Housing advocates in the city of Kingston are working with those affected by the recent lifting of a statewide eviction moratorium while trying to plot their next steps towards creating more affordable housing options in the short and long term.
The Ulster County Sheriff’s Office is moving forward with evictions but at a slower pace of two per day, according to Rashida Tyler, founder of the Real Kingston Tenant’s Union and a Member of the Ulster County Coalition for Housing Justice. The proceedings will start with about 40 people countywide who were set to be evicted in spring 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the area, leading to mass layoffs, businesses closing their doors and the moratorium going into effect, Tyler said.
Tyler noted that evictions did still happen during the moratorium, particularly targeting those suffering mental health issues, that resulted in behavioral issues. They did not qualify for the moratorium and filing a hardship declaration is an arduous process. She said housing advocacy groups have been watching the courts throughout the pandemic and would see these types of evictions.
But the moratorium did halt evictions for non-payment of rent, particularly if the person was able to fill out a hardship declaration form.
For those evicted, a mix of shelters and roadside motels
“Now you have less than a two percent vacancy rate and people lost their jobs due to the pandemic, or their jobs have not kept up pace with rent increase,” Tyler said.
People are often placed in motels by the Ulster County Department of Social Services if they are available. And sometimes they’re as far away as Catskill. The families in place include mothers of children four to five years old who now face a two-hour commute to school, she said. “They have no way to get to the grocery store, it’s seven miles to Catskill and seven miles to Cairo.”
The motels often have issues, like the Atlas Motel, another property used by DSS where certain buildings are condemned while the Starlight in Kerhonkson also has issues, Tyler said.
But families are left with few choices but to say yes. “Mothers are told they’ll take their children if they do not take placement.”
Tyler said the problem also extends to homeowners, such as one who was able to secure an $88,000 mortgage to buy a home through RUPCO back in 2004. But things started to go downhill for her during the 2008 downturn and her bank, Wells Fargo would not work with her. Eventually the amount she owed mushroomed from $88,000 to $400,000. “Now she’s scheduled to be evicted,” Tyler said. She doesn’t have any help, and there’s nothing but homelessness.
Returning to renters, Tyler acknowledged that landlords have bills and mortgages of their own but she wants them to stop fighting renters.
She also said landlords who want to sell properties are slowly evicting tenants, even good paying individuals and families by slowly raising rents. She’s heard of cases where rents skyrocket from $700 to $1200. Often Potential homeowners, including herself, are easily outbid by New York City transplants who can afford to pay $200,000 in cash, Tyler said.
“Healthy housing requires enough rental units at each income bracket to accommodate the population, some for influx,” Tyler said.
She said she knows of renters who had been evicted staying at the Warming Center Ulster County runs in conjunction with Catholic Charities at the 2nd Iglesia de la Mision at 80 Elmendorf Street; at the Rodeway Inn, out in the town of Ulster; or at Family of Woodstock’s Darmstadt Shelter in Midtown.
She said that often the amount of assistance people can get from the Federal Section 8 assistance program and the Ulster County department of Social Services just isn’t enough to make ends meet.
Tyler recalled the story of a woman in her mid 50s who used to live at Chiz’s Heart Street, a boarding house on Washington Avenue that shut down in summer 2021. She said at first the woman told her she would just camp because she didn’t want to go through filling out the paperwork for housing assistance.
Tyler told her that wasn’t a good idea and the woman told her if she couldn’t get through the night then she’d ask for a motel room.
“She almost froze,” Tyler said.
Tyler got on the phone and worked with Family of Woodstock to secure the woman a room at the Wenton Motel on U.S. Route 9W in the town of Saugerties.
But the woman’s struggles are far from over as officials make her set aside $670 of her Supplemental Security Income to pay for the room. And that leaves her trapped.
“With the money she has she can’t leave, she can’t afford a deposit and can’t afford anything to get out,” Tyler said.
She recalled another man who spent $6000 of his own money to stay in the Super 8 Motel in Kingston on his own dime.
How do you define “affordable?”
Tyler questions what “qualifies as affordable housing…To some its $1400 a month to some is $2000. It’s defined in and of itself as 130 percent of adjusted mean income.”
