EDITORIAL: We need to house the future

ONE OF THE LAMENTS you hear around election time comes from parents who say they want their children to live close by but there’s no work here. When our kids were young they couldn’t wait to leave and we didn’t see that as a problem. We thought they were smart to experience a wider world. Now, one has chosen to return and make a life close by. Our others… visit.
Finding a job is only one of the obstacles facing young people today. Those who won’t or can’t live with Mom and Dad may struggle to find a decent, affordable place to live. It’s not just young people who face this dilemma, either. Adult workers who provide services on which many of us depend also contend with a scarcity of housing options. All this came into focus at a regional symposium convened last month by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, a non-profit organization that makes possible tangible improvements to the quality of life in Columbia County, northern Dutchess County, Berkshire County, MA, and Litchfield County, CT. The symposium put the numbers on the table: If you live in a household making the median income for Columbia County of $55,546 and you want to buy a home, Good Luck. You’d need to earn nearly $9,000 a year more before you could qualify for a typical mortgage on a $200,000 home.
So you’re young and you have to rent. You could do that if your household earns the county median income, because that’s the same as one person earning around $27 per hour. But you don’t have to fall much below that median income before your options become limited. The foundation’s Bill Dunlaevy told the symposium that you’d need to make the equivalent of $24.68 an hour to afford the rent on a typical two-bedroom apartment and still have enough money left for food, clothing and transportation.
These are generalizations. Live here long enough and you’ll hear of lovely apartments for less than the market rate or an unbelievable deal on a house. But the pattern is worrisome because the population of the county is so old compared to state and national rates. Who’s going to pay the property taxes that keep the roads plowed and the rescue squad on duty?
If that seems like a distant threat, check out the census. The county population dropped by one between the 2000 and 2010 federal headcounts; in other words, our population remained the same as the state and nation grew. But the annual Census Bureau estimate reports that between 2010 and 2011 the population of Columbia County dropped by 546. That’s almost 1% of our residents who disappeared in a single year. It will take more data over several years to determine whether this change is a statistical blip or an unstoppable trend. At this point, I wouldn’t bet against a trend.
The Berkshire Taconic symposium offered some suggestions for ways to increase the availability of affordable housing. Debora Gilbert’s story on the event in this edition mentions some of them; others are available at the foundation’s website, www.berkshiretaconic.org, by clicking on the Housing Us link. There are also plenty of encouraging programs here, as well, like the steady progress–one or two homes at a time–made by Columbia County Habitat for Humanity. But we need much more.
Just like our children are our responsibility as parents, as citizens we have a duty to encourage affordable housing in our communities. Demanding that politicians do this for us misses the point and invites unwelcome conformity, when what we need is a continuing effort to figure out what works best in our own backyards. Then we can ask for some government support to help us achieve goals we’ve set for ourselves.
Consider the Village of Kinderhook, which dragged its feet for years on the need for a sewer system to make growth possible. The recent vote approving the sewer lines indicates village residents understood that their community had no future without this modest infrastructure improvement.
Will that vote lead to restored economic vitality in the village? Will a sewer promote growth and new tax revenues? That’s asking a lot of a few pipes. But what the Kinderhook vote shows is that communities can take affirmative steps that may help address the population drain. And what the symposium reminds us is that if we don’t take some risks to foster affordable development, the exodus will surely continue.

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