How did housing become a crisis?

(This is the first in a series of articles about housing in Columbia County.)

HUDSON—Some call it a crisis—the state of housing in the county. Precipitated by the skyrocketing price of single-family homes during the pandemic (the median price rose by 54.7% from $239,000 to $379,000 between 2018 and 2021) and the simultaneous significant decrease in available housing (by 58.6%), many in our workforce and many longtime residents simply cannot afford to live here.
Rents have followed the same trajectory, often close to doubling. Since wages have not increased to keep pace, the lack of affordable housing is impacting the economy, as younger workers leave the county to find locales where they can find both work and housing, according to Matt Murell (R-Stockport), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.

Recognizing the need to develop and implement solutions, on September 14 the Board of Supervisors unanimously authorized a three-year contract with the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) to further the development of housing that is affordable. To fund the contract, the county will draw on federal 2021 Covid Stimulus Plan (ARPA) money that were awarded to further activities that are “vital to the overall economic health of the county, its residents, and the local economy.”

The contract is subject to annual review and the three-year cost will not exceed a total of $250,000. The county was allocated approximately $11 million under the ARPA legislation.

Affordable housing is key to an area’s health. It benefits community stability and individual financial security, improves health, education, and employment outcomes, reduces public service costs and stimulates and supports economic development.

“Affordability” is generally viewed in relation to a family’s income. Households spending no more than 30% of their income on housing costs (mortgage or rent, plus utilities, insurance and real estate taxes) are considered to be in an affordable situation. According to the 67-page “Columbia County Housing Brief” commissioned by the county and issued in March 2022 by Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, a non-profit research, policy and advocacy group, many county workers and residents cannot afford to live here by that standard.

For example, in Columbia County, a single parent working in social services and having one child earns (on average) $46,536/year and should not assume more than $1,163/month in rent or mortgage payments to keep within the desired 30% level. That would translate to a $142,000 home price. As of the early 2022 study date, of the 248 homes listed for sale in the county on the multiple listing service, six properties met this criterion.

Renters face equal obstacles. Countywide, there is a significant gap between available rentals and the wages earned by those seeking housing. The rental shortage and rental price increases particularly affect the City of Hudson, where 64% of households are renters.

At a county housing forum held in March 2022, participants noted that the housing needs of the county are diverse, ranging from transition housing to low-income housing to workforce housing, as well as senior and disabled housing. Much of the county’s housing stock, and particularly that in Hudson, is old, and to meet the current needs will require not only preservation and upgrading of existing inventory but also the construction of new units. Construction in turn is hampered by the facts that much of the county lacks critical infrastructure—sewers, utilities, gas, water—and that many localities have zoning laws that are inhospitable to development.

Since the county will not be constructing housing itself, it must act to facilitate development and remove obstacles. Under the new contract the CEDC is to advise the county on policies to further these goals; organize and coordinate the activities of a county Housing Task Force that Mr. Murell will appoint shortly; hire a full-time staff person to serve as Housing Coordinator; and develop and assist in implementing a comprehensive plan to address the needs for affordable and workforce housing throughout the county.

As the CEDC’s President and CEO Michael Tucker explained: “The contract will allow the county to address the reality of housing unaffordability and the ways it negatively impacts county citizens across the spectrum of the workforce and residents, by finding ways to ensure an opportunity to live here for those who wish to work and live here and to ensure that employers have the workforce available to sustain and grow the county’s economy.”

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