Tyler said a United Way Study shows someone would need to bring in $22 an hour to live in Kingston and Ulster County. Someone working at a fast food restaurant makes $13 maybe $14. “Five, six, seven year ago $15 an hour was semi-affordable, now it’s very much a minimum.”
Tyler blames the crisis on a lack of will by politicians to actually create housing, particularly for low-income and homeless adults.
Kingston Mayor Steve Noble says politicians are paying attention to the housing crisis and he noted housing initiatives the city is taking, such as passing a Good Cause Eviction law. “The legislation addresses a variety of scenarios and limits the grounds for tenant removal, regardless of whether a landlord intends to sell a building or not.”
The Mayor also pointed to the city’s recently announced initiative to bring a 15-unit tiny home complex to a vacant lot on Broadway near the Ulster Performing Arts Center.
He said the city has steadfastly worked to move tiny homes forward since receiving an Anti-Displacement Learning Network Grant in January, 2021. “From getting the funder’s approval, to partnering with Family of Woodstock, identifying City-owned properties in residential neighborhoods, and drawing up site plans (now in development), the process has moved swiftly,” Noble said.
Tyler questioned why similar structures at the high-end Hutton Brickyards resort received approval before tiny homes helping city residents were approved late last year after a lengthy process.
Noble said this was because the structures at Hutton are hotel rentals that don’t have kitchens.
Accessory Dwelling Units and increased density?
The Mayor said he’s in favor of changing present zoning restrictions to allow for accessory dwelling units which can create affordable rental choices while creating minimal visual impact on neighbors in mostly single-family neighborhoods, which typically lack studio or one-bedroom rental options. Sometimes this is a mother-in-law apartment within single-family homes, while other times it could be detached units on the same property as a larger single-family home.
“They also create flexible housing options for homeowners that might need space for elderly family members or young adults,” Noble said.
Noble said PILOT agreements help projects like RUPCO’s Energy Square in Midtown which incorporates green building techniques, mixed use development and affordable housing. The City also partners with RUPCO on a number of other initiatives like the Landlord Assistance program which provides grants for renovations and arrears payments to landlords who offer affordable housing units.
He said he believes rezoning underway will allow for “upzoning” to encourage density and encourage a greater variety of housing units at a variety of price points.
Tyler questioned what happened to plans for the city to participate in the state Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA) which offers a provision for rent control.
Noble said Kingston was the first municipality to act when the state changed the qualifications for Emergency Tenant Protection Act legislation. But a vacancy study showed the city did not qualify to opt in.
But, the mayor cautioned that “housing conditions have changed drastically since this time…We are continuing to review our options with the ETPA,” Noble said. “There are aspects of the current law that could be improved to make opting in easier for communities.”
Noble said he’s not aware of any upstate community that successfully opted in to rent control “due to the complexities of the study and program.”
Market rate vs affordable housing
Tyler also challenged elected officials to emphasize affordable housing over luxury and market rate projects.
“To date, more affordable housing units have been built in Kingston than market rate housing units,” Noble countered. In December 2020, the City passed legislation requiring 10% affordable housing on all new developments of five or more units.
Noble also defended the controversial Kingstonian Project. Proposed by JM Development Group LLC, of Poughkeepsie in partnership with Herzog Supply of Kingston, the multi-story $52-million mixed-use development project is to feature retail and restaurant space, rental units and a hotel at a prime location in the uptown Stockade district.
He said the project is not a luxury project and he noted 10 percent of the units will be set aside as affordable housing.
What to do with short-term rentals
Tyler said she’s watching houses get turned into short-term rentals by investors. “They can make more money,” she noted.
She blames this on a lack of proper city regulations, while Noble said a regulatory framework is coming into place.
“Last year, the Council amended the definition sections of the City Code to provide that short-term rentals are ‘hotels’ for the purpose of zoning and licensing, and similarly amended section 405 of the Zoning Code. As the result of these amendments, new short term rentals, as a form of hotel, are now not permitted in most of the zones of the City of Kingston absent the granting of a use variance by the Zoning Board of Appeals,” the Mayor said.
