Keene committee shares results of community housing survey

KEENE — The Keene Housing Task Force on Tuesday presented the results of a community housing survey, which showed that town residents believe there’s a need for more rental units and year-round affordable housing.

Task force member and town Councilor Teresa Cheetham-Palen shared the results of the task force’s community housing survey at the Keene Town Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday. While she didn’t express surprise at many of the findings — which she said were consistent with recent studies performed by Essex County — the task force also presented several possible solutions to the need for more affordable housing in Keene, including implementing a voluntary deed restriction program and building a new affordable housing development on Gilmore Hill Road.

The Keene Housing Task Force was created last summer as a directive from the town’s strategic plan, which was adopted in June 2021. The plan identified the need for more “achievable” housing in the town, an issue that surrounding communities like Wilmington and Lake Placid are also working to address amidst a rise in short-term vacation rentals and property values.

Cheetham-Palen said that the Keene Town Council funded a year-long subscription from SurveyMonkey for the committee to garner responses. She said that the committee posted the survey on Nextdoor Keene, provided hard copies of the survey at the local library and town hall, put posters up on bulletin boards around town, sent out emails and made phone calls to residents. Task force members even approached residents at the transfer station to encourage them to fill out the survey, she said.

The survey had 252 respondents — around 20% of the town’s population, according to Cheetham-Palen — and she thought that gave the survey some “statistical significance.” Eighty-one percent of those respondents were full-time Keene residents and people who responded were nearly evenly split between the hamlets of Keene and Keene Valley.

Survey results

Most people are happy with their housing in Keene, according to survey results, despite the identified need for more affordable and long-term housing. Eighty-one percent of respondents were either satisfied or very satisfied with their current housing situation, with 13% saying they were somewhat satisfied and only 6% saying they were unsatisfied. However, most respondents said they knew of families who had trouble finding rental housing or an affordable home to purchase.

More than 69% of survey takers identified two top housing challenges: the availability of affordable single-family housing and the availability of affordable, year-round rental units. The lack of liveable wages based on the cost of housing in Keene was also identified as a challenge by 43% of respondents, and around 20% of respondents highlighted the quality of housing for sale and the rental stock as a challenge.

Cheetham-Palen said that renters who responded to the survey commented on the lack of rental units available in the area and their difficulty in finding those units. Some people said they had to “take what they could get” or that they wouldn’t be renting in Keene if they hadn’t known someone who connected them with a unit. It’s hard for someone new to find a rental in Keene, Cheetham-Palen said, and she thought the town could “stand to improve” its rental stock.

Some people also commented that it took them nine months of searching to find an apartment that wasn’t a “total wreck”; that houses for sale at lower price points needed so much work it’s prohibitive; that there are a number of abandoned and uninhabited housing units in the town; and that there are “too many (short-term vacation rentals).”

When asked about their salary, respondents showed that Keene has a wide range of incomes. The $301,000 or more range was just as popular as the $20,000 to $30,000 or less range, with 8% of respondents choosing each category, though most people identified their incomes as lying somewhere in the middle. Seventeen percent of people said their income was between $91,000 and $120,000; 15% of people said they made between $61,000 and $80,000 a year; and around 12% of people said they earned between $121,000 and $200,000 per year. Cheetham-Palen said Keene’s area median income was identified as being around $67,500 in 2021, though she said that figure could have gone up since then.

The survey found that most people — 36% of respondents — have full-time jobs in the area, while 33% of people said they were retired. Twelve percent of people said they have part-time local jobs, and 13% of survey takers said they telecommute. Cheetham-Palen said she was surprised by the number of telecommuters, though she thought the town would continue to see an increase in people working from home. She said that could create more job diversity and attract more residents to the community.

The vast majority of survey-takers, 96%, said that single detached houses were their ideal type of housing, and most of the survey respondents were homeowners — 85%. However, Cheetham-Palem said a demographics and housing study released by Essex County in May showed that Keene has more seasonal occupied housing units — 590 — than year-round occupied units — 478. Cheetham-Palen said that figure wasn’t new in the town of Keene, but she thought the town should work to better equalize those numbers.

“We want to try to create a little more balance there so that our year-round community is robust and our fire departments have young volunteers and our school is doing well,” she said, “so we want to bring some balance back to that.”

Cheetham-Palen thought that the population of Keene has been “trending older,” and the task force’s survey responses reflect that. Twenty-six percent of respondents said they were between 65 and 74 years old, the most popular answer to a question gauging peoples’ age. The next most popular age ranges were between 55 and 64 and between 45 and 54, which both garnered 18% of the total responses. Seventeen percent of survey takers said they were between 25 and 34. Cheetham-Palen said these responses showed that the town should try to maintain and attract younger residents.

Proposed solutions

Considering the survey’s results, Cheetham-Palen said the task force believed the town should try to increase its stock of year-round rental housing and access to affordable year-round housing. That’s not easy to do, she said, as the cost of construction materials has increased and housing assessments have risen. Still, the housing task force thought of several solutions to the town’s need for more rental units and year-round, affordable housing.

The Keene Housing Task Force announced on Tuesday that it plans to test the viability of a site on Gilmore Hill Road to see if a new affordable housing project could be built there.

The task force is also working with Old Forge-based nonprofit LivingADK to see if the town could replicate Living ADK’s voluntary deed restriction program. Under the program, Keene homeowners could volunteer to place deed restrictions on their property. That means that if those homeowners sold their property, it could never be used as an STR or commercial property.

Cheetham-Palen said the task force is working with a number of area nonprofits like the Adirondack Land Trust — which owns the Gilmore Hill property — along with the Housing Assistance Program of Essex County, the Adirondack Foundation and others to find solutions to the local need for affordable housing. That’s the upside to the affordable housing crisis, she said — it’s a regional issue that’s not specific to Keene.

“Everybody’s trying to figure this out, so it’s great that we have all these resources and (that we’re) getting some information on how to try new things,” she said.

HAPEC, which currently owns a plot of land across from the Keene Town Hall on state Route 73, is mulling over the idea of developing up to six units on that land — which is next to the future home of the Little Peaks childcare center — and HAPEC board member Marcy Neville said the program plans to have some open meetings and possibly do some surveying to see what the community wants.

Cheetham-Palen added that the task force is studying efforts to address housing needs in neighboring towns like Wilmington and Lake Placid, since both of those municipalities have affordable housing projects in the works.

The task force is also working with the Upper Ausable Community Association, which Cheetham-Palen said could help the task force raise funds for the deed restriction program.

Cheetham-Palen said the task force has questioned whether or not the town should form its own nonprofit to address affordable housing — like Lake Placid’s Homestead Development Corporation — but she hoped that the task force’s efforts could be housed under “another unmbrella.”


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