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Hillsdale survey seeks window on housing problems

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HILLSDALE– There’s been talk in the town for years about the increasing lack of affordable housing here.

“We hear anecdotally that, particularly people who are native to the area, people who work in the service industries, say that they and their kids can’t find affordable housing,” says Joe Browdy, a member of the Hillsdale Town Housing Committee.

He recounts the common perception on housing:“We have three-acre zoning, and it starts with that, and between the price of land and the price of building the average working person finds everything very expensive here. Everybody has heard that there are so many weekenders and retirees in town that the price of land has gone way up and that kids move out of the town because they can’t find a place to live.”

Now that ongoing conversation will be informed by new facts. With help from the Housing Action Council (HAC), a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding housing opportunities in this region, the Hillsdale committee is conducting a housing needs study. Starting last week, survey forms have been distributed around the town so residents and others can answer anonymously a few general housing questions.

The short survey forms can be filled out at many locations, Town Hall, the Roe Jan Library, the IGA store, Stewart’s Shop, Hillsdale Healthcare and “as many places that will take them,” says Mr. Browdy. Surveys can also be  completed online at www.surveymonkey.com/s/6RSJ3MM.

The survey is not at all limited to Hillsdale residents, an approach that is “critical to getting an accurate picture of the housing needs as possible,” says HAC’s Tony Hoeltzel. In addition to people who live in town, the survey seeks who work here or who would like to live in Hillsdale. “We don’t want to stop at the town borders but want to include the surrounding communities, the environment in which the town resides. That really is key in getting as accurate a picture of the housing needs as possible,” he says.

The survey will be conducted until March 10, after which the results will be combined with other information to provide the Housing Committee with a portrait of the Hillsdale housing situation. Mr. Hoeltzel says his organization has helped other Hudson Valley communities conduct similar surveys, but this is their the organization’s first involvement in Columbia County.

The survey results will be part of “a multi-pronged analysis of housing needs” that began with research using census and real estate trends, demographic information and housing data. But the census data are now a decade old, which is part of the reason for the new survey. Mr. Hoeltzel and the committee will analyze the findings and submit a report to the Planning Board and the Town Board.

“The goal is to put together a profile of housing needs,” he says.

That profile may confirm what Committee Chair Ellen Levy calls “a housing affordability gap,” a term she defines as “the difference between housing prices and what people can actually afford.”

As Mr. Browdy puts it, “We wanted to see first if there was a problem, and then we’ll get into what the options are. We’ve discussed, for instance, renovating some of the older housing in town so there would be good and decent apartments to lease or rent. There’s a lot of housing stock that’s run down and could be made available.”

Mr. Hoeltzel says his Housing Action Council may have other ideas for the town based on the organization’s experience. “If there are clear trends and issues that are identified by the data in the survey, I would imagine the committee would make recommendations to the town. It’s really up to them as residents of the community. We provide the technical assistance and the bigger picture.”

He says HAC can discuss approaches like “incentivizing the development of housing that is more affordable to the needs of the existing population. They could, for instance, make a provision allowing a developer to subdivide a property and create a certain number of units if they agreed to make a percentage of those units affordable to a certain income range.” He says this type of “density bonus,” which would allow construction of more units than otherwise would be allowable is just a simple example of how the town could encourage the development of affordable housing.

The Hillsdale Housing Committee’s work on the housing needs survey and HAC’s expertise has been supported by a grant from the Dyson Foundation.

Mr. Hoeltzel of HAC says he’s enjoyed working on the Hillsdale project and is fascinated by “the impact of a demographic change from an agricultural community to an increasingly second-home community” and how the community addresses the issues that come with that change.

What the committee anticipates finding is a that a changing housing situation here is not unique to Hillsdale. “It’s really a regional issue,” Mr. Browdy says. 

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