Housing boom is hurting our most vulnerable residents

(Photos by Dion Ogust)

The rise in housing prices in the Hudson Valley is more than just an inconvenience for current renters and prospective homebuyers. It’s also pushing residents into homelessness while simultaneously limiting the resources available for this population, say housing advocates. 

Liz Bahr, program director for the Kingston Darmstadt Shelter, said the rooming houses where’s she’s always placed homeless men and women are closing down. 

Chiz’s Heart Street, for example, a Kingston rooming house for disabled adults, recently sold, displacing dozens of residents. “And there’s one more on Green Street, called The Bridges,” said Bahr. “It’s under contract to sell and they’re not going to keep it as a boarding house.”

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People who are homeless, many of whom work full-time, face ever-rising prices and stiff competition for every place available. “A lot [of people] can’t make enough money to get a place,” said Bahr.

Tasha, currently living at Family Inn, a shelter for families, struggles to make enough money to get an apartment. At age 33, she says she has worked all her life. For the past four years, she’s worked at a Kingston fast food restaurant, where she is now the manager. But with three children, her salary still isn’t enough.

So she’s taking a second job.

“I was staying with my sister in Kingston,” said Tasha. “We lived together for two years. But they were raising the rent, my sister lost her job, and I couldn’t afford the apartment.”

Tasha said she couldn’t find anything quickly enough. “I went to social services. We [Tasha and her children] lived in a motel for almost a year, and now we’ve been at the Family Inn for about six months.”

The search for a home has been intense. 

“Since COVID happened, it was a lot harder,” said Tasha. “A lot shut down. It’s crazy in Kingston.” 

Stigma and rejection

“People are shunned because they’re in a shelter,” said Bahr. “People who discriminate, it’s usually out of not knowing. Sometimes, when they get an understanding, they’re not like that. “ 

She added, “You’d be very surprised who’s homeless, sometimes.”

People rarely expect to find themselves homeless. “[Homelessness] could be caused by any one of 20 reasons,” said Bahr. “Almost every single [person] has a different reason.”

Bahr listed some common causes: Fire, divorce, a rental being sold, domestic violence, aging out of foster care, recovering from surgery, running away from home. There’s also losing a job, starting over after jail time, can’t pay the mortgage, disability, overwhelming debt, mental illness, or just plain not making enough money.

And some of those people, who do get “Section 8” help the form of housing vouchers, are turned away from available homes because of prejudice.

Sam, a 25-year-old disabled woman staying with a relative in New Paltz, has experienced that discrimination first-hand. Sometimes, it’s not subtle. Once, said Sam, when a landlady returned a call about an affordable one-bedroom in Kingston and heard that Sam had housing vouchers, the landlady said, “I’m not interested; I’m not interested. It’s just not going to work out.” Then she hung up.

Since 2019, it’s been illegal for landlords to discriminate against prospective tenants based on section 8 status. However, according to Maria Wayne, director of Section 8 Programs at RUPCO, there are ways around that.

“A landlord can say we don’t believe your income can support the apartment,” she said. “Or the person has a bad reference. We have a lot of landlords, they will do a credit check; for most people who are low-income, their credit is not good! They’re on this [voucher] program for a reason. Landlords put up a lot of barriers, make it more challenging.”

Monique, a soft-spoken, homeless 29-year-old on the autism spectrum, puts it a different way. “Landlords are hesitant,” said Monique. 

She lost her rental in New Paltz when her landlord sold the building. Monique has vouchers that need to be “renewed” soon, and she’s been looking with increasing anxiety from her motel room, paid for with her credit card. “They aren’t sure about the process. They don’t understand.” 

Chiz’s Heart Street, a Kingston rooming house for disabled adults that recently sold, displacing dozens of residents.

Waiting lists and standards

The first thing to understand about homelessness is that everything has a waiting list. Even the waiting list has a waiting list. 

