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Report studies obstacles Adirondack towns face

Pam Maly, right, directs a local family at the Saranac Lake Central School District’s Ready for School event Aug. 28, at which the district gave out free school supplies. The district community schools program, which sponsored this event, was cited as a positive development in a recent report Adirondack Foundation sponsored about issues Adirondack communities face. (Enterprise photo — Kevin Shea)

A recent report from the Adirondack Foundation shows that communities throughout the Adirondack Park struggle with a shortage of child care providers, affordable housing and transportation, and drug addiction treatment options, among other things.

But the report also offers hope: Many local organizations have targeted these ongoing issues and are making some headway.

The report is titled “Meeting the Needs of Adirondack Communities: Challenges and Opportunities” and was based on more than 70 interviews. It was written by Adam Federman, a journalist who grew up in Saranac Lake and is known for his biography of food writer Patience Gray.

It underscores what many residents already know: More families are earning too much to qualify for public assistance but aren’t necessarily earning enough to make ends meet. Access to health services, including elder care and addiction treatment, is limited, as are child care services, transportation, affordable housing and workforce training. And though most high schools in the area have high graduation rates, in Essex and Franklin counties, the number of students who ultimately choose to go on to a four-year college is low compared to other areas — hurting the financial stability of private and public colleges in the North Country.

“Taken together, these barriers can stymie economic development and impede pathways to educational opportunity,” Federman wrote. “Over the course of the next couple of decades, addressing these needs will be essential to the overall health, wellbeing, and vitality of communities in the North Country.”

Beyond outlining the challenges Adirondack communities face, the Adirondack Foundation report shows that social service agencies, nonprofit organizations and community groups are often underfunded and operate with limited staff, but they are attempting to create programs designed to tackle these long-simmering concerns.

“Philanthropy alone cannot solve these problems and government funding will continue to play a crucial role in service delivery and program development,” Federman said. “But public funding and private investment together can amplify the impact and reach of a nonprofit agency, community organization, or new pilot program.”

The Adirondack Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded in 1997, intends to use this report as part of its Generous Acts Fund grant program. In the last five years, 118 nonprofits have received more than $771,000 in grant funding through the program. The foundation has set a goal of awarding $5 million in grant funding over the next decade.

Working families face obstacles

The United Way created the ALICE threshold — which stands for Asset Limited, Income Restrained, Employed — to highlight the number of families whose income is above the federal poverty level but may not be enough to meet what are seen as basic needs.

The latest ALICE report from the United Way of New York shows that though the adjusted federal poverty level for a family of four in 2016 was $24,300, families of four in Essex County would need to make at least $64,812 annually to afford housing, child care, transportation and health care “at a bare-minimum ‘survival’ level.” The United Way made that determination based on data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Internal Revenue Service, the Tax Foundation and the state Office of Children and Family Services.

Countywide, 10% of families in Essex County fell below the federal poverty level in 2016, according to the ALICE report. The U.S. Census Bureau put it at 11.7% of individuals in 2018.

Another 30% of Essex County families were within the ALICE threshold as of 2016. In North Elba alone, 8% of families were living in poverty and another 35% were within the ALICE threshold.

Among Franklin County families, 18% fell below the federal poverty line, and 28% fell within the ALICE threshold in 2016. The Census Bureau said 16.7% of individuals were in poverty in 2018. In Harrietstown, 15% of families were living in poverty and 32% were within the ALICE threshold; in Tupper Lake, 13% of families were in living in poverty and 29% within the ALICE threshold.

Meanwhile, the number of children in Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, St. Lawrence and Warren counties far outweighs the number of available regulated child care slots, the report says.

In Essex County, there are 4.8 children for every available spot in a certified child care program, according to data culled by Federman from the left-leaning think tank U.S. Center for American Progress and from the state Office of Children and Family Services. Franklin County has far more children under the age of 11 than Essex County but also has more child care slots, resulting in a slightly lower rate: 4.2 children for every spot.

