A proposal to build low-income housing at the site of a former welfare motel on Broadway has been shelved after it drew howls of protest from politicians and residents who believe that Kingston has done more than its fair share to provide shelter to the county’s most vulnerable populations.
But detailed surveys of the local housing market show that Kingston, along with every other community in Ulster County is suffering from a dearth of housing for poor residents.
“There is not a city or municipality in the county that has met its affordable housing needs,” said Kevin O’Connor, executive director of the housing non-profit RUPCO. “That’s just a fact on the ground.”
O’Connor said that “bottlenecks” exist in the housing market at many levels, including starter homes for young families and apartments for seniors who want to “downsize” out of single-family houses. But the according to County Planner Dennis Doyle, the need is greatest in the area of subsidized housing for low-income residents who make less than 50 percent of the Area Median Income. In 2010 Ulster County’s AMI stood at $70,100 for a family of four.
“At that level people aren’t making it, or they’re making it marginally and making sacrifices elsewhere,” said Doyle. “It becomes extremely difficult unless you are a senior citizen and you don’t have a mortgage and you own your own home.”
According to the 2010 Ulster County Rental Housing Survey prepared by the county’s planning department, there are a total of 2,235 units of subsidized housing in Ulster County for people making less than 80 percent of the AMI. That supply falls well short of the demand projected in 2009 regional needs assessment prepared by planning departments in Orange, Ulster and Dutchess counties. The study predicted that by 2010, Ulster County would need 2,912 units of affordable housing to meet the demand. By 2020, the study projected, that number would climb to 3,506.
The bulk of the existing subsidized housing, 1,414 units, is set aside for seniors 55 and older. That leaves just 821 units for other populations, including working single parents and the formerly homeless. Michael Berg, executive director of the social services non-profit Family of Woodstock, said the lack of housing subsidies for younger populations, combined with a large gap between average wages and average housing costs in the region, leaves many poor working families in dire need and with little chance to advance up the economic ladder. According to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008 27.9 percent of all renters in Ulster County, regardless of income, were paying more than half of their gross income on housing — a figure well above the national average.
“They end up doubling up [with] relatives or friends, they go to emergency shelters or motels or they end up leaving the area,” said Berg. “The other thing you see is people paying over 50 percent of their gross income just to keep a roof over their heads. They’re always on the edge of being evicted or losing their car, they have a hard time feeding their families.”
A very long wait indeed
For those in need of subsidized housing, the wait for an open unit can be daunting. In 2010, the vacancy rate for all subsidized housing stood at just 0.58 percent. The majority of subsidized housing complexes, especially those targeted at non-senior populations, average one or two years of wait time for a vacant unit. The Kingston Housing Authority, which maintains several complexes for low-income families, has closed its waiting lists altogether.
Similar scarcity prevails in the Section 8 housing voucher program. The voucher program began in the 1970s as a means of breaking up pockets of poverty and allowing poor recipients to move closer to quality schools and job opportunities by offering subsidies to be used on the open rental market. Currently, 1,500 Ulster County residents receive Section 8 benefits. Three-quarters of the recipients make 30 percent or less of AMI while 79 percent are senior citizens or disabled. RUPCO, which administers the program in Ulster County, received 150 vouchers in January. Some 1,400 eligible recipients signed up for the lottery.
“We were lucky to get those vouchers at all,” said O’Connor. “Section 8 is a program that has basically been frozen or cut.”
Despite the need, communities in Ulster County have been slow to embrace the need for subsidized housing. The subsidized housing that does exist is concentrated in five communities — Kingston, Saugerties, the Town of Ulster, New Paltz and Wawarsing, which together make up about 46 percent of the county’s population, are home to 85 percent of its affordable housing units. The towns of Marbletown, Plattekill, Gardiner, and Hurley, meanwhile, account for nearly 16 percent of the county’s population but do not contain a single subsidized housing unit, according to the 2010 survey.
That disparity has led Kingston officials to complain that the city is carrying more than its fair share of low-income housing and has engendered resistance to calls for more. A proposal by Newburgh-based non-profit Safe Harbor of the Hudson to create a mixed-use development of subsidized housing, arts and retail space at the site of the former King’s Inn on Broadway was met with a harsh rebuke from political and business leaders. As a result, the proposal has been shelved for the time being.
O’Connor said that resistance to subsidized housing schemes was not limited to Kingston. O’Connor said that he had seen fully funded affordable housing plans sink on shoals of community opposition in Rosendale and Rochester. In Woodstock, RUPCO spent seven years battling resistance at every turn trying to build a 52-unit subsidized-housing complex in the heart of town.
“It’s not just Kingston,” said O’Connor. “Affordable housing has been vigorously opposed, everywhere.”
The opposition is borne out of a familiar list of fears, including stereotypes that low-income renters will bring crime in their wake or that building additional subsidized housing will attract poor people from outside the county, thus adding to the burden on social services. But in Ulster County, there is an added — and even advocates say not unreasonable — motive for putting up roadblocks to affordable housing. It’s the county’s unique-in-the-state system for funding “Safety Net” social services programs. Currently, the state pays 50 percent of Safety Net costs (next year the figure will drop to 29 percent) while the remainder is passed on to the county in which recipients reside. In Ulster County, however, the county passes its share right along to municipalities. As a result, every Safety Net client who moves into a community brings with them a direct increase in the town’s tax burden. In a lawsuit lodged against the county in an effort to force an end to the municipal chargebacks, Kingston officials argued that the system creates a clear disincentive for communities throughout the county to accommodate subsidized housing.
“Until that issue is settled it is going to be very hard for any community to welcome subsidized housing with open arms,” said Berg.