By AMANDA BENSEN
Published in The Post-Star (A1) 5/28/07
There’s a downside to economic upturn — housing costs can go through the roof.
The Glens Falls/Saratoga region has experienced significant growth in the past decade, and that’s good news for landlords, business owners and the local tax base.
But for people who live in the uncomfortable gap between government assistance and economic self-sufficiency, average rental prices of $700 a month can often mean choosing between paying the rent and buying other necessities.
"There is definitely an affordable housing problem, and it’s getting worse ... I’ve been here for 19 years, and I have been watching this change drastically," said Lee Cleavland, a case worker at the Salvation Army. "It’s truly pushing many of our low-income families completely out."
Federal guidelines for calculating assistance state that "total shelter costs," meaning rent or mortgage plus utilities, should be 30 percent or less of a household’s income. But Cleavland said those numbers don’t match the reality of the market.
"Most of the families we see pay at least 50 percent (of their income) just for rent, not to mention the skyrocketing cost of utilities," she said.
Limited help available
People who struggle to pay rent can get federal assistance through a program called Housing Choice (formerly dubbed "Section 8"), but they may spend up to two years on a waiting list first. About 600 people in this area currently receive rental vouchers through the program, with 200 more waiting, said Bob Landry, executive director of the Glens Falls Housing Authority.
Even for those who receive vouchers, finding an apartment can be a major challenge, Landry said. The program covers housing costs that exceed 30 percent of a recipient’s income — but only up to a point.
"For example, the most we can pay for a one-bedroom apartment is $525 a month, including utilities, and it’s next to impossible to find a $525 apartment in this area," Landry said. "Those places exist, but there’s not enough to satisfy the need."
Federal funding for the Housing Choice voucher program has been cut three times in the past five years because the government was "trying to get a handle on fraud," Landry said.
"They were afraid that there were a lot of tenants who had income they weren’t reporting, but in our case, locally we didn’t find a lot of fraud. And I think they’ve found overall that it wasn’t as rampant as they thought, yet the funding cuts have stayed in place."
The effect has been a kind of "double whammy" for low-income residents who have moved to Glens Falls from other parts of the county to gain better access to the hospital, public transportation and entry-level jobs, Landry explained.
"When those people migrated into this area, apartments were affordable," he said. "Now, the rents have gone up, and the funding (for Housing Choice) has gone down."
Affordable housing projects
The Henry Hudson Town Houses in Glens Falls are among the largest-scale affordable housing projects in the region, with 136 apartment units located between Hudson Avenue and Broad Street. The federally subsidized complex has a reputation for being rundown and crime-ridden, but many residents there said they are simply grateful for a place to call home.
"They work with you on the rent, based on your income ... so it’s good in that way," said Jack Newman, who lives at the townhouses with his fiancee and two kids. He had to give up his previous apartment because he couldn’t keep up with bills after getting sick and being out of work temporarily.
Across the cul-de-sac, a young couple with three children said they had spent about six months on a waiting list to get into the townhouses. Before that, they said, the only local apartment they could find in their price range was so small that the couple slept in the laundry room, while the kids shared two bedrooms.
The mother of the family, 25-year-old Katherine Kelley, said she doesn’t think their situation is unique.
"When I first moved out, when I was 18, you could find a four-bedroom for $500. Now, they’re more like $900," said Kelley, 25. "A friend I work with has two jobs and no car, and she still can’t afford her place. She just told me she’s two months behind on rent."
The one major drawback of the townhouses is the high cost of utilities. The buildings have little or no insulation, and many residents said they have paid $400 a month or more for heat during the winter.
The complex is slated for a major renovation soon, but Landry said that’s not a solution to the affordable housing issues facing the city.
"The quality of the structures is going to improve by 1,000 percent, but there’s 136 apartments and they’re going to be replaced by 136 apartments — it does nothing to ease demand," he said.
Learning from Saratoga
The housing crisis is even more dire in Saratoga Springs, where it’s becoming "virtually impossible" to live in the city on minimum wage or a fixed income, said Windy Wyczawski, case manager at Shelters of Saratoga.
"We’re dealing with more people who are simply working low-income jobs and are unable to keep up with expenses, and getting evicted," she said. "There are some more affordable apartments in outlying communities, but unless they can afford a car, that doesn’t help, because there’s not much public transportation."
Restaurants and hotels have faced staffing shortages at the height of tourist season because of the lack of affordable housing in the region. Landry said he heard of one case in which a restaurant owner actually bought an apartment building in Schuylerville and an old school bus to provide employees with affordable housing and transportation. (A waiter at the restaurant confirmed the story, but the owner did not return several phone calls requesting an interview.)
Landry and other housing advocates hope Glens Falls will learn some lessons from its wealthier neighbor before following its footsteps.
"I think we as a community sometimes get all wrapped up in our economic development efforts, the beautiful buildings, and how successful we are — but there’s another side of that, too," Landry said. "I want to make sure we look at this problem now, because the economy is starting to explode. And because it’s tourism-based, there are a great number of entry-level jobs. Those workers need to be able to afford to live here."
