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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Housing: on the Brink

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SARATOGA COUNTY – Saratoga County is at a crossroads – as the fastest growing county in New York State, we are poised for continued growth despite a national economic downturn. At the same time, we are in danger of “brain drain,” the loss of a skilled workforce due to a lack of housing that is affordable to manufacturing, retail and hospitality staff and young professionals just entering the workforce.

The availability of housing to all levels of workers is critical to economic growth. It is the working people within a community, not just the affluent, who support our local economy.

Take for example the GlobalFoundries project. Surrounding communities should consider not only the availability of housing for the highest paid employees, but also the support staff. Research engineers may be able to afford a $400,000 house, but where will the custodians live? In addition, consider the employees of the surrounding businesses, which will surely be affected by the expanding workforce.

A healthy community includes affordable housing options for police, firefighters, nurses, teachers and the barista who pours the CEO’s latte every morning.

In any industry lower paying jobs will generally outnumber six-figure salaries, and the housing market for that workforce needs to be addressed. If employees cannot afford to live near their jobs they are forced to drive extensive distances. This impacts their productivity and attendance reliability, especially during winter weather. this commute will increase the cost of doing business for any industry, as they must compensate their workers enough to make the long commute worthwhile. If Saratoga County intends to remain the destination of choice for large employers and their skilled workforce, we must be sensitive to these issues.

Shelby Schneider of Saratoga Economic Development Corporation agrees that there is a need for workforce housing in Saratoga County.

“We are blessed that we are known for our quality of life, and a demand for high-end housing, but we are seeing people who are educated in the area but can’t afford to [work] here,” Schneider said. “They are important to growing our economy, so we need to offer many levels of housing options that encourage them to stay.”

Affordable housing assistance is available for our lowest income residents, yet even those programs are strained due to lack of funding. Saratoga County Rural Preservation Company (SCRPC), which administers the countywide Section 8 Rental Assistance Program, currently houses over 260 people with rental vouchers, with a 100 person waiting list that is currently two to three years long and has been closed since January 2008. Meanwhile, the only option for those on the waiting list is to do the best they can to get by.

The Section 8 Program has strict income eligibility restrictions that exclude many working families who earn too much for assistance but still cannot afford to live near their employers.

“We try to improve the quality of life for all Saratoga County residents by attracting new business while supporting existing industry and talent,” said Schneider, explaining that you can support the workforce by integrating affordable housing units into existing housing stock.

“Workforce housing doesn’t necessarily mean new housing tracts,” she said. For example, in-law apartments (small rental units attached to larger houses) can offer affordable rental options within a higher-end community.

There are many ongoing efforts throughout Saratoga County to improve existing workforce housing stock. The Village of Schuylerville recently partnered with SCRPC on a New York Main Street (NYMS) Grant Program. NYMS encourages building owners to improve the downtown business district which in turn stimulates the local economy. The state grant program provides up to 75 percent reimbursement for improvements made to commercial spaces as well as upper level rental apartments. To date, Schuylerville has completed 15 projects on seven properties, including improvements to six rental units. As a stipulation of the NYMS Program, the rental units will remain affordable to people earning below 80 percent of the median income (as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development) – that’s roughly $45,000 a year for a family of four.

“It has been an incredibly successful program so far,” said Schuylerville Village Mayor John Sherman. “We plan to apply for continued funding and keep the program going.”

In addition to the Main Street Program, the village has administered an owner-occupied housing rehabilitation grant program since 2007. The rehabilitation program is available to owner-occupied 1-4 unit residential properties. Owners agree to remain in the home for five years following completion of grant-funded improvement

s. For rental units, rents must remain affordable for the five year period.
“Income qualified homeowners can access grant funds to fix up their homes; make them energy efficient and keep them affordable to current and future residents,” said Sherman.

Improvements to existing single and multi-family homes is yet another way to maintain affordability for the young educated workforce that often finds it challenging to live near our area’s large employers.

Colin McKnight with the NYS Rural Housing Coalition, recently worked with a large manufacturing company that was looking to relocate from Putnam County to an area with more reasonable housing costs. The business was very successful, but had trouble recruiting skilled workers.
“They couldn’t recruit new machinists because they couldn’t afford housing in Putnam or any other surrounding counties,” McKnight said. “[The business] was looking at moving elsewhere to correct the problem and remain competitive in the workplace.”

According to McKnight, Saratoga County is in danger of facing a similar issue: “If we fail to recognize the importance of providing quality housing to a diverse workforce, any attempts at economic growth will not be sustainable,” he said.

Lack of housing can have a domino effect on the local economy. A working family may face economic instability, yet try to stay in their house or apartment longer than is truly feasible in their current situation. Without affordable housing choices, families have to choose between hanging onto an unsustainable lifestyle or moving out of the community they love. A family that leaves an unaffordable area is no longer supporting that local economy, which in turn can lead to more layoffs in the retail and service industry.

It’s a vicious cycle that grows worse until a community finds itself on the brink of losing its labor force.

Jeff, who I interviewed for the first article in this series, offers a perfect example: He has found work, but at a much lower pay rate than his former job. With the family’s saving severely depleted by nearly a year of unemployment, Jeff is now planning to relocate his family to another county.

Before he was laid off, Jeff and his wife were frequent supporters of their local downtown merchants.

“We ate out once or twice a week, always tried to buy local, attended local events and concerts,” Jeff said, adding that with his recent pay cut he can no longer afford to support his community. “It’s sad. We love it here; I wish there was an alternative.”

When asked if workforce housing would have affected his decision, Jeff said his primary reason for leaving the area was lack of affordable housing.

“Two counties away I can get the same size apartment in a nice neighborhood for half the price,” said Jeff. “It’s like we have to readjust our expectations – do I want to live in Saratoga just barely scraping by, or move and have that [financial] cushion?”

If Saratoga County is to remain a destination of choice for business and tourism, the point of intervention to support economic growth is workforce housing. Community vitality requires economic diversity – we cannot price skilled laborers out of our housing market. We as a community can choose to provide both rental and homeownership options in desirable locations at a variety of price points for all levels of our workforce.

Michelle Read DeGarmo has been working in the human services field for 16 years. She currently works with Marvin & Company Community Revitalization, a local consulting firm that helps rural municipalities administer affordable housing programs. Look for a conclusion to this series in next week’s edition of Saratoga TODAY.

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