By DEBORAH E. LANS
GHENT – As a local tourism website says: “Columbia County offers unsurpassed rural beauty, a rich cultural scene and active recreational opportunities.” Its residents would add that the county offers all the benefits of small town life and values.
But, two recent studies of life in rural New York State and specifically in the Hudson Valley outline unhappy trends confronting Columbia County and its counterparts. These include a shrinking labor force, aging populations, hurdles imposed by low density and resulting transportation difficulties, declining housing units coupled with unaffordable housing, insufficient health care services and spotty access to food.
“Rural New York: Challenges and Opportunities” was issued in September by the office of New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli (the DiNapoli Report). “Out of Reach 2023,” published in October, was the annual assessment by Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress (Pattern) of rental housing and wage data in the nine counties Pattern serves, of which Columbia County is one.
The DiNapoli Report surveyed ten rural counties, including Greene County, that were deemed representative of rural New York. Their profiles were considered similar to “other counties with low population or population density,” specifically including Columbia County.
The key attributes identified in the DiNapoli Report were: the population in all of the counties studied was both declining in absolute numbers and, compared to the rest of the state, aging. The pairing of low population density with large geographic areas results in great distances between homes and the amenities and services residents need.
Those characteristics also mean that rural areas cannot easily leverage economies of scale to provide services or improve access. Rural residents must also rely mainly on personal vehicles for transportation, which can pose particular hurdles for the aging and those experiencing poverty – two groups that cannot easily access supermarkets and health care facilities.
Another result of the population shifts is that the labor shortage is more acute in rural areas. The “labor force participation rate” – the number of people working or actively seeking work compared to the population over age 16 – in rural counties is substantially below the state average, due according to the DiNapoli Report, to the higher percentage of the population that is of retirement age. While a declining population means there are fewer people who need services, it also means that available services are often more expensive on a per capita basis.
A lower population also means there are fewer consumers, often making it harder to attract and sustain new and small businesses.
Access to health care is also impacted, as low volume and budget constraints challenge rural facilities. Rural communities also have limited access to drug and alcohol treatment facilities – although they have a greater need – and fewer home health aides and adult care facilities. Spotty broadband access also diminishes the potential of telemedicine.
Finally, the current state of the housing market exacerbates many of the other difficulties seen in rural communities. The DiNapoli Report notes that there has been not only a loss of overall housing units but also a dramatic rise (to more than 30%) of units that are not used full-time but instead are owned for seasonal, recreational, second-home and short-term rental purposes.
The Pattern study is focused more narrowly, but no less disturbingly, on the rental housing market. Supported by pages of statistics, the Pattern study concludes that “even with long work hours or multiple jobs, most renters in our region struggle to pay for rent and modest living costs. Over the past five years, rents across our region have increased by anywhere between 25-45%.”
At the same time, the study finds that “labor is undervalued” nationally and that Hudson Valley workers have suffered more in the past ten years than the national average. “Since 2010, members of the working class nationwide saw their wages rise at half the rate of the highest earners. This trend is generally worse in the Hudson Valley, where lower income workers have seen their earnings decline or stagnate while our highest earners have seen their income rise by up to 26 percent.”
As the study bluntly puts it, “the word on the street is true: the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer . . . it is becoming increasingly difficult for low-, moderate-, and middle-income earners to afford life in the Hudson Valley.”
In Columbia County in the past year alone rents have risen by double the rate of wage increases. Moreover, the seeming increase in the incomes of renters speaks not of the betterment of their conditions but rather the fact that even higher wage-earners are now compelled to rent, as home ownership has become unaffordable.
The gap between (rising) housing costs and (stagnant or declining) wages in New York is a primary cause for declining population trends not only statewide but pointedly in the Hudson Valley. People move to find affordable homes. In Columbia County, for example, the majority of households cannot afford to purchase a home.
A final statistic included in Pattern’s study is that “one in four single-family homes are now being acquired by investors as assets to rent. While the housing market has historically been a vehicle for personal and generational wealth, fewer and fewer householders are able to purchase homes. The ownership of more homes by investors and corporations instead concentrates those equity gains into the hands of fewer people over time.” In our area, the “investor” homeowners include, of course, the providers of short-term rentals.
As Adam Bosch, CEO of Pattern, put it in an interview with the Columbia Paper, “our workforce shortage is a symptom of many things but our inability to build an ample supply of housing is certainly key. Without housing we will have hollowed-out communities. Further, the people affected are not theoretical. They perform the jobs that are critical to the community, in healthcare, education, shipping, in every business in the community.”
Fortunately, Mr. Bosch also cites signs of hope, as have previous articles in this paper. First, he points to the increasing public recognition that there is an affordable housing crisis. He also notes that the recent formation of local land banks will lead to the rehabilitation and reuse of existing housing stock, often in urban areas like Hudson – housing that will be in walking distance of schools and other services. Likewise, the recent formation of community land trusts will offer affordable housing solutions.
The practicality of remote work may also shift population upstate, as will the renewed vitality of Hudson Valley downtowns, like Hudson, which, when compared with the early 2000s, are experiencing reinvestment, gentrification and diversification.
Many of the efforts currently underway to address these issues have been profiled in past articles in the Columbia Paper, including the recent announcement of $1.5 million raised for Columbia County Habitat for Humanity through the efforts of Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th), the formation of a county land bank and work to form a community land trust (October 26).