He could be talking about Jessica Thompson, 23, who works as a waitress in Glens Falls and Lake George. She and her boyfriend have been searching for an apartment for several months, but can’t find anything in their price range that’s centrally located.
"For a one-bedroom, I don’t think it should be anything over $500. But it’s not available in Glens Falls, South Glens Falls — I haven’t see it around here," she said. "And it’s hard being young ... landlords have told me that tenants my age don’t pay rent."
The housing authority manages four low-income housing projects in the region, three of which are exclusively for senior citizens. Among Stichman Towers, Earl Towers and the Cronin Hi-Rise, there are 256 senior apartments, Landry said. The fourth project, LaRose Gardens in Queensbury, is open to families and includes 50 units.
Claire Dingman, a spunky 78-year-old with a bad heart, has lived in Stichman Towers for 12 years and said she loves it.
"I’m a very lucky girl. You can live on a small amount comfortably in a place like this," she said. "But if it wasn’t for this place, a lot of people probably wouldn’t have a home. ... When I was married, years ago, we rented a whole house for $55 a month. Young people get married today, and it scares you to think about how much money they need to live."
Residents of LaRose Gardens describe their apartments as safe, well-maintained and conveniently located near stores and schools.
Jessica Thompson’s mother, Sheila Ellis, moved in about five years ago with her husband, who is disabled and out of work.
"We’ve lived here four or five years, and it’s ideal, but it was a long wait to get in," she said. "The housing shortage is crazy around here, it’s hard to find someplace affordable where you don’t mind living."
She looked at her daughter.
"I wish she could find a place like this, too."---
SIDEBAR: Where the homeless sleep out of sight
It isn’t common to see people sleeping on the sidewalk in this area, but there’s more to homelessness than meets the eye. A recent study by the National Alliance of Homelessness estimates nearly 400 homeless people live in this region.
Lisa Coutu, co-chairwoman of the Warren/Washington Housing Coalition, said that number might even be too low.
"I hear about a lot of people who are staying temporarily with a friend or relative, and those people would not meet HUD’s definition of homelessness. But for all intents and purposes, they are homeless," she said.
Coutu helps place people in Shelter Plus Care, a federally funded program that assists those who are homeless and disabled by mental illness, substance abuse or HIV/AIDS. But she often gets calls about people who are homeless for purely economic reasons and have exhausted the resources available from other agencies.
"Those phone calls are hard for me, because the person will say, ‘Well, do you know of any other program that’s available?’ And I have to say no, I don’t. It’s really an issue of affordable housing," she said.
She wishes there was an emergency shelter in the Glens Falls area open to the general homeless population, rather than just specific groups like youths, veterans or battered women. The Department of Social Service and other agencies "do an excellent job," she said, but "the need is greater than what these agencies are able to provide."
In Glens Falls, emergency housing usually means a few weeks in a cheap motel room. The Department of Social Services, Salvation Army and Community Action Agency all offer emergency housing assistance, but case workers said that gets harder as motels raise prices for the summer.
"You can usually get a family into lower-cost motels in the area, but come Memorial Day, that option will no longer be available. I remember one year when someone donated a bunch of camping equipment and we set up tent communities," said Lynn Ackershoek, executive director of Warren/Hamilton Community Action Agency. "Housing disappears in summer, but that’s also when they can find jobs ... and it’s hard to get up out of a tent in the morning to go to work."
Michael Lajeunesse, one of the agency’s case managers, said he sees at least one case a week involving homelessness.
"They’ve just run out of options," he said. "They can get on a list with the Housing Authority and wait for a voucher, but it could be a year or two. In the meantime, they’re really struggling ... we can do a week or two in a motel room, but it’s really just a Band-aid solution."
Lee Cleavland, a case worker with the Salvation Army in Glens Falls, said her agency faces similar challenges.
"Yesterday, I had four different homeless people to deal with, and it took several calls to different motels to find a weekly room we could afford," she said. "When your budget from FEMA is only $5,000 a year, there’s no way you can afford $300 a week for a motel...and even when we have the money, I can’t find a place sometimes."
Currently, Shelters of Saratoga runs the only general-population emergency shelter in the three-county region, on Walworth Street in Saratoga Springs. Apart from the sign in the yard that says "Saratoga Neighborhood Development," it blends into the residential neighborhood and offers a homey environment complete with bookshelves, a television room and a kitchen.
Case manager Windy Wyczawksi said the shelter’s 15 beds are almost always full. Homeless individuals can stay there for up to 60 days — paying $10 a night or 30 percent of their income if they are not eligible for county services — and often use that time to work and save money toward an apartment.
That’s what Stephanie Desadore, 29, did after series of bad decisions and bad luck left her homeless recently.
She was evicted from her apartment, separated from her children (she sent them to live with other family members), out of work and out of options when the shelter offered her its last available female bed. But during her two months there, she got a full-time job as a housecleaner and saved enough to move into her own one-bedroom apartment.
"Not everybody that comes to the shelter has an addiction. Sometimes they just fall short, or fall flat, like me," she said. "If it wasn’t for the shelter staff pointing me in the right direction, I never would have gotten a job. ... I’d probably just be bouncing around from place to place, blowing my money, because I didn’t know how to budget. I get it now."