Tupper Lake looks for housing solutions
TUPPER LAKE — Tupper Lake town Councilman John Gillis spent his summer studying local housing statistics, attending the Common Ground Alliance conference in June and jumping on weekly calls with Adirondack Action. He’s doing this because he believes the town cannot remain a working-class town without being able to weather the affordable housing shortage.
“Housing is the most important component of any plan for a community to thrive. Without it, you can’t attract a workforce at any level — doctors, teachers, construction workers,” Gillis said. “If they can’t find a house to rent or buy, they can’t move here.”
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.
Gillis cited some early statistics from a forthcoming study by the Lake Champlain-Lake George Regional Planning Commission, which included housing data on Franklin and Essex counties. This data, he said, shows the purchase price of a home in Franklin County rose by 70% since 2015 while wages have only increased by 11%. Gillis believes wages will have risen by the end of this study because they have been rising recently.
But 78% of locals are “cost-burdened,” according to the survey. That term refers to people whose housing costs are more than 30% of their income.
Meanwhile, more homes are only lived in part of the year, making them second homes or investment properties.
“Twenty-four percent of housing is seasonal now — up from 15% in 2010,” Gillis said, citing data from the U.S. Census for a four-county area including Franklin and Essex counties.
Short-term rentals exploded during the pandemic because people wanted to rent individual houses he said.
“It’s big business,” Gillis said.
He said he’s not opposed to short-term rentals, but he thinks too many of them threaten a community. Tupper Lake currently only has around 70 STRs while Lake Placid has around 700.
“That’s a big difference,” Gillis said.
But they pose a threat over time. When an investment property is flipped numerous times over a few years, the price rises every time because they are investments — businesses, not family homes.
This raises property values — and thereby, taxes — and can force surrounding locals out from their neighborhoods. Gillis said rental sales in the area went from $9 million to $20 million between 2019 and 2021.
STRs are not the cause of the housing shortage, Gillis said, but they do contribute to it. There are four homes near his house which have converted from long-term rentals to short-term rentals in recent years, he said, and those are four less homes for people to live in.
STRs contribute to the tourism economy, too, but he said that they “come with a price.”
Regulating STRs, however, is a touchy subject. Property rights are a big deal, Gillis said, and he thinks the town should not restrict them unduly.
Still, Gillis said he grew up in Tupper Lake and doesn’t want to see locals priced out, like he’s seeing happen in Lake Placid.
“I’d like to see it stay a working class town,” Gillis said.
Gillis knows of employees at Sunmount, a state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities center in Tupper Lake and a major employer here, who commute in from Watertown and Ogdensburg to work long shifts before long drives back.
The vacant Oval Wood Dish factory has been purchased by developers proposing a redevelopment of the complex into residential/commercial space with 92 apartments in total — two-thirds mixed-income apartments geared toward “entry-level workforce housing,” and one-third market-rate apartments geared toward wealthier renters.
Gillis said this is good, but it only replenishes the the housing stock lost to short-term rental conversions.
“We need more,” Gillis said.
Gillis said it’s better to look for solutions they can control on a local level, rather than relying on other, larger layers of government. This gives them “autonomy to grow.”
“Local gets it done,” Gillis said. “That was one of the big takeaways I got from the Common Ground Alliance. Don’t wait for someone to come along and help you. Do it yourself.”
He said it will take combining many solutions to address the problem.
The Adirondack Park has strict rules on housing density and zoning as defined in the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan, administered by the Adirondack Park Agency. Therefore, building inside the 6-million-acre Park is more difficult than building outside the Park.
Private lands in the Park are classified into six categories, with the “hamlet” classification — having the densest populations — being the most lenient for construction. Hamlet areas are the growth and service centers of the Park where the APA encourages development and has limited permit requirements. These areas are typically under the jurisdiction of local governments.
Gillis believes Tupper Lake is in a good position because it has room to build within its hamlet to increase density. It all comes down to zoning and budgeting, he said.
“As a board, we should be budgeting for housing,” Gillis said.
One thing Gillis thinks towns can encourage through zoning is accessory dwelling units — independent dwellings on land alongside a home.
However, building costs are up to $185 per square foot now, Gillis said.
He said a land bank could be “another arrow in the quiver” in the fight for housing.
Land banking is the practice of aggregating parcels of land for future sale or development through a public/private partnership. Counties create them and Gillis said it could be a way to get “serial properties” out of a cycle of being foreclosed on, auctioned off, left vacant and foreclosed on again.
With a land bank and well-funded private development, he says these properties could be renovated and returned to the housing stock.
Gillis says he likes the Fawn Valley housing complex project in Lake Placid and wants to replicate it in Tupper Lake. Fawn Valley is a development of 22 new housing units — six single-family, two-bedroom Cape Cod-style houses and 16 two-bedroom townhomes located within four buildings — which will be sold at cost to “essential workers” who apply for the homes, with help from several grants.
Gillis said he’s currently looking to have the town partner with a non-profit to buy some land for a similar style of project.
The town has a hard time turning property back over to specific private owners, he said, because can’t declare it excess and sell it to a certain person. The town would have to put the property up for bid, and anyone could buy it and use the land for anything else.
Gillis said he’s searching for a nonprofit organization to purchase and hold the land while the town fosters a still-to-be-created local nonprofit to buy the land from that first nonprofit group, essentially creating a private land bank.
Gillis said he’s looking at vacant properties inside Tupper Lake’s hamlet area and has identified a couple hundred acres of land that could be used to create high-density workforce housing.
Whether these would be individual homes, a housing complex or a mix of both, he’s not sure. He hopes to come up with plans to build homes in the next four to five years.
“It’s going to take a while,” Gillis said. “But we’ve got to start somewhere and if we don’t start we’ll never get there.”
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(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 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.)