‘Dire’ housing report, but encouraging solutions
With large report release, creators say it's time to act
SARANAC LAKE — A 296-page report on the housing crisis recently released by the Lake Champlain-Lake George Regional Planning Board paints a bleak image of the local housing crisis, but local leaders who have been combing through it say they are encouraged by the solutions it proposes and, now, they just have to put it to use.
The report, released in March, focuses on Essex, Franklin, Clinton and Hamilton counties. It says the region has a “stagnant and declining year-round population,” that “housing production has not kept up with demand” and that “income levels are drastically misaligned with housing costs … putting quality housing options out of reach.”
But it is also full of solutions and ideas that those who have read it found encouraging.
Saranac Lake resident Jeremy Evans was on the steering committee for the study.
“We all have that feeling that it is a crisis, based on our own experiences. This study puts some numbers to it,” Evans said. “It quantifies the anecdotes that individuals experience, which is really important to put data behind. It justifies that there is a need to react to, whether that is through investment through a private developer or policy action by a government.”
Looking into the near future, the region needs growth, according to the report, but that can’t happen without a better housing situation. According to the report, Essex County needs 1,675 “housing interventions” to meet existing needs, and Franklin County needs 944. This can mean new development, redevelopment, increased density or a slew of other methods.
The region as a whole needs 20,170 of these interventions, according to the report, including 7,500 new housing units.
The report finds the biggest need for housing in income levels between $75,000 and $150,000. There is also a strong need for the very lowest incomes of less than $15,000.
The full report can be read at https://adobe.ly/3WFQuUQ.
“This is everywhere”
Evans feels the solutions the report proposes are achievable by people in the region. He said local work is important, since it is hard to compete for solutions state- or nationwide.
Evans said this study could now just sit on a shelf, or people can start acting on it — governments, nonprofits and private citizens.
“There’s enough in there for everybody,” Evans said.
He said addressing the housing crisis is not “somebody else’s job” — it is everybody’s job. He hopes local leaders refer to this study as they work on improving life in their communities.
Tupper Lake town Councilman John Gillis has been interested in the housing issue and dug into the report to pull out relevant information for his town.
“This is rural America. This is everywhere,” Gillis said. “In rural America we’re losing population. We haven’t been keeping up with housing. After 2008, new housing has just dropped.”
Gillis said the problems causing the issue vary from community to community and no one issue is to blame. He said it was a “series of unfortunate events” that brought 14 years of a flat rate of building — the 2008 recession, the coronavirus pandemic, inflation.
“This is dire,” he said.
Franklin County has some of the lowest wages in the region, the most children in poverty and population that has dropped 14% in the past decade. School enrollment has slid, and that’s “a bell you can’t un-ring,” he said.
Only 23% of Franklin County residents can afford a new home larger than 1,000 square feet at these prices, according to the study. That’s less than half the size of a regulation tennis court, or around the size of five car garage bays.
Gillis called this figure “startling.”
Gillis said he was also encouraged by the report, seeing lots of people getting involved. He feels Tupper Lake is in a relatively good place right now by keeping its working class housing.
He said all it takes is a roof, WiFi and a beautiful place to get people to move somewhere. The area has the beauty and is working on the WiFi — it just needs more roofs.
Gillis said the next step is to start talking with people about local priorities. He plans to hold a public forum on the topic at the town’s next board meeting on June 8.
The report proposes a wide range of solutions to the housing crisis, and some of these are already underway in recent months. Franklin and Essex counties both had land banks approved by the state, which will allow communities to take run-down or vacant properties that have years of delinquent taxes, renovate them and get them back into the housing market.
Gillis, who is on the Franklin County land bank board, said they had their first meeting on Monday and hope to have properties “in the pipeline” in the near future.
Many local governments have begun regulating short-term vacation rentals, some with focuses on capping the number allowed and restricting where they can operate. The report also recommends deed restrictions keeping certain properties from becoming STRs and programs incentivizing renting to locals over STR conversions.
“A rent-to-locals program would provide a financial incentive to property owners to sign long-term leases with local renters,” the report states.
With limited room to grow in the Adirondack Park, the report recommends that hamlets where building is easier be developed densely.
Evans, a former Saranac Lake village community development director, likes the zoning solutions since they are free and allow for direct community control. He feels Saranac Lake has a jump start with a code that encourages a mix of housing.
Evans said though many people dream of a single-family home on a half-acre lot, the area cannot accommodate that. So density is the solution. He said projects like the 151-unit Oval Wood Dish and Oval Lofts redevelopment in Tupper Lake, the 70-unit proposed Saranac Lofts project and the 60-unit Mackenzie Overlook complex in Lake Placid are big deals for the region.
Not every apartment needs a large complex, though. Evans feels there is a lot of opportunity for two-to-four-unit buildings, which don’t require as much work, development and money.
The report proposes getting local governments and nonprofits to bring workforce housing development projects for approval by the Adirondack Park Agency even before developers get involved. This would lead to a lower risk for developers, which might make these projects more attractive to them.
The report suggests more affordable modular homes can by built off-site using student labor and local materials and transported to plots of land. It says this offers workforce training and cheaper labor through students.
The report suggests building more accessory dwelling units. Evans said the zoning code Saranac Lake passed in 2016, which he was part of crafting, allowed accessory dwelling units in districts across the village, but he said they are still an “untapped resource.”
Other solutions proposed include more housing co-ops, rent-to-own programs, increased resources for first-time home buyers, and matching employers with land with housing developers to create “employer-led housing” for their employees with public funds.
The report also proposes incentivizing the area’s aging population to move out of their homes by developing new senior housing.
“The region has an old and aging population with nowhere to transition to as they age, which is reducing the homes available to the workforce,” the report states.
The study identifies nearly 800 seniors in each county who could benefit from downsizing. It says these “empty nesters” could move to elder communities with more connection and care and get connected with local buyers.
Another idea was a home-sharing program where homeowners with extra bedrooms could find roommates who pay rent or help around the home.
Evans said the LCLGR planning board is considering establishing a revolving loan fund for mixed use long-term rentals in hamlets.
“I am very optimistic about the progress being made with housing,” Evans said. “I don’t want to gloss over the challenges because it really is a crisis.”
Gillis said it is going to take a while to turn things around for local housing. After all, it took a while to get here.