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In Saranac Lake and other Adirondack communities, a shortage of rentals

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The affordable rent crisis is worsening in Lake Saranac and around the Adirondacks

By Mike De Socio

Open up the popular Zillow hunting area and look for rental properties in Saranac Lake. You might find a surprising answer, as I did in a recent search: “No matching results. Try changing your search. “In other words, no available apartments here; move on.

Maybe try another page. Start HotPads and do the same search. “No entries found.” Trulia? “Sorry, there are no available homes in Saranac Lake, NY.” Facebook marketplace? A few entries appear in nearby Lake Placid or Wilmington, but again nothing in Saranac Lake.

This confusing process has greeted many residents in recent months as the Adirondacks property market has been dominated by pandemic migration and growth in vacation rentals like those listed by Airbnb or VRBO. The effects may be most evident in home purchases, where sales prices have increased by as much as 40% in some areas. The effects can also be felt among tenants in the region who have difficulties in finding affordable housing.

“It’s a problem that is central to many communities, and most certainly to Lake Saranac,” said Melinda Little, a village trustee.

Melinda Little, Saranac Lake Village Trustee and Lease and Housing AttorneyVillage trustee Melinda Little. Photo by Mike Lynch

Rising rental prices

The median rent in Franklin County for a three-bedroom apartment – $ 1,086 – has increased 10 percent since 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Essex County, the median three bedroom rent has increased 5 percent since 2019 and is now $ 1,246.

Lake Saranac, a village with around 2,500 households, is home to up to 240 active short-term rental units in the summer months, according to AirDNA from 2020.

These numbers might not seem drastic, but Little and residents say the region’s lack of affordable rental housing is a combination of many factors that have been built up for years. Historic, aging buildings are expensive to maintain. There is little land left to build new homes in the village. And an increasing presence of short-term rental units is displacing residents.

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“There are so many pressures out there that make it really difficult to find decent places to live that are not priced above the sky,” Little said.

This phenomenon takes place far beyond the Tri-Lakes area. City officials in Old Forge, Elizabethtown and Hague said high real estate turnover and growing apartment stocks are putting pressure on local housing supplies during the pandemic.

David Berkstresser, head of the town of Webb, which also includes the hamlet of Old Forge, said the pandemic has turned many of the town’s homes into more profitable short-term rentals, making it difficult for residents to find year-round rents.

“We suffer just like the others,” said Berkstresser.

The fight is real: three experiences

The Adirondack Explorer spoke to a number of residents of the area who were struggling with this issue. Below are stories from three of them:

Jessica Brothers

Photo by Mike Lynch

“The rent crisis has shot up”

Alexis Subra

Alex SubraPhoto provided

“Everyone is only in scramble mode”

Work towards solutions

Little, the village trustee, has focused on housing issues since her first election three years ago. Some of the efforts have stalled due to the pandemic, but Little said these were some of the recommendations her working group had discussed:

  • Create local programs to assist homeowners with repairs. Little said the condition of older apartment buildings in the village was a serious problem. Providing financial assistance could help more property owners take on the renovation of these historic homes. “The local banks are ready to be more helpful in this area,” said Little.
  • Development of a land bank. The village is in the early stages of creating a local land bank, Little said, which would have the power to seize so-called “zombie lots” and find a means to rehabilitate it.
  • Promote the development of vacant lots. Little admits that there aren’t many of them left in the village. However, she points to a new affordable housing development on Broadway as a model for the type of housing the village should build more of. “It’s going to be a really, really nice development,” said Little. (A similar development is also in the works in Lake Placid.)
  • Registration (and possibly regulation) of short-term rentals. The rise of the vacation units has been going too fast for the village to keep up. The village administration wants to set up a tracking and approval system for short-term rentals in order to get a better grip on the situation. Others have advocated further regulation or taxation, similar to Lake Placid.

However, regulating short-term rentals could also hurt long-term residents who use the platforms to supplement their income and afford their homes. One of them, Mary Bartel, lives in a house on Broadway in Saranac Lake, which also includes her yoga business and two short-term rental efficiencies. She says the Airbnb income will enable her to continue running her business. And while she’s already registered with the county and pays bed taxes, she says she’d prefer not to see additional permit costs.

To find a way to solve these problems, Lake Saranac needs to be preserved as a place for families to settle down. Otherwise the village could be dominated by second home owners and short term tourists.

“People want to be here, but they can’t find anything to rent so they get completely discouraged and don’t stay here,” Little said.

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