By DEBORAH E. LANS
GHENT—The county’s Housing Development Coordinator. The Executive Director of the county’s Cornell Cooperative Extension. A member of the Chatham Town Board and congressional aide.
These are among the many suffering from the county’s affordable housing crisis.
On May 24, 2023 the County Board of Supervisors made it official; it issued a Declaration of a State of Emergency (in relation to the prospect of migrants being sent to the county) stating: “Columbia County is already facing significant shortages in housing…”
The Columbia Paper has explored the affordable housing shortage in a series of articles. The simple facts are that the median price for a home in the county has nearly doubled since 2018, from $239,000 in 2018 to $421,000 in May 2023; rents have likewise soared; and workers across all sectors of the economy, and especially the younger generations, are either priced out of the ownership and rental markets or are paying more than they can afford on basic housing.
In general, economists and federal guidelines say an owner or renter should not pay more than 30% of annual gross income on housing costs. In Columbia County, more than 59% of renters pay more than that figure ,according to the State Division of Local Government Services. In turn, families earning the median family income are priced out of the ownership market unless they commit to spending substantially more than 30% of their income on mortgage and other housing costs.
In specific terms, who does this situation affect?
Chris Brown was hired as the Housing Development Coordinator for the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) in January 2023. CEDC had just been awarded a three-year contract with the county to further the development of affordable housing. Mr. Brown had deep credentials in the housing field, having co-founded the Troy Community Land Bank and worked for both the Troy and Berkshire County Planning Departments.
There was just one small problem. Mr. Brown couldn’t find a place he could afford to rent in Columbia County. The hurdle? Not only were the rents unaffordable but also there simply weren’t many listings. Mr. Brown had already spent a year looking for an affordable home. In January 2023, having landed the job to tackle the county’s affordable housing crisis, Mr. Brown succumbed and rented an apartment that was unaffordable by prevailing standards.
Mr. Brown conducts an informal survey of the rental market for his job. A recent look showed 26 units in the entire county for rents of less than $2,000/month. All but five were in Hudson. To afford $2,000/month in rent (i.e., to spend less than 30% of income on rent) requires an income of at least $80,000/year. The median income of all households in the county slightly exceeded that amount in 2022, which essentially means that half of all households cannot afford to rent such housing as is available.
Moreover, the median income for those 25 and younger was only $50,000 and for those over 65 was slightly below $70,000 – meaning that most of those groups would be priced out of the rental market.
At about the same time as Mr. Brown was hunting for an apartment, Lisa Gallina was hired as the Executive Director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension for Columbia and Greene Counties (CCE). At 53, holding two Masters degrees and having worked previously in environmental administration and communications at several colleges, she was looking to move to a farmhouse in the county.
The county’s housing market was a shock. Even though she had funds from the sale of a condominium in Beacon, Ms. Gallina found that the homes she could afford uniformly featured old electric and septic systems, required considerable work and were a far cry from the farmhouse she imagined.
In the end, she settled for a prefab ranch house, and borrowed more than she had planned.
Yet, Ms. Gallina considers herself lucky. In the last year, CCE has lost four of its 28-person staff because of their inability to find local housing. She called the four “young people who care about local agriculture and education.”
At 23, Destiny Hallenbeck has already accomplished a great deal. She was the valedictorian of her 2018 class at Chatham High School, she graduated from Union College in 2022 and, while there, she served both as president of the statewide College Democrats of New York (2019, 2020) and a member of the Chatham School Board (2020-22). Currently, Ms. Hallenbeck is employed as a Constituent Advocate for Congressman Pat Ryan (D-18th).
Ms. Hallenbeck was elected to the Chatham Town Board in 2022 and ran on a platform that emphasized the need to address the affordable housing situation.
She knows the problem well; she is living with her parents because rent locally is unaffordable and, further, if she pays rent she will never save up the money needed for the down payment on a home.
Ms. Hallenbeck is firm in her desire to stay in Chatham, even while all her siblings have moved away to enjoy the benefits of easier housing markets, but she also understands the broad effects of the housing crisis. In her years on the school board she saw young and excited teachers come to Chatham for their first jobs, only to move away after a year or two to Troy, Albany or Schenectady where they could better afford to live.
She is working on a new Comprehensive Plan for the town, looking at measures that will enhance affordable housing, such as allowing accessory dwelling units (like the old mother-in-law apartment), shrinking minimum lot size requirements and improving infrastructure (water and sewage capability) to allow for multi-unit housing.
Much as the lack of affordable housing ultimately impoverishes a community, draining away young people and workers, access to such housing can be enriching. Take the story of Nurul Bhuiyan.
Mr. Bhuiyan is Bangladeshi. He, his wife and their children came to Hudson in the early 2000s, and he worked in a nearby factory.
As a Muslim, it is contrary to Mr. Bhuiyan’s religion to pay interest. (Both paying and receiving interest is forbidden under Islamic religious law, as it is considered exploitative.) A conventional mortgage was therefore not in the cards.
At the time, Habitat for Humanity not only offered (as it still does) affordable housing but also interest-free loans and, in what Mr. Bhuiyan calls “a miracle,” in 2005 his family qualified for the second home ever built by Habitat in the county. They have lived there since, enjoying a level of stability that is becoming increasingly rare.
This summer, the Bhuiyans paid off their mortgage. Two of the family’s sons are college graduates (one works in finance, the other in IT), another is in college and their daughter is in high school. Mr. Bhuiyan himself now works in the Hudson High School.
Their story probably could not be replicated today. Our next story will focus on some creative approaches being explored locally to address the housing crisis.