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Common Ground/Common Good

Common Ground/Common Good November 20, 2023
Photo of a forest with a sign that says "Entering Adirondack Park."
Lake George Mirror file photo.

The long-term viability of the Adirondack Park requires not only that we make affordable and accessible housing available, but that we pursue it collectively, as a region, one composed of multiple communities with diverging needs, as part of a holistic, integrated approach to the Park’s economic, social and environmental challenges.

That was among the conclusions of the Adirondack

Common Ground Alliance’s annual forum, held this year on October 20 at Gore Mountain Ski Center in North Creek.  

“This experiment, that of people living in proximity to wilderness, is not sustainable if we do not have viable communities where people can live, work and raise families in houses they can afford,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of the environmental conservation organization, Protect the Adirondacks. “We want people to be engaged in the communities surrounding the Forest Preserve. And we need more people working in jobs maintaining the Forest Reserve.”

Housing never fails to surface in any conversation about the Adirondack Park, said Jim Siplon, president of Warren County EDC.

“If we want to stabilize our school populations, we have to bring families here. Those families comprise the workforce in need of housing,” said Siplon.

17th Annual Common Ground Forum

Roughly 200 people, representing state and local governments, environmental organizations, economic development agencies and advocacy groups of all kinds, attended this year’s forum, the 17th since Adirondack

Common Ground Alliance was formed in 2004 to build bridges among groups with competing, often conflicting agendas.

“We place our differences aside and we come together in those areas where we find that we can agree upon and we try to speak with one voice to Albany,” Adirondack Foundation President and CEO Cali Brooks told media reporting from this year’s forum.

One such area “where we can agree” is, obviously, the need for more and better housing.

Bill Farber, Chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors, remarked that as much as he resented New York State’s tendency to encroach upon the powers of local government, he was “even more concerned with people’s ability to live and work here and help maintain vibrant communities.”

Being willing to accept the aid, even the intervention, of Albany “may put me in the minority among my local government colleagues,” he said.

But, he added, “the unique challenges” of growing the stock of available housing in the Adirondacks demand a regional approach, one that may need to be buttressed by support from Albany.

“The Unique Challenges” to Creating Affordable Housing in the Adirondacks

Speaker after speaker enumerated some of these challenges: a paucity of state and federal subsidies; the difficulty, financial and otherwise, of shrinking affordable housing projects to a level appropriate for rural communities; land use laws that limit residential density in areas outside hamlets; gaps in infrastructure and access to utilities; and the high percentage of homes used as vacation retreats and short-term rentals; among many other things.

Compared with other areas, the costs of construction, vacant land and existing homes are high and the labor pool is thin. Exacerbating those trends is an aging population lacking the means or the ability to vacate their homes, deteriorating housing stock, high rents and low rates of vacancy, all contributing to fewer options for those seeking homes.

Housing and Economic Development

Housing cannot be unwound from economic development, the speakers said.

“Housing and economic development go hand in hand,” said Mike Borges, executive director of the Rural Housing Coalition of New York.

“Lack of workforce housing will be an economic drag upon your communities if not addressed,” Borges told the community leaders. “Build up your housing stock as a way to attract and retain employers and employees.”

“If jobs are available and quality housing is not, those jobs will remain unfilled,” said Jim McKenna, president and CEO of the Saranac Lake-based Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST).

7,500 New Housing Units Needed

According to Allison Gaddy, Senior Planner for the Lake Champlain-Lake George Planning Board, housing “is an economic imperative,” a necessary but not sufficient condition if “we are to maintain a vibrant, sustainable regional economy.”

Roughly 30% of year-round employers report that potential employees have declined job offers because of a lack of suitable housing near the workplace, said Gaddy.

People employed by the region’s dominant industries are unable to afford the homes available, she said.

“Workers are displaced – they cannot afford homes here on the wages they earn. They’re forced to live outside the area if they are to work here. The costs of commuting cut into their earnings,” Gaddy explained.

Gaddy added, “Based on our analysis, to support the current and projected workforce population, we will need to construct 7,500 new housing units over the course of the next decade.”

Loan Fund to Build Long-Term Rentals in Warren County

The Regional Planning Board’s analysis, completed in March, 2023 and titled “Building Balanced Communities for the North Country: An Economic Analysis of Housing Needs,” assessed housing deficits in Clinton, Essex Franklin and Hamilton Counties.

Although Warren County was not included in the study, “It’s safe to say our findings reflect its needs as well,” said Gaddy.

The report’s recommendations included the creation of more long-term rentals and this past summer, the Northern Border Regional Commission (NBRC) awarded $500,000 to the Lake Champlain-Lake George Regional Planning Board to establish a Revolving Loan Fund to construct long-term rental units in Warren and four other counties.

Other recommendations to address the housing crisis, those which emerged from this year’s forum, will be included in “Blueprint for the Blue Line,” to be released before next year’s forum.

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