Adirondacks Affordable Housing Shortage Echoes Pervasive U.S. Crisis

Interview with Tim Rowland, a freelance reporter based in New York state, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Finding decent, affordable housing in the U.S. has become ever more difficult in the 21st century. Inside New York state’s 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, three times larger than Yellowstone, many rental cottages have been converted to condominiums and a large number of private homes or apartments have been converted to AirB&B and VRBO short-term rentals.  Options for vacationers are now limited to booking standard hotel rooms, or using short-term vacation rental websites instead of relying on real estate agencies as in the past.

These changes in the real estate market, enabled by digital platforms, have exerted increasing pressure on local residents’ ability to either buy or rent property inside the boundaries of the park, which is protected by the New York state Constitution as “forever wild and free.”

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus, who is vacationing in the Adirondacks, spoke with Tim Rowland, a freelance reporter based in the area who is writing a multi-part series on the housing crisis for Adirondack Explorer magazine. Here he explains that during the COVID pandemic, outsiders were bidding up values and buying property with cash, sight unseen, wreaking havoc on the local real estate market. He also talks about recent developments that could lead to possible solutions.

TIM ROWLAND: Housing has always been kind of a touchy situation. The Adirondacks, the housing shortage, such as it is, is not really new. It’s always been vacation homes and a certain competition between inside people who have lived here all their lives and outside people coming in and buying up the housing stock.

What has happened in the Adirondacks very closely parallels what has happened throughout the country. So in that respect, we’re not any different from the shortages and the price escalation that’s happened in other parts of the country.

What sets the Adirondacks apart is our inability for the market to meet this new demand. The land is of course very tightly regulated by the state. And of course, I think most people would agree rightly so. They want to protect the wilderness, but that means you can’t go out and just lay out a big subdivision and build a bunch of homes. Beyond that, the topography doesn’t lend itself to housing developments. The land is very steep. The valleys are very narrow. It’s hard to find any place that’s flat that doesn’t flood. And so there’s just a lot of different problems in terms of addressing the shortage.

MELINDA TUHUS: We’ve been talking about buying homes mostly, but what about renting? Have they been able to rent or are they also priced out?

TIM ROWLAND: That market is – you can’t say it’s gone, but it’s getting that way. Two things have happened. One, a lot of the long-term rental properties have been turned into what they call short-term rentals, which are basically just that. They’re people who stay for a week or a weekend.

And the benefits to that for the landlord are twofold. One, it’s a lot more lucrative. You can probably make two, three times the amount of money renting it out on a weekly basis as you can, just renting it by the month. And two, the AirBNB clients tend to be fairly well screened, so you don’t have a lot of the problems that you might have with getting a bad tenant. And so long-term rentals tend to be a lot more challenging in that respect.

So what happened? You had a lot of these long-term rentals being converted to short-term rentals and people who are not eligible to buy a house. And there are a lot of ’em because they don’t have the credit perhaps, or they don’t have the money, have been forced to move to the fringes of the park or the fringes of the population centers. So you have people that are commuting, you know, 45 minutes or an hour by car to get to their jobs. There’s very little in the way of public transportation here. That compounds their problems because you know, these are people working for low wages who have trouble affording not just housing, but also gasoline and their transportation costs.

MELINDA TUHUS: You were talking in one of the articles I read, about solutions, which, you know, I think probably don’t really affect that many people, but can you talk a little bit about that?

TIM ROWLAND: The market economy is not able to do this on its own. I think everybody tends to agree. So you need some kind of economic tailwind. You need either donated land or you need, free septic, or you need some assistance with down payments. And there are various organizations, some government, some nonprofit and some just private people who have donated land. So you have a lot of people who are trying to reduce the costs in any way they can. And so what you’re finding is that a municipality may buy a chunk of land at below market rate from someone who is interested in just being helpful. And so the town will take that, they will put sewer and water system on it, and then build the homes and sell to people who maybe could afford the price of the home, but not the price of the land, the price of the septic, the price of all these other things that go along with it and make homes more expensive.

You know, there’s no such thing obviously as free housing, but there are ways to cut around the edges and make the housing a little more affordable. And that’s what you see a lot of the nonprofits, municipalities and philanthropists trying to do.

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