The Woodstock Town Board approved use of federal funding for one of three proposed housing initiatives in a split vote after two council members advocated for more money.
Supervisor Bill McKenna proposed a resolution at the town board’s October 18 meeting to use $35,000 in American Rescue Plan money to fund the second year of Woodstock HomeShare, the amount requested by program coordinators and the town’s Housing Oversight Task Force. Housing Committee and Housing Task Force members have expressed concern an increase in funding for the HomeShare program could take away from the other two proposals.
McKenna and council members Reggie Earls and Laura Ricci voted in favor of $35,000 funding for HomeShare Woodstock while Bennet Ratcliff and Maria-Elena Conte abstained because they supported increasing the amount to $50,000 in funding.
“Last year, we discussed this. It was $150,000…$100,000 for housing and $50,000 for HomeShare. That’s what was promised,” Conte said in explaining her abstention.
“Maria-Elena. You’re our liaison. Really?” Housing Committee member Urana Kinlen said in disappointment. “This is what we’re requesting now. You’re our liaison.”
Ratcliff seemed amenable to the $35,000, but still abstained because he was in favor of more funding.
“I understand that the initial one-time payment that was requested was $50,000, and I understand that the Housing Committee has revised their request to be $35,000. I know that there was a $15,000 payment that was made at one point this year,” Ratcliff said. “I don’t understand why we wouldn’t want to have the initial one-time payment be $50,000.”
Housing Committee co-chair Susan Goldman said the formal request was for $35,000. “Because we are further along than we were,” she explained. “I don’t remember if the initial $50,000 was a request or was something that we were told would be available,” Goldman said.
“No, that was promised, actually, in the first year,” said Conte who is the housing liaison to the Town Board.
“I don’t think we requested that,” Goldman responded.
“To be clear, $50,000 was requested for housing initiatives. I’m ready to give it all to housing, but within the three programs you’ve suggested,” McKenna said, referring to an initial request for ARP funds last year.
The three proposals included $35,000 for the HomeShare program, $175,000 to seed a loan program for creation of accessory dwelling units and $199,000 to help make town-owned property shovel-ready for housing units.
Goldman noted strategies began to shift as both the Housing Oversight Task Force and Housing Committee continued their work “We looked at all three, and we weighted them in terms of the funding the way we thought they should go,” Goldman said.
Goldman said she revisited the funding with the Housing Committee and it wanted to keep the apportionments for the three programs as proposed.
Ratcliff said he was amenable to funding $35,000 as requested but would add the $15,000 if anticipated grants don’t come through. He said the HomeShare program can quickly fill housing needs.
“The Home Share program is unique in that it isn’t driven by building costs, and it isn’t driven by weighting and it isn’t driven by zoning. It can happen immediately and it can happen right now. And so that’s why I would be wanting to put $50,000 to it,” Ratcliff said.
McKenna agreed with the $35,000 request with one caveat.
“I would say let’s see how your funding comes in, and if you don’t get certain funding, take a look at the three programs and come back to us with another request,” McKenna said.
Woodstock HomeShare is a program that matches tenants in need of affordable housing with homeowners who need property improvements, or simply companionship, Kinlen reminded the board. The tenants provide services in exchange for reduced rent.
“We did nine to 11 months research and the research showed that there was no one silver bullet. We’re not treating (HomeShare) like a silver bullet. We have a bunch of initiatives we’ve worked really hard on for over three and a half years,” she said. “As Maria-Elena (Conte) knows and has been following along, that all these different initiatives are together creating solutions to the housing problem. It’s not going to be one thing. We don’t want to take all the money and put it in one pot. We need to work on all of them, and at the same time, we need to move forward.”
When the Town Board will take up the two other housing initiatives is uncertain.
Ratcliff took issue with the accessory dwelling unit loan program because of who is involved with Woodstock Housing Alliance, the land trust that would oversee the program. Ratcliff said there is potential for self-dealing because principal founder Kirk Ritchey also co-chairs the Housing Committee and Housing Oversight Task Force. Ratcliff argued he could benefit from the programs he is proposing.
McKenna said it is up to the Town Board at this point, but agreed there are some lingering questions. “In fairness, there were questions in my mind as well. I would want to know a little bit more about how exactly the loans were going to be decided upon how much and who was going to administer them,” McKenna said.
The supervisor did note the funding would not be given to the Woodstock Housing Alliance all at once, but instead kept in a sort of escrow and paid out as each loan is approved.
McKenna was glad the HomeShare funding passed despite the drama.
“I’m a little surprised and disappointed that there was some grandstanding by my colleagues.”
Short-term rental owners say they’re not the problem
Members of the Woodstock STR Association tried to make their case to the Town Board on October 18, as they have for the past several meetings.
“I’ve owned my home since 2004. I raise my kids here as much as we can and we are in favor of housing affordability, including housing affordability for our own part-time residences because we love the community and want to stay part of it and not be forced to abandon our homes because we need the rental income to help offset maintenance costs,” said Michael Henry. “The problem with what’s been happening with the proposal for short-term rentals and the existing short-term rental law is it lumps everything together under the label short-term rentals that are really very separate things.”
Henry tried to dispel the idea that short-term rentals take away from available long-term housing. He argued most of the association members have single-family homes, which would never be affordable rental units.
“If we need to sell, these will be sold to wealthy hedge-fund bros who can afford a second home without renting it out, no connection to the town, no income to the town.”
Eileen Coppola said she needs the rental income to maintain her second home.
“I live in Brooklyn currently and I work for the New York City Department of Education. And being an educator, I couldn’t afford to buy a very good place in New York City and so I began to look upstate and discovered lovely communities up there,” she said. “I feel like we contribute a lot to the community. My property is historic it was the Zena Dutch Reform Church built in 1914. So by maintaining it and upgrading it, I contribute to the community’s cultural history.”
But Emma Leigh, who was born and raised in Woodstock, cannot afford to return because of escalating rent. “I was living in a cabin on top of Ohayo (Mountain Road) for $550 a month in 2014. Wow, things changed. There are eight places for rent right now on Trulia in the town of Woodstock,” she said. “The cheapest one is like $1650 and it’s a basement apartment. There’s also one that’s a two-bedroom that’s like $2250. Probably with utilities, you’re looking at like $2,500 a month, maybe. So that’s $30,000 a year if we’re talking 30% of your income. I’m needing to make what, like 90 grand a year to be able to afford that two-bedroom apartment.”
Leigh said it is “alarming and disturbing” to then go onto airbnb.com and see there are 300 homes available for short-term rental.
“When I hear folks talk about short term rentals like it’s a necessity and a need, and yet they’re talking about non-owner occupied second homes — there’s people here that don’t even have a first home. They don’t have a first place to live and they were raised here, grew up here, many generations here,” said Urana Kinlen, a member of the Woodstock Housing Committee. While there are about 300 short-term rentals officially, everyone knows there are more, she noted. “I just think that we have to kind of be real here and think about the people who need their first home to live in. And to raise the cap (on short term rentals), I think it’s just crazy.”