Housing demand is high in the Adirondacks. The same applies to the number of vacant dwellings. | News, Sports, Jobs
Many Saranac Lake homes were built over a century ago. Big and tall houses had special porches built specifically for tuberculosis patients who came to the village at the turn of the 20th century.
Some of these old houses have been very well maintained, while others have not.
“Between,” Shawn Duheme said outside a house on Franklin Avenue. I duck under the yellow scaffolding and climb the cement stairs.
Duheme is a local contractor and carpenter. He’s wearing a thick blue hoodie covered in a thin layer of sawdust, and he shows me inside what’s basically a construction area. This home had been vacant for years when it came up for sale at a tax foreclosure auction in 2019.
“All the properties that I was looking at, that I had physically visited, were going way too high and this one came up and no one was bidding on it. And I said, ‘I can bid on that, how much can this be bad?’
Turns out it was pretty bad. Duheme posted a tour of the house on his YouTube channel last spring.
There were holes in the ceiling, rot in the wood, and piles of garbage everywhere. Duheme plans to renovate this place and sell it as a single family home.
There is great demand here for accommodations in Saranac Lake and nearby Lake Placid, but there are also plenty of rundown and abandoned properties like this. Duheme said he understands how houses become vacant.
“If you don’t know how to maintain that Tudor or that cedar or whatever, it’s just going to degrade,” he said, “and then it gets to the point where it’s so expensive to maintain your house that you let it go.”
According to the Saranac Lake Housing Task Force, about 19% of homes in the village are vacant, nearly double the national average. Melinda Little chairs the task force and said she has observed that the lack of housing has led to people not taking up jobs or moving to the area.
“We have a number of people who have tried to take jobs here and have not been able to find any [housing] and decided to go elsewhere. It is very frustrating to think that this talent is lost.
The housing crisis in Saranac Lake and the Adirondacks is complex. Vacant homes are only part of the problem, but Allan Mallach, a national housing expert at the Center for Community Progress, said it’s a tricky problem that can start with a single abandoned home in a neighborhood.
“People are starting to say, ‘If this property is neglected, why should I care?’ And that sort of creates a chain reaction.
The vacant housing issue is playing out all over rural America – in Appalachia, the Great Plains and the Deep South. It also takes place throughout the North Country.
“Specifically in my neighborhood there are three or four houses that are sitting there, run down, they need work,” said Bonnie Baker, municipal supervisor for Webb, which includes Old Forge. Much of the tax base there is made up of secondary owners, so Baker said they don’t want to foot the bill for the problem.
“They don’t want to pay their taxpayers’ money to tear down houses or knock down houses or build housing.”
There is no national strategy to deal specifically with vacant housing, but there is one tool that has become more popular at a more regional level: land reserves. When a person stops paying their taxes and their house is subject to foreclosure, a land bank can step in to decide what is best.
Franklin County, which includes Saranac Lake, is asking to create its own land reserve. Jeremy Evans is the CEO of the Franklin County Economic Development Corporation.
“When a city or town comes to the land bank for help with a problematic property, the land bank has the resources, the technical expertise, the financial resources to say, ‘Yes, we can help with that. “”
The land reserve can then decide to invest in the property and possibly put it back on the market or demolish it. Ogdensburg has its own land bank, and Essex County is in the middle of a pilot project this fall. There are dozens of other land banks across the state.
For now, however, North Country residents like Shawn Duheme at Saranac Lake are largely on their own. He saves and saves and actually hopes to monetize the YouTube channel where he documents his renovations.
“If that happens, then I can start buying those properties and putting that level of work into them, and more.”
At the end of our interview, Duheme shows me around. He removes the plastic from one of the windows in the master bedroom.
“So when the leaves have fallen you can see the mountain range in the back and here you can see the lake.”
Today, the lake sparkles in the sun. It is Duheme’s hope that maybe in a year it will be a local family who can live with this view.