Paul Smith’s College feels housing shortage
PAUL SMITHS — Vance Jackson, the chair of Paul Smith’s College’s environment and society department, commutes an hour-and-20-minutes to work from Westport every day.
He’s dreading that drive in the winter, but after eight months of searching, he’s still looking for a home in the Tri-Lakes.
The housing crisis in the North Country region is not new and not exclusive to this area. But it’s impacting nearly every aspect of life here, from school enrollment to business staffing shortages. It’s impacting some local businesses’ ability to grow and the ability of some families to put down roots in the Adirondacks. It’s also contributing to a reduction in volunteer services and even an increase in homelessness.
PSC president: housing is “unsustainable”
Nicholas Hunt-Bull was just appointed as Paul Smith’s College’s president on Aug. 12, but he’s already thinking about his “legacy” and the biggest impact he can leave on the college and its community. Over his tenure as president, he says he wants to address the housing shortage, because right now, it’s hitting the college’s employees hard.
Hunt-Bull said housing is a personal priority for him. He wants improving housing opportunities for college faculty, graduating students and the region to be the long-term impact he eventually leaves on the college.
Housing is “unsustainable” right now, he said. Paul Smith’s College staff don’t have the highest salaries, Hunt-Bull says, and cannot competitively bid on homes in the face of “crazy” housing prices.
Not all local colleges are reporting the same issue, though.
“We have not had any potential candidates for positions voice concerns about finding housing,” North Country Community College spokesman Chris Knight wrote in an email. “That doesn’t mean they haven’t had difficulties — they may just not have shared it with us.”
New hires can live on Paul Smith’s College’s campus for a semester. This is a deal the college has offered for a long time, but its effectiveness is waning.
“In the past, that was enough time to go and find an acceptable place to live. Now, it’s not,” Hunt-Bull said.
So he is considering developing housing on the college’s own campus.
“The one thing Paul Smith’s College has no shortage of is land,” Hunt-Bull said. “In all seriousness, I can imagine we own a couple of mini apartment buildings and people who work for us can rent those apartments. Maybe we even build a housing development.”
He said there isn’t a location chosen for such a possible building site yet, but said he and college leadership under his direction are “actively working” on this issue. Hunt-Bull feels they are two to three years away from choosing a space to expand or renovate suitable long-term affordable housing.
“Our primary focus would be helping PSC employees, which ultimately benefits the entire community,” Hunt-Bull wrote in an email.
The college recently remodeled a 10-unit dorm building and converted it into temporary faculty housing, and it has a number of houses on Faculty Hill Road on campus.
The people who live there are appreciative, PSC professor Vance Jackson said, but this is only a “brief band-aid.”
“That is no longer enough, however, for our employees who cannot find adequate affordable housing in the region,” Hunt-Bull wrote.
Hunt-Bull said PSC students are researching housing solutions. They’re looking at the Adirondack North Country Association’s proposed co-op housing community development on land donated by an anonymous donor in North Elba.
He said he wants PSC alumni to be able to find a home here after graduating. Hunt-Bull believes the college plays a large role in the success of the region and that the area and the college have a symbiotic relationship.
The college indirectly contributes $59 million annually to the community, he says. That’s according to a 2019 study by the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.
Hunt-Bull says as the college brings people here, many of them eventually live and stay in the area. He said the college is one of the region’s largest employers. Its alumni start restaurants and its students staff them. Graduates go into the forestry field or become backcountry guides.
But because of the housing shortage, he said it’s becoming harder for people who come to love the Adirondacks in their time at the college to stay here. He said he sees short-term vacation rentals taking units off the market.
Jackson was working at a college in Vermont that closed. His wife kept her job in that state. They lived apart, long-distance, for three years when Jackson lived on the PSC campus. Eventually, he had to leave the on-campus housing, so they signed a lease in Westport, which was close to the middle of their jobs. But shortly after, his wife got a job at the Saranac Lake Central School District.
Now, they’ve been looking for an place to rent in the Tri-Lakes since February, with next to no luck.
They make the commute into their teaching jobs together. Jackson said he feels lucky that they are able to share a car and commute to the same area.
“That’s not bad, but Cascade Pass is going to be bad during the wintertime. I’m not excited about that,” Jackson said.
The listings on Facebook housing groups go fast, he said, gathering dozens of inquiries within minutes of being posted.
One of their main challenges has been finding an apartment that allows them to bring their large German Shepard.
“She has her people. She’s not aggressive, but she occasionally barks,” Jackson said. “Finding a place that would allow pets was certainly a challenge in the Saranac Lake area.”
They were offered one house, but the rent was much higher than they could afford and the yard was “the size of a desk.”
“We’re not super picky people,” Jackson said. “But the house just didn’t meet our needs.”
Housing in Vermont was difficult to find, for sure, he said, but not nearly this hard — at least, pre-pandemic.
Jackson said the shortage has impacted his department, too. His department has two openings currently, and the lack of affordable housing makes it harder to hire. He has to tell interviewees that it’s tough to move here — he doesn’t even have a home here yet. Jackson tells them about housing an hour away, but most don’t want that long of a commute.
Jackson said he feels short-term rentals are the problem, but wonders, “what’s the solution?” It’s up to the policy makers to make the needed changes, he said.
Joe Henderson, a PSC sociology professor and a member of Jackson’s department, says he sees the impact of the housing shortage in both primary and higher education. He’s a professor at the college and sits on the SLCSD school board.
Before local schools began classes on Sept. 6, the Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake school districts were scrambling to find people to fill teaching, counseling and support staff positions. Superintendents for both districts said this was, in part, because of the lack of affordable homes for new teachers and school employees.
Both districts have had applicants for jobs rescind their applications because they couldn’t find homes in the region. The Saranac Lake school district’s new curriculum and instruction director spent the past year driving herself to work and her daughter to school from Wanakena before finally finding a home in Saranac Lake in June.
Henderson said he worries about the sustainability of the community here if a lack of housing is hurting schools and colleges.
“Affordable housing and promotion of the education system are very much tied together and will be for the foreseeable future,” Henderson said.
(Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series about the affordable housing crisis and how it’s impacting the Tri-Lakes region. In upcoming issues, the Enterprise will examine how the housing crunch is impacting the area’s healthcare, bio-tech and medical research industries, what local housing developments are in the works, things local organizations and individuals are doing to help mitigate the crisis and more. Readers who want to share their story about how the housing crisis has impacted them can contact the Enterprise newsroom at email@example.com.)