In competitive rental market, families struggle to find homes
The current housing market in the North Country is a tough one, and has been for years. Home prices are up, inventory is down and rents have been increasing. North Country Public Radio has heard countless stories of people searching for housing, many of them in vain.
For many year-round residents that work locally, it’s been especially difficult to buy homes or stay in affordable rentals.
Both have been a struggle for the Openshaw family. Addie and Shane Openshaw are raising four kids and have a dog. They moved to Saranac Lake in 2018. For Addie, it was somewhat like a homecoming; she grew up here and has a lot of family in Saranac Lake and Bloomingdale.
In 2018, they found a two-bedroom apartment for rent in downtown Saranac Lake for about $1,100 a month, utilities included. It had a family kitchen and a yard for the dog. It was a tight squeeze, with their two sons and nephew sharing one bedroom, and their daughter in a small office, but Openshaw said the location couldn’t be beat.
“It’s right up the street from the Lake Flower boat launch, and a minute’s walk from any place,” she said. She could walk to work and the kids could visit friends without needing a ride.
But in May, they got a knock on the door from a police officer. They were served a termination of lease notice: they had 90 days to leave the apartment.
Seeking housing for years in a cutthroat market
It wasn’t totally shocking news, Openshaw said.
“We’ve been waiting for it [the termination of lease notice]. I just didn’t think it would come when it did.”
She said their neighborhood has changed a lot in the past few years, with a rapid rise in short-term rentals. She ticked off how many homes with year-round residents were left on her block; she figured about five.
“The rest are Airbnbs,” Openshaw said.
Her own landlord converted the two other apartments in the house into Airbnbs in 2020 and 2021. “He renovated them, they’re beautiful,” she said. “You can find them online.”
She thinks that’s what will happen to theirs, too.
Openshaw said their landlord first warned them they should look for alternative housing in September 2020, while the COVID-19 eviction moratorium was still in place. They started looking then, but they were entering a cutthroat market, and with a large family.
“I’ve seen single people looking, newlyweds looking,” Openshaw said. “It’s just been really disheartening, because if they can’t find anything, how on earth are we going to find anything?”
Between 2019 and 2021, the average rent in Essex County increased by 20%. The Openshaws had been saving for a down payment to buy a home, but during that same time period, the average sale price of a home in Essex County increased by 55% — from $130,000 to nearly $200,000.
They looked as far as Malone, Plattsburgh and Ticonderoga, with no luck. They kept working and paying their rent, hoping their landlord would let them stay. Openshaw said she told the landlord, “Look: don’t you read the paper? This is a real crisis!”
Housing instability is moving up the income ladder
The Openshaw family represents a growing number of people across the Adirondacks and the North Country: those who are employed, working and don’t qualify for assistance under federal poverty guidelines, but who can’t find or afford housing.
Megan Murphy, the assistant director at HAPEC, the Housing Assistance Program of Essex County, said more and more people are spending more than 30% of their income on housing.
“Because of the changes in the market here,” Murphy said, “the stresses have been moving up the income ladder.”
The rental stock has also gone down in the last 10 years. A recent study by Essex County found that between 2010 and 2020, the number of rental properties decreased by about 12%. In the same time period, the county saw increases in vacant “zombie” properties, short-term rentals and second homes.
Murphy said the number of people asking HAPEC for help has increased dramatically in the last few years, and that housing instability bleeds into the rest of life.
“Because they’re paying so much, such a large portion of their income to housing, [people] don’t have money leftover for the rest of the things that they need to do [like health care, food and debt payments].”
Is there a place for local workers?
Addie Openshaw works in the kitchen of a local grocery store. Her husband, Shane Openshaw, is a contractor. They think there should be a place for them here, since they represent the year-round workers that make the Adirondacks a popular destination.
“It’s the locals that make this place run. We’re out there plowing so people can get to their ski resorts, and making sandwiches so they can go on hikes and enjoy the water,” Addie said.
Shane said that, without workers like them, and housing for those workers, the local economy would disappear.
“Renters are the backbone of local businesses. The owners employ the workers who are renting and if the housing is gone, then who are they going to hire?”
The Openshaws were stuck. An eviction looming, nothing to rent or buy that they could afford. Addie said it felt like, “There’s nowhere for us to go in the Adirondack Park.”
But there was one place. A last resort that they started to think about as a serious option as they searched, fruitlessly, for housing.
Turning an old hunting cabin into a family home
Addie’s family owned a small, off-grid log cabin in the woods of Bloomingdale. Her grandfather built it in the 1950s.
That’s where they moved at the end of August, when their time was up at their rental in Saranac Lake.
The cabin lies at the end of a half-mile dirt road driveway. It’s made of logs, and it’s been vacant since 2008. There are only a few windows, all single pane, and it used to have two rooms: the first floor with a small kitchenette and a living room, and a loft. For a few years, Addie’s uncle lived here, alone.
Two adults, four children and a dog are a very different story.
It’s been a summer of hasty renovations: replacing water lines, putting up plywood walls, tearing out the old woodstove and patching holes. They’ve sectioned off part of the downstairs for a room for Addie and Shane; it’s just a few feet wider than a queen bed, and there are no windows or lights.
Addie Openshaw showed me around by the illumination of a flashlight. Their electricity comes from a gas generator, and during the day, they keep it off to save money. Openshaw told me to be careful as we climbed narrow, dark stairs up into the loft, which they’ve also separated with plywood into a small bedroom for their daughter, Allison, and a larger bedroom for the three boys, Kane, Vance and Zane Ragsdale, their nephew. The Openshaws adopted Zane during the pandemic.
The boys’ room looks like camp, three single beds all in a row. The trio were on the middle bed, playing monopoly by the light of the single window.
Vance Openshaw is 16, and he said he liked their new digs. “It’s a lot of fun being out here. And I’m glad we can find this house.”
Zane Ragsdale is 15, and he said moving was an adjustment, but that they like their new backyard. “It’s harder to get places. But there’s more privacy, you know. It’s cool that we got more yard. I actually built a fort out there in the woods.”
Off-grid living means more family time
Part of why the boys were playing a board game is that there’s no cell service at the cabin, and no internet.
Addie said without their phones or computers, the kids have been going a little stir-crazy. Shane thinks it’s actually been good for the family.
“We noticed that not being connected digitally has brought our family closer,” he said, “because you’re kind of forced to engage with one another. It’s kind of one of those lost arts.”
Shane said the last couple of months have been exhausting, with “moving and work and remodeling,” but he’s grateful he has construction skills, and the ability to turn a small, three-season camp into a home for six. “It feels like everything I’ve done in my life has culminated to this point. And I could use all that to make some place for my family to land.”
The real test lies ahead, but they’re committed
But Shane said there’s a lot still to do. Patching holes, insulating the roof, getting rid of pests and rodents. Almost everyone in the family joked about the mice having taken over the cabin.
They do have their heat source — a pellet stove — set up, and just in time, because nights are already getting chilly.
I walked with Addie to the backyard, where laundry was hanging on a line, and the sun was starting to set. She reflected, “I never would have imagined that I would be back here as an adult with my family. I wouldn’t have worked it out like that in my head … it’s just been a hard fast three months.”
But now that they’re here, she said it was a blessing in disguise. They had their saved down payment money to use on renovations. She feels secure. She can’t imagine returning to the brutal housing market they left.
“I think my husband and I are done moving. You know, we really put our heart and soul into this place and it doesn’t seem like much but … but we’re just done.”
Of course, they don’t know if their gamble will pay off until winter, when the half-mile dirt driveway is covered in snow, and the patched insulation is tested.
But Addie said this is home now. They’re going to make it work.