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Housing crisis: Who’s doing what to ease it?



GHENT—What Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress (Pattern) wrote in a recent study of the entire Hudson Valley applies equally to the county’s housing crisis: The “problems can be summarized in three simple sentences. We do not have enough housing. The housing we have is too expensive for most of our neighbors. And our local codes and review processes make it very difficult to build more of the housing we direly need.”

Okay. So what’s being done to address the problems? Actually, a lot.

The Columbia County Housing Task Force, which has been at work a scant eight months now, has set itself three broad goals: (1) To preserve and expand housing affordability, attainability and availability throughout the county; (2) to increase community awareness and understanding of the issues in aid of energizing community response; (3) to develop and provide to towns the resources they need to achieve their housing goals, such as model zoning provisions, prospective development partners and grant sources.

In line with those goals, the task force is conducting a survey of county employers so as to better pinpoint the needs they see. It is also poised to issue a “toolbox” of actions a community can take to catalyze housing development and it is proposing to the Board of Supervisors that the county apply to the state for a permit to create a local land bank.

A land bank is a mechanism, partially state-funded, by which tax-foreclosed, vacant or abandoned land is acquired and redeveloped for housing.

The Task Force is also looking at what programs have been successful elsewhere and might be implemented here. One such is the HomeShare Woodstock program run by Family of Woodstock (Family).

The concept of the program is simple: identify a “host” who has room in his/her home or in an accessory dwelling unit for a “guest” who needs housing and make a match. The details have been considered with care. Ultimately, the parties will agree on: a rent amount and some light services to be provided by the guest, such as driving, gardening, shopping, or pet walking.

The key to the program’s success, says Program Director Janice LaMotta, is the “high touch” nature of Family’s involvement. As designed by LaMotta and Family’s long-time volunteer Susan Goldman, the program begins with interviews of prospective providers and of seekers of housing. Each meets at length with Family volunteers, many of whom have social work backgrounds.

In the process the needs, expectations, lifestyle and abilities of applicants are assessed. Extensive background checks are made (criminal, commercial and reference surveys). If the Family team perceives a possible match, the parties are introduced and then may proceed to a two-week trial, if appropriate. Only after the trial is an agreement committed to paper.

Moreover, Family stays in the picture. Not only does a liaison check in periodically with each participant, but Family also offers a 24-hour hotline for any immediate issues and mediation in the event of conflict. Either party can exit the arrangement for any reason or no reason with two months’ notice.

There is no stereotype of housing seekers (who outnumber providers about 3 to 1) but many are in their 40s to 60s, work part-time, and have many skills. Some are artists, some rely on Social Security, but all have income.

The Family program is the first in the state and has the support of the state’s Office for the Aging, which has provided funding. Ms. LaMotta hopes the program will serve as a model and resource for others, as it not only helps home owners defer the need to move out to assisted living and gives family members the security of knowing that there is a caring presence in the home, but it also provides needed housing at softer rents than usual (often $400-500/month) and, importantly, it addresses the harmful isolation experienced by many older citizens; as Ms. Goldman says: “Isolation is the new smoking.” For some in the program, meal sharing and companionship are prime benefits.

In a very different vein, five conservation land trusts and five affordable housing groups in the Hudson Valley have joined together to explore how they might collaborate to address the affordable housing crisis.

About two years ago, Steve Rosenberg, who led Scenic Hudson’s Land Trust for many years and had just retired, joined with Rebecca Gillman Crimmins, an affordable housing professional, to convene the groups to explore whether a joint effort might be fruitful. As Mr. Rosenberg said, the Hudson Valley is already experiencing housing and climate challenges, and climate change will exacerbate those as climate migrants move here from places like California. Construction of right-sized, green housing in ways that do not increase rural sprawl is a goal the two groups can readily share.

The Columbia Land Conservancy (CLC) is not only a participant in the working group but obtained and oversees a grant to facilitate some of its work. As CLC President Troy Weldy explained, although conservation groups and housing developers historically have seen their missions as adverse, the vitality of the area depends on creating more, and affordable, housing, and land trusts can play an important role in doing so in a conservation-minded way.

Al Bellenchia, CEO of Columbia County Habitat for Humanity (Habitat) agrees, and says the group has had “eye-opening” conversations about opportunities they can pursue together to build housing that honors conservation principles, does not add to rural sprawl, is right-sized and helps to meet local needs. He notes that manufactured, vertically-operated septic systems now exist that would allow a home of around 1,000 square feet to be placed on as little as a half-acre, removing the need for a community to build major septic services in order to accommodate clustered housing.

The two local groups have been speaking together with landowners and towns to identify parcels for appropriate development, and have been met with enthusiasm in much of the county.

There is no stereotype of housing seekers (who outnumber providers about 3 to 1).

There is no stereotype of housing seekers (who outnumber providers about 3 to 1).

A frequently-cited obstacle to building affordable housing is the single-family orientation of local zoning laws, which preclude or make difficult the permitting of multi-family dwellings or which require minimum lot sizes that effectively bar clustered housing.

The Town of Copake—in a first for the county’s towns—is proposing zoning changes to support affordable workforce housing. A proposed law significantly simplifies the permitting requirements for the construction of accessory dwelling units and the conversion of existing buildings to small multi-family units of 3-6 units. It also allows for multi-family or clustered dwellings of not more than six units to be constructed on a single lot as long as some of the units are operated as affordable workforce housing. Major new developments would also be required to include affordable units. Copake’s Town Board is expected to vote on the proposal in September.

Meanwhile, in Hudson, an offshoot of the Spark of Hudson, called Hudson Dots, is renovating existing housing to meet local needs. In Hudson, however, gentrification has meant that much of the housing stock has been bought up, renovated, up-scaled and converted to vacation rentals or luxury homes, displacing existing tenants.

In early 2023, Hudson Dots bought three vacant multi-family buildings and renovated them. Then, it bought nine more buildings that were tenanted. The buildings are dotted around the city.

Unlike a typical buyer, who wants to buy vacant properties, Dots affirmatively did not want the tenants evicted. Instead, it is relocating tenants temporarily to the already-renovated units it bought, renovating their homes, and then offering the homes back to them, at affordable rents.

The concept behind the program is to allow long-time residents to stay in Hudson, stabilizing the community while expanding the roster of affordable housing. Kelly Crimmins, the project director, also notes that Dots families are provided supportive services through alliances with Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood and other local groups.

Behind each of these innovative efforts is a group hoping to model for others a project through which the affordable housing crisis can be addressed in ways that maintain the character of the local community.

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