sold the meat at the Keene Valley farmers market. The mortgage was too much, though, and so they gave up the farm and moved to the campus of Northwood School, where Pritchard Spear’s then-husband worked. A few years ago, following the couple’s separation, Pritchard Spear found herself in a desperate search for adequate, affordable housing in Lake Placid. “It was insanely difficult,” she said. “It took months, and what I ended up finding was not advertised. It was the property of a friend. It was just word-of-mouth that got me housing.”

After hearing about the co-op through her interest in ANCA’s work, Pritchard Spear decided to get involved at the ground floor. She sees the co-op as her only shot at homeownership, as well as an opportunity to strengthen her son’s future.

“This is my only chance, as I see it, to leave something of value to my son in Lake Placid. My only chance to be a homeowner in Lake Placid and to be a good ancestor, passing on wealth,” she said.

Coming home

For Stephanie Sears, the president of the co-op’s interim board, this project is a homecoming. The donated land on which the co-op is slated to be built once belonged to her grandparents. Her family sold the land years ago to another owner, who eventually donated it to ANCA, and she thought that she would never return to the woods in which she grew up. Alone, she did not have the financial resources to buy back the land. As a member of the co-op, though, she has a way to uphold her family’s tradition.

“It’s really meaningful to me that, not only will we get a chance to live on a property where my daughter will be something like the fourth or fifth generation to live on that property, but also, other people are going to be served as well,” she said.

Sears, a massage therapist, currently lives in Saranac Lake with her husband, who is a contractor, and their 2-year-old daughter, Tove. As newlyweds, the couple rented a cabin in Bloomingdale. They planned to purchase the cabin from their landlords, but the deal fell through at the last minute, leaving them adrift in the tight Tri-Lakes housing market.

“Fortunately, we did have some place to go,” Sears said. “We had a gutted apartment (in Saranac Lake), so we’ve been living in an under-construction apartment since our baby was three months old, trying to find better housing.”

The fledgling co-op project made its way to Sears via word-of-mouth. Once she put together that it was set to be built on her family’s former land, she decided to get involved. Sears said that she hopes the co-op, if successful, can model to the North Country an alternative to buying, renting and selling property.

“The housing market is terrifying right now,” she said. “If we do a good job, this might be able to be used as something that can be replicated, as a way for other people who want to incorporate this into their estate planning or whatever, where they want to give back to different communities that they’re a part of. What a beautiful, incredible gift to give a community: securing its existence into the future.”


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