Should the town place future limits on large residential projects? Ongoing work on an updated master plan provides an opportunity to consider this sort of thing. Advocates for such a limit say the recent projects – all of them I’d rather have stable, solid long-term families rather than a transient group of people for subsidized, affordable housing – have been vigorously opposed by neighbors concerned their property values would be reduced and their taxes increased. But the Planning Board is only allowed to consider how such proposals relate to the zoning code, so even overwhelming opposition can’t stop a project. They also say community involvement and property upkeep are inversely related to the rise of renters.
On the other side, supporters for such projects say the town can’t discriminate against low-income housing. It would certainly not oppose upper income condos. Besides, some say, there’s a need for this housing: the reason home ownership is falling is because fewer people can afford to buy homes in an area where housing prices have outpaced local wages.
The master plan isn’t a law – it’s a document of guiding principles, revised every decade or so by a dedicated committee, which the town adopts to inform future changes to the zoning code, town ordinances and other land use issues. The town held its first public hearing on a new update of the law last month, and will hold several more before adoption.
Section 7.2 of the draft plan says the town should “provide a broad range of housing evenly mixed throughout the community for present and future residents, including young people, families with children, senior citizens and households who earn less than the minimum wage.”
The plan also calls for support of public housing agencies “as they work to provide housing for qualified low-income residents of the Town and Village of Saugerties.” These include the Saugerties Public Housing Agency, Better Community Housing for Saugerties and the Senior Housing Project, along with any other public housing advocates.
Councilman Bruce Leighton said a balanced approach is a good basis for future growth. “How can you distinguish between luxury apartments, apartments for average-income people and poor people?” he asked.
Several large developments that receive tax breaks are senior housing. “We will all grow old, and we may need this housing,” said Leighton. “Not everyone can afford to keep up a large house. Many people may not want to even if they can afford it.”
One provision of the plan suggests that the town set up regulations for conversion of garages to auxiliary apartments. “That may make the difference between whether a family can afford to keep their house or not,” Leighton said.
Councilman Fred Costello said before we can determine what types of housing we should be favoring, we need a comprehensive study of what housing is available and what is needed. “You have to have facts before you have opinions,” he said. And, while a lot of information about population trends, areas of need, availability of housing and housing density has been compiled, the information needs to be combined and interpreted to relate it to the housing needs.
The plan reflects this need, in goal 7.1, which states “examine all current housing options and community facilities in relation to the projected population growth and accommodate changes while enhancing the community mix of ages, income groups and family types.”
“Our business district is expanding, and more people will be coming here to work,” said Susan Bolitzer. “They may not be in a position to buy a house, and some may not even have cars. We will need housing near the village center. It is important that everyone has a place to live.” In particular, she noted the recent upgrading of infrastructure on Kings Highway, which she said would attract workers who will need places to live.
However, apartments need not all be in large complexes that house dozens of families, Bolitzer said. “We have some very large houses in the village, and people may not be able to heat and maintain these houses in today’s economy; they may need to convert them to rental units.”
Alice Mumper, the administrator of the Saugerties Public Housing Agency, said there is not enough low-cost housing in Saugerties to meet the need. “There are more people eligible for public housing now than I have seen in years,” she said.
At the same time, the number of vouchers allowed for the Section 8 program, which her office runs, has not increased, putting more pressure on the existing housing.
With the recession, fewer builders are constructing low-cost housing, Mumper said. Add the fact that the baby boomer generation is reaching retirement age, and the need for housing is critical. While Saugerties has more people eligible for low-cost housing than in the past, she sympathizes with those who say it’s unfair that their taxes must cover the shortfall caused by special tax breaks these projects receive.
Town Councilwoman Leeanne Thornton cited figures that show 48 percent of renters are “burdened,” that is, paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Some 28 percent are “severely burdened,” meaning they pay 50 percent or more of their income in rent. On the other hand, Thornton said, each project that pays less than full taxes places a burden on the other taxpayers in town. “We need the subsidized housing, but we need to balance that with the taxpayers’ needs.”
Kelly Myers doesn’t want Saugerties to change. “This has been a community with mostly single-family, owner-occupied homes,” she said. “I would like to see this type of housing encouraged.”
Myers doesn’t favor splitting large houses into multiple apartments with the owner occupying one or so-called garage apartments. Over the long term, owners may move out, and the property may be sold to absentee landlords, she said. “In the village, nearly 60 percent of the units are rentals already, and we have between eight and 10 percent vacancy rate, so I would like to retain the single-family homes.”