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Affordable housing is a top local need

The more we talk to people, the more we are convinced that housing is a top public need — perhaps the top public need — in both Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

Local and state government bodies are not always treating it that way. In the village of Saranac Lake, an apartment building was turned down for a Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant, falling behind many projects that projects that were less essential, even if they seemed more exciting.

In Lake Placid, however, a couple of supposedly affordable housing developments are in the works. We like a developer’s plans to build 60 apartments on Wesvalley Road property, partly donated by the Lussi family.

We also like that the Common Ground Alliance is focusing its Forum this year on attracting younger generations to the Adirondacks. We hope presenters and attendees will consider the housing crunch as a major obstacle. If we fix that, many other things will fall into place on its own.

We don’t think the public needs to focus on increasing the bait — this area is already attractive — but rather on giving people a place to land when they move here. The Tri-Lakes villages are better positioned than most of upstate New York to attract new residents, especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic is proving to employers that their employees can work remotely — but anecdotally, finding a decent, affordable place to live is quite difficult.

In the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, the Tri-Lakes area, at least, drew a lot of younger people through its colleges and summer job offerings. They were drawn by the Adirondacks, just like generations before them, and many stayed. Ask any year-round resident of Lake Placid or Saranac Lake if they grew up there, and there’s a fairly solid chance they didn’t. They moved here by choice, often taking a pay cut to do so.

Until recently, affordable housing wasn’t that hard to come by. The growth of short-term vacation rentals killed much of that. They are so profitable that now the local apartment options are too few.

While government can subsidize apartment construction and limit short-term rentals, there is less it can do about houses — but it can help turn around zombie or abandoned properties. Many have reached a state of disrepair from which it may not be worth renovating. Some are so far gone that they sit vacant, sometimes for years. They need to be torn down and replaced with housing people want, but even though the local real estate market is red-hot, no one is doing that. Boom buyers tend to prefer move-in-ready houses, while fixer-upper buyers tend to wait until real estate is cheap.

Developers, it’s time to help build apartments and other working-class housing. The demand is there, but so far the free market is not meeting the need.

Maybe it needs some nudging. The Wesvalley Road project is expected to be subsidized by the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which in turn would require that rents be set to be affordable to people making 60% of the area’s median income. We do not think the developer needs a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) deal it plans to request, but an up-front construction grant seems reasonable.

Lake Placid should also look inward to pay for affordable housing. This is not a poor community. There is enough wealth and conscience here to meet this local need without asking Albany, whether it be through local taxes or donations.

There is an important role here for state aid, though. New York has been investing in all kinds of upstate economic development projects, including many that are more wants than needs, and some that are blatantly undeserving — such as a $3 million grant to rebuild a perfectly good Lake Placid chain hotel. Now that state finances are in dire shape due to the pandemic and shutdown, we suggest it may be time to eliminate all economic development funds for at least a year and then build back slowly — but build back better, focusing on needs rather than wants.

If developers don’t want the rent restrictions that come with accepting tax money, fine — please start building on your own, and charge what you think is appropriate.

We’re just trying to get something going in terms of housing around here. It should be a top priority.

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