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As Lake Placid celebrates 40th anniversary of Winter Olympics, community faces a housing crisis

As Lake Placid celebrates 40th anniversary of Winter Olympics, community faces a housing crisis

Soaring prices are squeezing local residents out
As Lake Placid celebrates 40th anniversary of Winter Olympics, community faces a housing crisis
Welcome to Lake Placid sign off Route 73 entering in North Elba on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.
Photographer: Erica Miller/Staff Photographer

Meredith Chapman had no problem finding somewhere to live when she moved to Lake Placid a decade ago. 

These days, affordable options are increasingly shrinking. 

“It’s been really difficult,” Chapman said. “A lot of people are moving to Malone to find something affordable.”

Malone is nearly an hour north through the rugged wilderness. 

While there’s no imminent threat, Chapman, who works in the admissions department at North Country Community College, fears her landlord will eventually realize it’s far more lucrative to convert the multi-family house where she lives into an online rental and kick her loose. 

“It takes a destructive toll on buildings that people don’t realize,” Chapman said. 

The resort town’s tourist economy is surging. 

And as numerous trends reshape the community, including astronomical growth in online vacation rental properties, a fresh report prepared by a joint town-village commission acknowledged that local landlords lack the financial incentive to maintain long-term rental units when they can simply cash in. 

PETE DEMOLA/STAFF REPORTER
Rental properties in Lake Placid are becoming increasingly scarce, said Meredith Chapman, who works in admissions at North Country Community College.  PETE DEMOLA/STAFF REPORTER
Rental properties in Lake Placid are becoming increasingly scarce, said Meredith Chapman, who works in admissions at North Country Community College.

Online rentals available in Lake Placid on sites like Airbnb and Vrbo average $376 per night, and short-term rental operators need to keep their rooms occupied for just 56 nights to equal the amount of annual rental revenue generated from long-term tenants.

Affordable housing has long been a problem in the resort town, which shot to prominence as a year-round travel destination following the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, which is currently being commemorated with an 11-day extravaganza. 

It’s sizzled ever since, with an increasing number of events packing people into town. 

Also online: Lake Placid grapples with AirBnB ‘infiltration’

But a new report confirms that workforce housing faces a “crisis,” and the ongoing erosion of workforce-level housing is threatening to “further transform the character and composition of the community and constrain future economic growth.” 

Rising housing costs are making the town increasingly unaffordable for the people who teach its children, cater to its tourists, plow its streets — even those who run the local newspaper. 

“It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible,” said Andy Flynn, editor of the Lake Placid News, who has lived in neighboring Saranac Lake for the past two decades. 

A COMMUNITY SQUEEZED 

Saratoga Springs-based consulting firm Camoin 310 spent three months surveying the local housing stock, interviewing residents and gathering feedback for the report. 

A dour portrait emerged of school district enrollment numbers in freefall and workers who cannot afford to live in the community, with many commuting long distances. 

Out of the 15 most common job types, only doctors earn enough to bring home ownership within reach. 

To afford the median value home of $299,700, a household income of $73,000 is needed — significantly higher than the average family income of $54,200.

And five of the six top jobs in Lake Placid have a median income of less than $30,000 annually, nearly 20 percent of them the food, service industry and retail workers critical to keeping the downtown strip of businesses humming. 

The costs have a chilling effect for newcomers looking to plant roots, growth essential to retaining the resort town’s character, not only as a thriving community of year-round residents, but also as a destination for young adventurers seeking to embrace the outdoors lifestyle. 

A “gravitational pull” brought Kiki Sarco to the Adirondacks a decade ago from Liverpool, a Syracuse suburb.

Sarco, 34, found a job at a nonprofit but couldn’t find a place in Lake Placid. 

ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER  
View of downtown Lake Placid over Mirror Lake off Mirror Lake Drive in Lake Placid on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
View of downtown Lake Placid over Mirror Lake off Mirror Lake Drive in Lake Placid on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.

“Everyone who works in Lake Placid lives in Saranac Lake,” said Sarco, who now co-owns the Saranac Lake Watering Hole with her partner.

