Woodstock is doing its best to address its share of the housing crisis in Ulster County. Its town board last week approved $374,000 in American Rescue Plan funds to address the situation, but its action did not come without claims of self-dealing and impropriety.
At its February 14 meeting, the town board approved $175,000 for a loan program to help homeowners convert spaces into accessory dwelling units and $199,000 for infrastructure engineering to make town-owned land shovel-ready for affordable-housing development. The two programs are the last of a three-pronged housing approach presented last year. The first prong was the approval last year of $41,000 for HomeShare Woodstock, a program that matches tenants seeking attainable rentals with homeowners with available space. The tenant may provide labor, services or companionship in exchange for lower rent. HomeShare has made its first two homeowner-tenant matches.
Council member Bennet Ratcliff voted in favor of the $199,000 for engineering, but not in favor of the ADU loan program, which will be administered by the Woodstock Housing Alliance, a nonprofit community land trust.
“I am for and have been a Woodstock Housing Alliance supporter,” said Ratcliff, “but I believe that this is self-dealing that three members of the Woodstock Housing Alliance actually wrote the proposed code changes and they are now going to benefit from the $175,000 that is in this. I understand the passion that these housing advocates have, but I cannot in good consciousness allow self-dealing to be part of this.”
Kirk Ritchey, Jeff Collins and Judith Kerman serve on the alliance, and have also played advisory roles in updating zoning to promote more affordable housing. But, as some have noted, it is the members of the town board who will cast the deciding votes on rezoning.
To receive the funds, Ratcliff said the housing alliance needed to restructure itself. “While the Woodstock Housing Alliance became an entity in 2021, members of the Woodstock Housing Alliance continued to write the housing oversight task force proposed codes, the codes that they are going to be taking advantage of,” he argued. “And now I do not believe they should be given $175,000 after having written the very codes that they are going to take advantage of. For me, it is self-dealing.”
Council member Laura Ricci, who has served on the oversight task force with Collins and Ritchey, did not get the impression of impropriety.
“We spent a lot of time together, and I have never gotten any sense at all that anybody is self-serving on that board. Everybody is trying to find a solution for Woodstock to find ways to make it easier to get housing,” Ricci said. “You increase the supply, the prices go down. The companies increase, increase supply, there’s more availability.”
“And the people who are writing that code, the two that you mentioned, are not voting on the code. That code will go to the town board, and it is the town board who will vote that code in,” Ricci continued. “So the people that you’re referring to do not have any vote at all on that law getting passed. It is the five of us who will ultimately vote on that.”
Council member Reggie Earls agreed with Ricci’s sentiments. “The majority of the folks that have done this work are homeowners. So to imply that is self-serving in some way, I find it insulting even though I’m not the person who’s been part of this work,” he said. “It’s an insult, in my opinion. I’m insulted for them, because they have done this work in earnest with nothing but a sincere desire to provide housing for the community in this town.”
It wasn’t like they got the money, Earls said. “When the phrase self-dealing comes up, they’re not taking this money and putting it in their pockets. The board will have approval over this.”
Ratcliff said governance was the issue. “I don’t believe that people who are writing proposed code changes should be creating entities that take advantage of those proposed code changes,” he said. “It is not self-serving, it is self-dealing. And that is why I will be voting no.”
Council member Maria-Elena Conte asked why the loan program needed to be approved before zoning changes were enacted. “That’s kind of like doing it backwards. So wouldn’t we want to wait until we complete all the zoning changes?” she asked.
Ricci explained people can have one accessory dwelling unit under current zoning, and the changes would allow two ADUs. “People aren’t building ADUs all over the place, but if more people had ADUs, you might get some more long-term housing,” Ricci said.
The $175,000 funding passed three to two, with Ratcliff and Conte opposed.
“Kirk [Ritchey], my sincere apologies. And thank you for everything you guys are doing,” supervisor Bill McKenna said.
“They are not writing the code,” housing task force co-chair Deborah DeWan said. “This is a committee of seven people. We are working with a professional. You have to understand the process, and the way that people are presenting themselves and part of the process with integrity.”
Housing committee co-chair Susan Goldman expressed gratitude for the funding approval. “It’s been as far as I can recall about 20 years that we’ve been trying to bring a community land trust to this town,” Goldman said. “And I think it’s really amazing and fortunate that we have a small group of people who have stepped up with the support of the housing committee, but certainly on their own with their own skills and resources to make a community land trust for Woodstock, which is the Woodstock Housing Alliance.”
Goldman had harsh words for Ratcliff’s portrayal. “A developer gets federal funds and it might be affordable for 30 years or 50 years. A land trust holds it in perpetuity. So this is no small concept. And to hear it denigrated the way it has been is upsetting,” she said. “The housing committee is delighted because these were our three core strategies, and we’re moving forward on them. But somehow they’re being turned into something evil and self-dealing. And I find it really insulting and not productive. It shows a certain level of lack of information on the part of Bennett and Maria-Elena.”
There was more. “And I also want to point out that in January, when we made our report to the town, our annual report, that Bennet had said that he would submit his questions because he had questions about the ARP funds,” Goldman said. “Finally, at the end of last week, we got an email with one quick pro-forma question asking for the IRS documents for the housing alliance. There was plenty of time for questions and discussion and clarification. And we’ve heard nothing, and had no questions and no visit. No taking us up on offers to talk.”