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Essex County land bank could be local solution to Adirondack housing shortage

Amy Feiereisel via Associated Press
Posted 4/13/22

ESSEX — In much of the North Country, affordable housing has become a big issue for residents. Over the course of the pandemic, inventory has been low. Often properties are selling for more than …

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Essex County land bank could be local solution to Adirondack housing shortage

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ESSEX — In much of the North Country, affordable housing has become a big issue for residents.

Over the course of the pandemic, inventory has been low. Often properties are selling for more than they’re listed, and many are being sold to outside buyers from cities, with deeper pockets than local residents. In popular vacation destinations, like Lake Placid and the Thousand Islands, the rise of short-term rentals has also depleted local housing.

That’s why Essex County is considering establishing a not-for-profit Land Bank, to help get low and moderate-income locals into homes.

What is a Land Bank and what can it do? Land Banks already exist across the state; New York has 26 of them. Some focus on a city, others on a swath of counties. They’re essentially non-profits with a mission of taking government foreclosed upon properties, and turning them into homes for local low or moderate-income residents. They can do that through rehabilitating and renovating existing houses, or knocking down derelict ones and building new homes.

Ken Hughes is the town of Essex’s Supervisor. He says that historically, many of the county’s tax sale properties cycle through tax auction, year after year, never being updated, and falling into further disrepair.

He thinks that the creation of a county land bank could address two issues: blighted properties, and a lack of affordable housing. Hughes takes me to a property in downtown Whallonsburg, a small hamlet in Essex County, just a few miles from Lake Champlain. It’s a three story pale yellow home. From the outside it looks to be in good condition. This home is not up for tax sale, but has lain empty for years, and Hughes says the owners have tried to find a buyer, to no avail.

“I’ve known this house to be vacant for at least 10 years. I know it’s been tried, they’ve tried to sell it and nobody’s buying it. It’s just, it’s been like this. It’s just sitting here and every time I drive by I think about ‘why can’t we get somebody into this house?’”

An affordable housing solution

Empty properties are particularly frustrating, says Hughes, since he’s been witness to the regional housing shortage.

“I have a lot of people calling me and saying, you know, ‘are there places in Essex, to rent, to live in? And I’m like, ‘there’s just not much stock, especially after the pandemic.’”

Low inventory coupled with an influx of outside buyers has meant that local property prices have soared. Hughes says local families have struggled to buy homes, as they “can’t compete with a buyer who can offer cash and $10,000 over asking price.”

A land bank could help with that problem, as land banks essentially flips houses. The difference is, they’re not doing it to make a profit. And they set their own rules for who they will sell to, says Hughes, like “a certain income level threshold, you can’t make this an Airbnb, year round occupancy.”

Land banks often have lists of pre-vetted candidates who match their criteria, and then they “begin to match the people that they know are looking for a home with the homes that they’re actually renovating.”

Hughes says the population a land bank here would serve are those that are living and working here, in service and tourism and other industries that don’t have big salaries attached to them.

“There are many, many people who are year round residents of the Adirondack Park, of our counties and towns, who are working really, really hard, but they’re just not making a lot of money.”

A land bank in Essex County?

Hughes sits on an Essex County committee called the Low and Moderate Income Housing Task Force. This spring, that committee plans to propose creating an Essex County Land Bank. If approved, they’ll submit an application to the New York Land Bank Association.

The effort is being spearheaded by Ken Hughes, Town of Lewis supervisor Jim Monty, and the Commissioner of Social Services for the county, Michael Mascarenas, alongside a sprawling group of interested officials and local non-profits. Hughes says local organizations like ADKAction, Northern Forest Center, Common Ground Alliance, AARCH an LivingADK have been crucial to fleshing out the idea.

Hughes says they want to start small: rehab one house, and get one family in there.

“If we try this and it fails spectacularly, then we haven’t invested too much and we haven’t gone too deep. We really want to move very slowly.”

How to fund it?

But even just one house will cost something. The way most other NY Land Banks work is they start with a modest amount of seed money, and buy, rehab, and sell homes at a very slight profit, growing that seed money over time. Hughes says it’s “kind of like a self-perpetuating revenue generator.”

The big logistical question on everyone’s mind has been: how to get that seed money?

The committee’s idea is to ask for a couple hundred thousand dollars, taken from the $7,000,000 Essex County received in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding, the federal pandemic stimulus package. Hughes says that’s their ideal scenario, as they see the seed money as an investment that will have a positive return for Essex County.

Not a quick fix, but a start

What the Land Bank won’t be is a quick fix. Hughes says realistically, it will probably take years to get a Land Bank established and rehabbing enough homes to make a noticeable impact on the local housing market. But Hughes is ever the optimist, and believes “this land bank could be the final lynchpin to getting those people who really want to live in their home, into an affordable home.”

The Essex County Board of Supervisors will vote on the creation of a county land bank in the late Spring.

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