County housing plan aims to counter NIMBYism

Downtown New Paltz (photo by Dion Ogust)

Ulster County deputy county executive Evelyn Wright briefed Village of New Paltz trustees on the county’s housing action plan at their May 12 board meeting. Housing is a growing problem in the county: people are moving in and prices are going up even as incomes are flat. People who would rather sell their homes for something smaller have a hard time finding anything suitable locally, and many people in the county are living someplace they can’t really afford, because the housing costs are more than 30% of their income. There are also identified needs for transitional and supportive housing, according to Wright.

At the average wage of $13 an hour, Wright said, one must work 67 hours a week to bring the average housing cost down to 30% of income, or they must secure work for at least $22 an hour if they only want to work 40 hours a week. The specifics vary around the county, but two of the worst spots in terms of a high burden of housing cost are the New Paltz village — where the average income is quite low because it includes college students — and Gardiner just to the south, where the average income is much higher.

Wright said that there’s not a lot of building happening because current residents often oppose projects that would encourage a surge in population, adding uncertainty and cost to the development process. The housing action plan calls for educating current residents as to the benefits of more construction, and to find ways to streamline development, in order to get the housing supply increased. This will entail identifying parcels where such development would be uncontroversial, as well.

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Modeled after the state’s climate-smart communities program, which dangles financial incentives for taking steps to reduce ecological impacts, a county “housing-smart communities” program is being rolled out. It’s also hoped that some of the federal pandemic aid earmarked for the county can be used to build out the necessary infrastructure to support the housing needs of a human population that continues to increase.

Town resident Kitty Brown questioned Wright’s assertion that senior citizens generally wish to move to smaller homes as they age, noting that there’s an accessory apartment law being contemplated in the village in part to support a desire to age in place. Wright admitted that this was not a reference to any research or data, but instead was anecdotal evidence. That prompted resident Jane Schanberg, who identifies as a senior citizen who did move to smaller accommodations, to offer Wright assistance in gathering additional anecdotes to support that supposition.

Brown also opined that it may be time to require that developers of mixed-use projects provide that the jobs available pay high enough wages that those employees could afford to live in the same development. It’s an argument that’s been raised at least as far back as when the “crossroads” mixed-use development was considered for a parcel near the Thruway in mid-aughts.

Additionally, Brown rejected the idea that projects are routinely rejected in New Paltz, pointing to Zero Place as evidence. Developers “all ask for all sorts of favors,” such as tax breaks and zoning variances or changes, Brown pointed out; when a project is proposed without “favors” requested, it gets approved.