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Creating Housing: “Easier Said Than Done”

Creating Housing: “Easier Said Than Done” December 21, 2023
Bird's eye view of houses.
Affordable single family homes can no longer be built inexpensively, old tourist cabins have been repurposed as expensive workforce housing and homes on Lake George start at $2.5 million. Warren County officials are wrestling with a lack of housing in the area.

Between 1981 and 2006, Warren County created, rehabilitated or replaced 2,100 units of housing at a cost of $25 million before funding was discontinued, according to retired Warren County Planner Pat Tatich.

Is there a demand today for a public intervention in the housing market, especially in the absence of state and federal largesse?

“That’s hard to say,” says County Planner Ethan Gaddy. “Is housing something a tax-paying resident is interested in seeing county and municipal governments support?”

According to Gaddy, an answer to that question may emerge as the municipalities, as well as the county itself, complete comprehensive plans. 

Warren County Has a Housing Problem

There is, however, no question that Warren County suffers from a housing shortage.

When the rate of vacancy drops below 5%, a housing shortage exists, says Julia Smith, the lead author of a recently completed assessment of housing in Warren County.

The vacancy rate in Warren County is 3.6%, Smith told a committee of Warren County Supervisors on November 14.

According to “A Housing Needs Study and Market Analysis of Warren County, New York,” the study commissioned by the county’s Planning Department and released in November, inventory is low, with houses selling faster than the national average. Single-family homes, when available, are expensive: typically, $300,000 and above. The supply of rental units is equally limited and comparatively expensive. Rents have increased by 22 to 41% over the past few years.

The County’s Housing Needs and Assessment Study

The study, conducted by the firm Novogradac, was funded by a $50,000 state grant, with matching contributions from Warren County EDC and the Local Development Corporation of Warren County. The Planning Department provided in-kind technical services worth, at a minimum, $10,000.

“The Housing Needs Study gives us a good base of information; we can now start setting goals and identifying priorities,”  said the Planning Department’s Ethan Gaddy. “For a number of organizations in our region, housing is the number one issue.”

The “Missing Middle”

Among other things, the study identified “gaps” in the housing market, most notably, in “the middle:” middle-class, mid-sized townhomes, duplexes or garden cottages that allow for a density greater than the ubiquitous suburban-style, single-family house lots, situated so as to align with the rhythms and patterns of traditional small town life.

“The population of Warren County is aging, and as a result, the size of the average household is decreasing,” said Julia Smith. “But a relatively small percentage of the homes available have fewer than three bedrooms. There’s a mismatch between housing needs and housing availability.”

Housing that would suit the needs of seniors would also be affordable and appropriate “for young families, for young professionals, for first time home buyers,” said Smith.

The dearth of affordable “starter homes” is another gap in the market, said Smith.

“This is largely due to the increase in housing prices, combined with competition from all-cash offers coming from outside the county,” said Smith.

The study also refers to “a lack of affordable options in the lakeshore communities.” (Coincidentally, an issue of the Albany Business Review published November 14 stated, “the starting price for a home – that’s livable – on Lake George has increased to an estimated $2.5 million,” leaving one to wonder where one might find an “unlivable” home on the lake, and what might it cost.)

Smith surmised that once the baby boom generation starts to downsize, more single family homes will enter the market, easing the housing shortage. But, she added, “that can only unfold if there are options for the baby boomers to downsize into.”

According to the report, 956 new units have been approved for construction in Warren County, but only 13% of those have progressed beyond the planning stages. None are expected to be ready for occupancy anytime soon.

Trends Driving the Housing Shortage

At a November 14 meeting of the Warren County Board of Supervisors’ Economic Growth and Development Committee, Smith discussed the trends responsible for the county’s housing shortage.

Among them: an aging housing stock. Thirty percent of the county’s single family homes (and single family homes comprise 71% of the county’s 40,406 housing units) were built before 1950. Many of those homes are vacant because their owners have not repaired, renovated or restored them.

Also: an increase in demand from outside, rather than from within, Warren County. That demand fuels the market in vacation retreats as well as in homes that can be repurposed as Short-term rentals. Both are attractive to out-of-county buyers.

“It’s location, location, location,” said Smith. “As the gateway to the Adirondack Park, Warren County is a place that anyone traveling north can fall in love with and imagine relocating here, finding a second home here or investing in Short-term rentals here.”

According to Smith, there are at least 1,053 Short-term rental units in Warren County as of September, 2023 – an increase of 58% or higher since early 2020.

“That is a pretty significant increase,” said Smith.

County Options

What options are available to Warren County to ease the housing crisis? Smith was asked.

They include: creating initiatives that target housing needs, whether those be workforce housing or “the missing middle;” rehabilitating aging housing; or strictly regulating Short-term rentals. Alternatively, transfer taxes on second homes or fees charged the operators of Short-term rentals could be channeled into housing development funds.

Among the Towns

Ron Conover is Supervisor for the Town of Bolton, where prices for homes typically start at $500,000 and where 6% of the homes are Short-term rentals.

“Here in Bolton, we will be supportive of any approach (to the housing shortage) that we think is credible and workable,” said Conover. “I’d like to see a solid recommendation come from the Comprehensive Plan Committee’s public process.”

Because of financial constraints, Warren County is unlikely to initiate any new housing-creation strategies, said Conover.

In the Town of Queensbury, and in post-war suburbs generally, the federal government subsidized the construction of inexpensive single-family homes for newly-discharged veterans, noted Queensbury Supervisor John Strough.

That would not be possible today, said Strough.

“Even if you zoned for small lots, the developer would still need to sell houses for as much as $700,000, which is hardly affordable housing,” said Strough.

“Saying we need housing is easier than creating it,” said Strough.

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