Affordable housing? Here’s what holds us back

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

HUDSON—With near universal agreement that the county needs more affordable housing, especially for the workforce, what stands in the way of our city, towns and villages increasing the inventory?

The three barriers most often cited are the lack of infrastructure to support larger projects, zoning that varies from town to town and often restricts or precludes forms of potential growth and community attitudes (often expressed through the zoning laws and in the permitting process).

Infrastructure is key to “large scale” multi-unit construction that requires public water supply and sewer/wastewater treatment facilities. But in Columbia County, there are few locations with public water systems and sewer districts, as shown in the chart below.

LOCATION         PUBLIC WATER      WASTEWATER/SEWER

Chatham Village        yes                              yes

Claverack                   yes                              no

Germantown               no                               yes

Greenport                   yes                               yes

Hillsdale                     no                                yes

Hudson                       yes                               yes

Kinderhook                yes                                no

Philmont                    yes                                yes

Stockport                   yes                                yes

Valatie                        yes                               yes

Commerce Park         no                                yes

[Data from Pattern for Progress, 2022 Columbia County Housing Brief]

The cost of creating the systems necessary to support larger projects is substantial, usually financed by a blend of municipal bonds, federal and state grants, hook-up and user fees. For example, the recent decommissioning of an outdated wastewater system serving the county Commercial Park, parts of Route 66 and the airport, and the installation of pumps and sewer lines to extend from that area to the Greenport wastewater plant was estimated to cost $8.5 million. Of course, a community considering the construction or expansion of water or sewer systems generally will be envisioning multiple users for it—residential and commercial.

Other solutions, such as “packaged” wastewater treatment plants, are less costly, but it is often challenging (and financially disadvantageous) to convert small businesses or homes that have private water and septic systems that are satisfactory to the owners’ needs to a public system that will increase their operational costs through annual user fees, explains Michael Tucker, president of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation. Other times, a project may lie just beyond the reach of a municipal system, requiring an extension of services, as was the case when the Bartlett House (in the Village of Chatham) was renovated; according to Andy Didio of Taconic Engineering, which worked with the owners, the village and business in effect made a public/private partnership to share the costs of extending the water lines.

Zoning in New York is a subject of “Home Rule,” the principle, protected under the state constitution, that local government controls, among other things, zoning and land use regulation. But the principle has often been overridden by federal or state law to meet broader needs such as in the solar farm and telecommunications areas, where towns have little control over siting and other decisions). Thus, in general, in Columbia County, the City of Hudson and every town and village can (and does) have its own set of land use laws, each taking a different approach to such issues as minimum lot sizes, density of land use, design requirements, road width and paving, set-backs, height restrictions, permitted uses, and much more. Some local laws address topics affecting affordable housing, and others do not, according to Nan Stolzenburg of Community Planning and Environmental Associates, who has worked with more than half of the county’s towns and villages.

According to Ms. Stolzenburg, there is a “toolbox” that localities can use to address affordable housing needs, that includes tax incentives and planning. At the regulatory level, zoning can permit the construction of “accessory dwelling units”—cottages, “in-law” annexes, habitable garage or barn spaces that expand the use of a plot to include a rental unit that generally will be “right-sized” to the community landscape. The permitted density of units in an area may be increased, to allow for uses other than single-family dwellings. Mixed use housing can be explicitly permitted. A part of a town may be designated for denser usage or multi-unit construction (duplex, tri-and quad-plex or townhouse building, “tiny houses,” cohousing, continuing care or senior housing) in a recognition that “not every inch of every town must be maintained at a low density.”

Similarly, a “floating district” may be created—an area that is not located at a specific point on the town’s zoning map but the design, density, open-space and other features of which are pre-defined to accord with the community’s sense of what is “right” for it and to give a potential builder certainty as to the “rules” that govern what’s acceptable.

Many of the county’s communities are currently revisiting their comprehensive plans—the overarching statement of principles and values that will guide the specifics and implementation of their zoning laws—and/or the laws themselves. According to Ms. Stolzenburg, unlike even five years ago, affordable housing is one of the topics now being considered in recognition of the fact that younger residents and workforce populations are moving elsewhere because they find it unaffordable to live in this county.

Related to affordable housing, communities are grappling with whether and how to regulate short-term rentals, which, among other things affect affordable housing by taking units out of the long-term rental market and turning them into what are effectively unregulated businesses that also drive up housing costs.

Some communities are also considering a regional approach to meeting housing needs. In 2021 the towns of Ancram, Copake and Hillsdale formed the Roe Jan Housing Task Force as a means of understanding, quantifying and ultimately addressing the housing problem, especially the lack of workforce housing, shared by each of their communities. Pattern for Progress surveyed the housing market (rental and owner-occupied homes) in each of the towns. The report showed that across the three towns 35% of all renters and 27% of all homeowners were paying 30% or more of their income to meet housing costs (15% were paying more than 50%), which means that by definition they are suffering undesirable and unsustainable burdens. Since then, the Task Force, with support from Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th), has met with an array of experts, potential developers and the CEO of Columbia County Habitat for Humanity to understand the challenges and explore solutions. According to Hillsdale Supervisor Chris Kersten (D), the Task Force hopes to be able to identify available land and types of construction design, among other features, that will be supported for affordable housing projects, and expects to work closely with the County-wide Housing Task Force. Local officials say the county-wide task force will be appointed soon by Matt Murell (R-Stockport), chair of the Board of Supervisors, to work with the CEDC under its newly-awarded three-year contract to further housing solutions for the county. (See September 22 issue.)

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