Tyler Cunningham, owner of Cunningham’s Ski Barn, said that adventurous lifestyle might still be attainable, but only for those with high-paying jobs. 

“Those are the types of people who could make that lifestyle work up here,” Cunningham said. 

The village lost 19 percent of its family households in the past decade, according to the housing study.

The squeeze is impacting virtually every aspect of the community, from business owners struggling to attract workers to the local school system, which is shedding students. 

“It’s mostly the housing issue,” said Linda Young, who runs the food pantry at St. Agnes Catholic Church, which was bustling on a recent weekday morning. 

Lake Placid Central School has been hard hit. 

“Since 2003, our enrollment has declined in the 35 to 40 percent range,” said Lake Placid Central School Superintendent Roger Catania.

While school districts receive state funding on a per-student basis, declining enrollment doesn't necessarily reduce a district’s funding because districts are "held harmless" by the state, which means even if they lose enrollment they receive a minimum increase in annual funding. 

Also online: Lake Placid grapples with AirBnB ‘infiltration’

“Right now, we’re doing everything we can to hang onto all programs,” Catania said. “But there is pressure to maintain those programs when you have fewer students.” 

Even the district’s teachers are fanning out to nearby Bloomingdale, Vermontville, Wilmington and Saranac Lake in the search for more affordable housing. 

Housing is one factor driving families away, Catania said. But there are others, including limited job opportunities, an aging population, smaller families and lower birth rates, a trend reflected across the Adirondacks and upstate New York. 

Even enrollment at Saranac Lake Central School has declined 22 percent in the past decade, and the number of students enrolled in public schools statewide is the lowest recorded in 30 years, according to the Empire Center for Public Policy. 

Part of the dip in the Adirondacks is overall lack of services for working-class families, which can dissuade people from relocating, according to a recent report from the Adirondack Foundation, a Lake Placid-based philanthropy organization.

ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER  
View of the Olympic torch light, as crews test the flame for Friday’s event, off Route 73 in Lake Placid on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
View of the Olympic torch light, as crews test the flame for Friday’s event, off Route 73 in Lake Placid on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.

The study revealed that working-class families across the Adirondacks are wrestling with an overall lack of general services, including limited child care, healthy food and public transportation options, among others — including housing. 

Forty-nine percent of Essex County’s population is “rent-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing. 

Are these issues more pronounced in Lake Placid than elsewhere?

"The housing issue certainly got more attention in Lake Placid because of the Airbnb market,” said Adam Federman, the report’s author. “But I don't think the lack of affordable housing is any worse in Lake Placid than other parts of the Adirondack Park."

Kristina Straight, 35, grasped several bags of groceries at St. Agnes' food pantry on a recent weekday morning.

She pays $800 per month for a two-bedroom apartment she shares with her partner and 2-year-old son on Hillcrest Avenue, the epicenter of the online rental battle. 

That rental fee is the average in Essex County, but slightly lower than the average rate of $860 in Lake Placid. 

Life can be difficult, but manageable, Straight said, noting the village’s public transportation system makes it easy to get to North Country Community College, where she’s studying to be a chemical dependency counselor.

While she’s receiving federal housing assistance and relies on a stipend from the GI Bill, she has to visit the food pantry weekly because her food stamp allocations have been slashed. 

ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER  
View of the Olympic torch light, as crews test the flame for Friday’s event, off Route 73 in Lake Placid on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
View of the Olympic torch light, as crews test the flame for Friday’s event, off Route 73 in Lake Placid on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.

“I’m fighting it right now,” Straight said. 

If she wanted to eventually purchase a home, Straight would face an uphill climb.

The median wage for counselors or social workers is $43,111, still far below that household income of approximately $73,000 needed to afford the average-priced home in town. 

“Even two workers with the same job earning the median wage could not afford a median-priced home in the community,” the town-village report concluded.

Business owners are also rattled, and flagged affordable housing as their most significant problem.

Nearly three out of 10 employers have had prospective employees turn down job offers in the past year for this reason, and more than half of employers report that the lack of available affordable housing negatively impacts their ability to hire or keep workers. 

SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS

What’s causing the crisis?

