Who’s welcome in Old Forge? That’s at the heart of a debate over affordable housing
The small community of Old Forge is nestled in the western Adirondacks. There are long chains of lakes that draw boaters in the summertime, and endless trails for hikers, bikers, and snowmobilers to explore.
Old Forge is now a year-round tourism destination. It’s also beloved by a lot of locals.
“I can leave my house on a day off in the summer and go for a hike or kayak or just camp for the night on a whim,” said Sandra Duguay. “Not many people can do that.”
Duguay is in her late 30s and has lived in Old Forge for decades. She works at the local Ace Hardware store and is raising her teenage son here.
Duguay wants to buy a home in Old Forge, but she can’t afford to, since the few houses on the market often sell for anywhere from $400,000 to the millions. “It’s really sad, I love living here,” she said.
The housing problem in the town of Webb, which includes the hamlet of Old Forge, is caused by a few different factors. First, it’s in the Adirondack Park, so there’s limited land and strict building codes. Second, the number of housing units has dropped by 9% in the last decade. Third, and maybe most crucial, there’s a 76% vacancy rate. Most places in Old Forge are vacation homes, so they’re empty much of the year.
A recent study commissioned by Herkimer County concluded that there’s an “overwhelming and urgent” need for affordable housing in the Old Forge area.
“I think we’re holding on by a thread,” said Tom Greco, who owns the Front Door Diner and Backdoor Bar in Old Forge and is also a member of the town board.
Greco worries that, without enough affordable places for local workers to live, Old Forge could lose the industry it’s built on: tourism. “Once your tourism dies I think your town starts to die and eventually you lose your school and eventually your town just falls,” he said.
The threat of the local school closing isn’t imminent, but enrollment has plummeted in recent decades, down by 41% since 2000.
The dramatic drop in school enrollment happened despite the population in the area remaining relatively steady, decreasing by 6% over the same timeframe. The problem is that people in Old Forge are getting older and not enough young people and families are moving to the area and staying.
A big part of that problem is the lack of affordable housing, which is where Bob Calli comes in. Calli is the executive director of People First, a Utica-based housing developer. He was in Old Forge in late February to pitch his plan to build 52 new housing units just north of downtown.
“If your economic engine is people and serving the needs of people, you need to be able to promote people to live here on an affordable basis and that’s what [the] Woodlands provides,” he said.
The Woodlands housing complex would mostly be for low-income residents. Some units, though, would rent at the market rate and others would be for seniors. Those 52 units would help address the need for more than 300 housing units, a gap identified by the county’s recent housing study.
Despite that data, hundreds of folks in Old Forge signed a petition opposing the project. At a town board meeting back in February, people pushed back against two things in particular: the fact that the developer, People First, is from Utica, and that most units would be for low-income folks.
Kate Cominsky, who lives in Old Forge, has been one of the vocal opponents of the project.
“The indicators from Utica — we have the crime statistic reports and a map of where seven places of People First are located in Utica, N.Y., which also has [a] refugee center, one of the biggest in America,” said Cominsky.
NCPR reached out to Cominsky multiple times for an interview but never heard back. The reality is that thousands of refugees have resettled in Utica in recent decades. They’re largely people of color from places like Somalia and Myanmar. They’ve helped revive the rustbelt town.
But people in Old Forge echoed Cominsky’s comments. They said they were worried about crime, about an influx of low-income people, of “different people” moving in.
Town Supervisor Bonnie Baker defended Old Forge and said it’s a welcoming place, and that comments like Cominsky’s don’t reflect the community as a whole.
“The few people that you hear are the few,” said Baker. “Few and far between, those people.”
Baker has her own reservations about the housing project. She’s worried it would overwhelm the town’s aging septic system, that the school wouldn’t be able to handle an influx of students, and she’s not convinced the area needs 52 new units.
Plus Baker said the developer hasn’t kept town officials in the loop over the last year. “At this point, the lack of communication, and the lack of trust is pretty much gone with three board members,” said Baker. “I don’t know how to get that back.”
At the end of the February town board meeting, they pulled their support for the project.
Still, the developer pressed on. At two informational sessions in late February, Bob Calli from People First apologized to the packed crowd.
“I’m human. I made a mistake. I’m sorry for it,” said Calli. “I can’t do anything more to correct it, other than this: make sure that, from this point forward, there is clear communication.”
But most people who spoke up at those informational meetings weren’t having it and there were still concerns about low-income people moving to Old Forge.
“Your apology is not accepted by me,” said local Paul Thiebeau, “because I think you’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing that’s trying to bring government housing into our town that’s going to ruin it.” Some in the audience applauded Thiebeau’s comment.
Calli said repeatedly that the project was not government or voucher housing. He also said multiple times it was not intended to transplant folks from Utica to Old Forge.
Ultimately, though, Calli admitted the project can’t happen without the community’s support. “At the end of the day, if you don’t want this or you don’t want us, I think it’s over,” he said.
Town officials in Old Forge say they do have other ideas for housing, like offering tax incentives and loosening zoning laws. But right now, there’s no other concrete plan that would invest an estimated $20-22 million and add 52 homes and apartments to the community.
As Old Forge reckons with its identity and the urgent need for housing, this could have a lasting impact on the area, both on who can and who wants to make a home here.
NCPR asked Sandra Duguay, the woman who works at the local hardware store and is raising her teenage son here, about this. Ten or 20 years down the line, Duguay is still hopeful about Old Forge.
“I would like it to be a lot like it is now, but a little bit more diverse, people with different ideas and thoughts,” said Duguay. “I want all kinds of people to enjoy the nature that I get to enjoy.”
But without affordable places for those people to rent or buy, it’s unclear if that kind of future is possible in Old Forge.