TUPPER LAKE — Tupper Lake Councilman John Gillis spent his summer studying local housing statistics, attending the Common Ground Alliance conference in June, and participating in weekly calls with Adirondack Action. He does this because he believes the town cannot remain a working town without being able to overcome the shortage of affordable housing.
“Housing is the most important element of any community development plan. Without it, you cannot attract labor at all levels – doctors, teachers, construction workers,” says Gilles. “If they can’t find a house to rent or buy, they can’t move here.”
The housing crisis in the North Country region is not new and is not exclusive to this area. But it is impacting almost every aspect of life here, from schooling to staffing shortages in businesses. This impacts the ability of some local businesses to grow and the ability of some families to put down roots in the Adirondacks. It also contributes to a reduction in volunteer services and even an increase in homelessness.
Gillis cited some early statistics from an upcoming Lake Champlain-Lake George Regional Planning Commission study, which included data on housing in Franklin and Essex counties. This data, he said, shows that the price of buying a home in Franklin County has increased 70% since 2015 while wages have only increased 11%. Gillis thinks salaries will have increased by the end of this study because they have increased recently.
But 78% of the inhabitants are “overloaded with costs”, according to the survey. This term refers to people whose housing costs represent more than 30% of their income.
Meanwhile, more and more homes are inhabited only part of the year, making them second homes or investment properties.
“Twenty-four percent of housing is seasonal now – up from 15% in 2010,” Gillis said, citing US Census data for a four-county area including Franklin and Essex counties.
Short-term rentals have exploded during the pandemic because people wanted to rent single-family homes, he said.
“It’s a big deal” says Gilles.
He said he wasn’t opposed to short-term rentals, but he thinks too many of them threaten a community. Tupper Lake currently has only about 70 STRs, while Lake Placid has about 700.
“It’s a big difference” says Gilles.
But they pose a threat over time. When an investment property is flipped multiple times over a few years, the price goes up each time because they are investments – businesses, not family homes.
This increases property values – and therefore taxes – and can force surrounding residents out of their neighborhoods. Gillis said rental sales in the area grew from $9 million to $20 million between 2019 and 2021.
STRs are not the cause of the housing shortage, Gillis said, but they are contributing to it. There are four houses near his house that have gone from long-term to short-term rentals in recent years, he said, and that’s four fewer houses for people.
STRs also contribute to the tourism economy, but he said they “come with a price.”
However, the regulation of STRs is a delicate subject. Property rights are a big issue, Gillis said, and he thinks the city shouldn’t restrict them unduly.
Still, Gillis said he grew up in Tupper Lake and didn’t want to see local prices go down, as he sees happening in Lake Placid.
“I would like it to remain a working-class town” says Gilles.
Gillis knows employees at Sunmount, a state center for people with developmental disabilities in Tupper Lake and a major employer here, who commute from Watertown and Ogdensburg to work long hours before long trips home.
The vacant Oval Wood Dish factory has been bought by developers proposing a redevelopment of the complex into residential/commercial space with 92 apartments in total – two-thirds mixed-income apartments geared towards “entry-level workforce housing”, and a third of apartments at market price aimed at the most affluent tenants.
Gillis said that was fine, but it only replenished housing stock lost to short-term rental conversions.
“We need more,” says Gilles.
Gillis said it is better to seek solutions that they can control at the local level, rather than relying on other, larger levels of government. It gives them “Autonomy to grow.”
“The local takes care of it” says Gilles. “That’s one of the great lessons I learned from the Common Ground Alliance. Don’t wait for someone to help you. Do it yourself.”
He said that many solutions will have to be combined to solve the problem.
The Adirondacks Park has strict housing density and zoning rules as defined in the Adirondacks Park Land Use and Development Plan, administered by the Adirondacks Park Agency. Therefore, building inside the 6 million acre park is more difficult than building outside the park.
The private lands of the park are classified into six categories, the “Hamlet” classification – having the densest populations – being the most forgiving for construction. Hamlet areas are the growth and service centers of the park where the APA encourages development and has limited permit requirements. These areas are generally under the jurisdiction of local governments.
Gillis believes Tupper Lake is in a good position because he has room to build in his hamlet to increase density. It all comes down to zoning and budgeting, he said.
“As a council, we should budget for housing,” says Gilles.
One thing Gillis thinks cities can encourage through zoning is accessory dwelling units — independent dwellings on land next to a house.
However, construction costs currently stand at $185 per square foot, Gillis said.
He said that a land reserve could be “another arrow in the quiver” in the fight for housing.
Land banking is the practice of pooling parcels of land for sale or future development through a public/private partnership. Counties create them and Gillis said that could be a way to get “serial properties” out of a cycle of being seized, auctioned off, vacated and seized again.
With a land bank and well-financed private development, he says these properties could be renovated and reintegrated into the housing stock.
Gillis says he likes the Fawn Valley housing project in Lake Placid and wants to replicate it in Tupper Lake. Fawn Valley is a development of 22 new housing units – six two-bedroom Cape Cod-style single-family homes and 16 two-bedroom townhouses located in four buildings – which will be sold at cost to “essential workers” who apply for the houses, with the help of several grants.
Gillis said he is currently looking to get the city to partner with a nonprofit to purchase land for a similar style of project.
The city is struggling to return the property to specific private owners, he said, because it cannot declare it surplus and sell it to a certain person. The city should put the property up for auction, and anyone could buy it and use the land for something else.
Gillis said he is looking for a nonprofit to buy and hold the land while the city encourages a local nonprofit to be formed to buy the land from this first nonprofit group, essentially creating a bank. private land.
Gillis said he was looking at vacant properties inside the hamlet of Tupper Lake and had identified a few hundred acres of land that could be used to create high-density housing for the workforce .
Whether it is individual houses, a housing complex or a mixture of the two, he is not sure. He hopes to come up with home building projects over the next four to five years.
“That is going to take time” says Gilles. “But we have to start somewhere and if we don’t start we will never get there.”
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(Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series on the affordable housing crisis and its impact on the Tri-Lakes region. In future issues, the Enterprise will look at ongoing local housing developments , local organizations and individuals. do to help alleviate the crisis and more. Readers who wish to share their story about the impact of the housing crisis on them can contact the Enterprise Newsroom at [email protected] .com.)