The waiting list for subsidized housing is long. RUPCO’s apartments have a waiting list of about three to five years, said Wayne. After people apply, a lottery determines who actually gets on the waiting list. 

“Every few years,” said Wayne, “we open the Section 8 waiting list.” 

In other words, you have to wait to get onto the waiting list for housing vouchers. 

“We’re in a housing crisis for sure,” said Wayne. “A lot of people aren’t moving; there are no units opening up. The pandemic is playing a big role.” Homeless people who are looking can’t find anything, she said.

Another sticking point is Section 8 housing “standards,” which seem reasonable in reasonable times. Standards, for example, set the price of a rental, which is called the “fair market standard,” or FMS. 

A housing voucher will pay up to 70 percent of the fair market standard rent. The tenant has to pay the other 30 percent out of their own income. The problem is if the apartment costs more than the fair market standard, the homeless person with Section 8 can’t rent it because they’re not allowed to spend more than 40 percent of their gross income on housing.

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Right now, the FMS cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Ulster County is $1,071 (including utilities). A review of online listings shows most one-bedroom apartments are going for at least $1,500 a month, most with utilities extra. On a Sunday, searching Zillow, Craigslist, realtor.com and apartments.com, only three listings advertised a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,071.

And another Section 8 standard specifies that renters must rent an apartment appropriate to the size of the family. Wayne explained that there must be one bedroom for head of household plus another bedroom for every two people in the family, regardless of sex or age.

So hard-working Tasha, for example, with three children, needs to rent a three bedroom apartment, two rooms for the kids and one for herself. She could possibly make it work in a two-bedroom, said Wayne, if the living room were big enough to be considered a room for herself (at least 10’-by-17’).

Finding an affordable three bedroom has been just about impossible, said Tasha. That’s why she is now taking on a second job. 

Where do we go from here?

“We were in a [housing] crisis two years ago,” said March Gallagher, Ulster County Comptroller. And now, “we’ve lost a huge number of [long term] rentals to short term rentals, to Airbnb.” She added, “If we don’t learn how to say yes to building things, it’s going to get worse.”

Gallagher mentioned a 2009 county housing study that called for building a large number of units to keep up with demand. “We built less than a hundred…We’re about 10 years behind.” 

Still, units are being built. Despite community push-back, a project to build 160 new apartments on the site of the former jail on Rt. 32 in Kingston is proceeding. Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan said the county will use $4 million of the $34.5 million American Rescue Plan federal relief funds “to implement our comprehensive Housing Action Plan,” which includes acquiring properties to create and retain housing, as well as new construction.

Ben O’Shay, executive director of the Kingston Housing Authority, says the federal trend is to subsidize more renters (with more individual housing vouchers), and to stop building public housing. “The [federal] government wants to get out of the landlord business,” said O’Shay. 

Meanwhile, for some, the challenge to find affordable housing continues. 

“I don’t fare well in the real world,” said Monique, who added she is now looking for a room share.  “It seems like we need more compassion, especially for people with Section 8.”

“My dad taught me to keep my head up, just keep moving,” said Tasha. Her father passed away just three weeks previously. She chokes up. “I always keep my head up. At the end of the day, I have no choice. I have three kids. I do it for them. They’re what motivates me.”


Chiz’s Heart Street

The housing boom exemplified 

A recent Washington Post article cited the Kingston metro area (Ulster County) as second only to Boise, Idaho in home-price growth for the entire United States. Unlike Boise, Kingston’s home sales were flat before the pandemic, then shot up. For example, a four-bedroom, 3,564-square-foot house on Binnewater Road in Kingston was valued by Zillow at $586,700 thousand in March 2020. A year later, it sold for $2.6 million. 

A three-family, six-bedroom, 4,095 square foot house on Kingston’s Abeel Street was valued by Zillow at $326,100 in March 2020. Nine months later, on December 9, 2020, it sold for close to three times as much: $891,000. Zillow’s current estimate for the place is $1.016 million.

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