Federman’s report points to the Saranac Lake Central School District’s collaboration with Community Connections and the Franklin County Department of Social Services in hiring a full-time family advocate, and the district’s collaboration with the Plattsburgh-Malone YMCA to provide before- and after-school child care, as a positive model for helping to address working families’ needs.

The Adirondack Foundation, alongside the United Way, helped secure funding for the district’s “community school” initiative.

“Based out of the Saranac Lake High School, the (family) advocate started in April and within two weeks had 12 critical care cases to tend to,” Federman wrote.

“Saranac Lake also now has a community school liaison who is helping to bridge some of the gaps between families in the district’s very large geographical area and available services.”

The district’s community school initiative is based on four things: expanding learning opportunities by helping families pay for students’ participation in extracurricular activities, collaborative leadership, family engagement and community opportunities.

In addition to nonprofit organizations’ support, the district provides support for the program through a student needs fund. It’s unclear how much the program costs to run each year.

Affordable housing, rentals

The Tri-Lakes region was featured in the Adirondack Foundation’s report as a poster child for affordable housing woes, but it points to multiple different projects here as positive developments in an ongoing crisis.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development defines “affordable housing” as a home where residents use less than 30% of their yearly income to cover rent. In Franklin County, 51% of families are considered “rent-burdened,” according to the report. Essex County is close behind, with 49% of families considered rent-burdened.

The shortage of affordable housing options has a direct impact on local businesses — which often struggle to find housing for new or possible employees, according to the report.

“New factors are also influencing the housing market,” Federman wrote. “Short-term rentals in Lake Placid and other communities, fueled by Airbnb and VRBO, have raised fears that limited rental stock is being removed from the market at a time when it is desperately needed.

“Access to affordable housing for all residents of the region has become an increasingly visible and important issue. New transitional housing units and homeless shelters have or are set to open in Saranac Lake, Malone, and Plattsburgh to address an often overlooked need. To meet the challenges facing the region, housing advocates are looking at new and innovative solutions to expand options for low and middle-income families.”

The report points to the work of the Adirondack Community Housing Trust, a nonprofit organization under the Housing Assistance Program of Essex County that was launched more than 10 years ago.

Since 2006, the ACHT has used $1 million in state funding to purchase 25 properties and convert them into affordable housing. The trust recently resold a home in Wilmington for $77,000 — less than it would’ve cost a decade ago, according to the report. In Lake Placid, the trust says it is working on developing two different lots for affordable housing.

Under the trust’s model, families buy a home and lease the land beneath it from the trust. There are deed restrictions that lay out how much the families can later sell the homes for and who they can sell the homes to, and there’s a cap on appreciation, according to Emily Politi, who once led the trust and currently serves on the board of trustees for its umbrella organization, the Housing Assistance Program of Essex County.

“It’s a really hard buy-in in the Adirondack Park,” she said last month. “People want to own the land. It’s so hard to convince people that, ‘You don’t own the land, but you still have every right to use it, and we’re not going to tell you how to use it.’ I think it’s an easier buy-in when you have more of them, or once you can increase the subsidy.”

The report also highlights two other initiatives in the Tri-Lakes region.

The first, still in the preliminary stages, is a collaboration between the Adirondack Regional Federal Credit Union and ARISE, a Tupper Lake-based coalition. The plan is for ARISE to acquire six properties in Tupper Lake and renovate them, opening up 20 new apartment units that may be rented out for $400 per month each, the report says. Renters who lived there could receive financial counseling and help with budgeting from the credit union, which could lead to the development of a first-time homebuyers program.

The second is Samaritan House in Saranac Lake, an eight-bed homeless shelter born from a collaboration between the Ecumenical Council of Saranac Lake and the Lakeside House. It opened in February 2017 and last September welcomed its 100th resident.

Samaritan House, along with Barnabas House in Malone and the newly established MHAB transitional housing development in Plattsburgh, “are serving a critical need in Adirondack communities and require ongoing support and investment,” Federman wrote.

The full Adirondack Foundation report includes more information about transportation, workforce training, addiction treatment and more. It is available at www.adirondackfoundation.org/meeting-needs-adirondack-communities.

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