Tyler also blames gentrification. “People who want to get wealthy think they’re going to benefit from projects like Kingstonian,” she said. “It will move in higher-income people, who build their own businesses — and that’s not Dreamweaver, it’s Cartier.”
Large scale solutions months or even years off
While Ulster County has a number of large-scale affordable housing project proposed like a 160 unit mixed-income project at the site of the old Ulster County Jail on Golden Hill, developed in conjunction with Philadelphia-based developer Pennrose and another that calls for the former Quality Inn near the Exit 19 Thruway interchange in the town of Ulster to be converted into 100 apartments targeting families. That project will be completed in partnership with RUPCO, which will manage the property and Catholic Charities and Family of Woodstock which will provide on-site supportive services.
Tyler said these large-scale projects often get trapped in a system of procedure and NIMBY opposition that drags things
“[They say] I don’t want them around in my neighborhood. I don’t want a homeless person to have a house. In the meantime there are people who are unhoused,” Tyler said.
Classism and racism also play a role, she said, noting a disproportionate percentage of the homeless population are Black and Brown, she said.
Faith Leaders push for short-term solutions
Fr. Frank Alagna, Priest in Charge of Holy Cross Santa Cruz Episcopal is spearheading an effort by the Kingston Area Interfaith Council to work for short and long-term solutions to the area’s housing crisis. The council has increased pressure on area officials having recently met with State Sen. Michelle Hinchey and County Executive Pat Ryan.
Alagna said the county published a response to the crisis that included among other things continuing to put people in motels as those rooms are available. “Although they are running out of those kinds of rooms,” he said.
He said county officials also told clergy they plan to use the SUNY Ulster gym to set up a FEMA like facility to accommodate families based on need along with plans to keep the warming Center open during the day as well as night when temperatures drop below freezing.
He said he was also told the Sheriff will not add people to accommodate evictions and the county will be “shepherding people dislodged to the next point of housing alternatives…At least they’re going to do something.”
But the priest said he’s growing tired of less than ideal band-aid solutions.
“You’re putting families in motels,” he said, challenging elected officials to imagine living with their families in a motel room. “There’s also a bedbug issue in these motels.”
As for the shelters, Alagna said they take people out of the cold but don’t give them a viable long-term solution. Once temperatures warm back up they’re back out, he noted.
“Once you put people up in a gymnasium, what’s next?” Alagna questioned.
Not just more band-aids
Alagna called on officials to move beyond band-aid solutions and work on the immediate development of enough affordable housing to accommodate actual needs. He said even larger affordable housing developers like RUPCO haven’t been able to come close to keeping up a demand that’s spiking rapidly.
Unless a mega effort is undertaken to build affordable housing, the problem will only continue to worsen, Alagna said.
“Band aids will continue to be applied…It’s not rocket science. If the need [is there] to house 2000 families, than we need 2000 affordable housing units”
He questioned why area officials haven’t looked at vacant sites like Tech-City for affordable housing. The troubled former IBM manufacturing and office site was recently sold by the county to National Resources which is rebranding the office and manufacturing park as iPark 87.
Alagna also called on national officials to craft policies that combat economic inequality, stating that those with tens of billions of dollars quadrupled their riches during the pandemic while poverty grew.
“We need jobs that pay a living wage rather than servitude,” Alagna said. “$15 an hour is not a living wage, but leaders pat themselves on the back for this. A living wage means enough for food and a place to live.
“If someone doesn’t have food you feed them,” Alagna said. “If they don’t have a home you house them. I continue to move forward with some hope something better can happen.”
Programs available now to those struggling to pay their rent
In the meantime, Tyler said New York state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program has reopened and people can put in an application to get that rent covered and Legal Services of the Hudson Valley can help them out.
Tyler said tenants received another victory in the form of a 2019 state law, The Tenant Protection and Housing Stability Act which requires landlords to give those living in a place less than a year a 30 day notice before eviction can begin. That jumps to 60 days for someone who’s lived there for three years and 90 days for anyone longer than that.
“That’s all before they can take you to court,” she said.
Tyler admitted few know about this new regulation and that includes landlords.
And she remains hopeful about the future.
“I’m wanting to believe and hope for the best,” she said. “I want the best for the community.”