While online rentals are an “exacerbating” factor in reducing long-term housing stock while driving up property values, they’re not the root cause. But second homes are undisputedly eating into the rental market. 

The number of available rental units plummeted by 72 percent from 2010 to 2017, while the number of vacation homes rose by 60 percent, according to the housing study. 

The picture is murkier for online rentals. 

While evidence suggests they do reduce long-term housing and rental supplies, there’s no clear consensus as to their impact on housing prices. 

Owners are not required to register the properties, which range from rooms in owner-occupied houses to Great Camp-style structures owned by absentee landlords as investment properties.

The lack of regulation deprives local officials of a critical data set that would determine how many rental properties have been converted and removed from the market.

ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER  
Lake Placid councilperson Emily Kilburn Politi, who serves as chair on the joint community housing committee, stands outside on Mill Pond Drive in Lake Placid on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Lake Placid councilperson Emily Kilburn Politi, who serves as chair on the joint community housing committee, stands outside on Mill Pond Drive in Lake Placid on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.

“They’re not registered,” said Emily Kilburn Politi, chair of the Lake Placid-North Elba Community Development Commission’s Joint Community Housing Committee, who commissioned the study. 

The report also casts doubt on whether online rentals are eating into apartment availability because local workers would be priced out of renting the second homes, many of them lakefront properties, that are being converted to online rentals.

As local officials fine-tune their first-ever regulations to govern online rentals, they’re also trying to chart a path forward to find sustainable housing solutions.

Kilburn Politi said that as officials looked toward their counterparts across the U.S. for advice on how to regulate the sizzling industry, they kept returning to a central question: What does your housing assessment say? 

Since neither the town nor the village had one, discussions became elliptical. 

One key statistic generated from community outreach said the public wanted at least 50 percent of the population living and working in town, roughly the same levels as the early 2000s, when the second-home market achieved liftoff.

“That’s a conservative estimate,” Kilburn Politi said.

Right now, just 34 percent of the local workforce lives locally. To get there, the community needs at least 1,534 new housing units, with most of those designed for those who make $35,150 annually. 

One approach hinges on leveraging investment from the 2023 World University Games, a global event tourism officials expect will draw as many as 2,500 athletes from 50 nations, by converting athlete housing to community housing afterward. 

“We’ve got until 2023 to accomplish things,” said Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism CEO Jim McKenna, who said housing is consistently the top issue across the sprawling North Country. “We’re focused on ‘community housing’ in order to be more inclusive to all income levels.” 

Another approach is stitching together funding from state and federal agencies and nonprofits, as well as exploring other public-private partnerships. 

Key to those efforts is enticing private developers with a vested interest in community sustainability with the proper incentives. 

Space is at a premium in Lake Placid, and Kilburn Politi acknowledges a new apartment building would be a heavy lift. Townhouses might be a better fit, she said. 

While a housing authority is unlikely, the town or village may need to create a housing coordinator position for someone to spearhead those efforts, officials acknowledged.

ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER  
View of downtown on Main Street in Lake Placid on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
View of downtown on Main Street in Lake Placid on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.

And now armed with concrete data, it will be easier to get grants, Kilburn Politi said. 

Local officials can also take a page from the playbooks of other cities wrestling with the same issues.

Redwood City, California, allocates a portion of taxes on short-term rentals to address affordable housing issues. Portland, Oregon, dedicates more than $1 million annually in lodging taxes from online rentals to the city’s Housing Investment Fund, according to the report. And New Orleans has worked out a similar model with Airbnb in which a $1-per-night fee is collected for a fund. Possible uses could include providing incentives for developers willing to build affordable housing and to help low-income homebuyers.

Also online: Lake Placid grapples with AirBnB ‘infiltration’

In Lake Placid, Kilburn Politi said wealthy private second homeowners have reached out to offer assistance. 

“Lake Placid is so special and the community really cares about keeping it a community,” she said.

Flynn, the newspaper editor, agrees. While the discussions have been wrenching at times, the soul-searching has helped the community refine its vision and double-down on its ideals and chart a roadmap for the future. 

“They really want to hold onto that small-town feel,” Flynn said. “It’s nice to see people so involved in local politics.”

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