In the spring of 1989, the Adirondack working class received an alarming wake-up call in the unlikely form of Robin Leach. The Adirondacks, according to the garrulous host of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, were a hidden jewel just waiting to be discovered by travelers with a taste for wilderness and the purchasing power to claim a slice of nature-at-its-moneyed-best for their very own. The show had even gone so far as to list the remote and rugged mountains as an “upcoming hot spot for jet-setters” in its “Guide to the World’s Best Places.”
Leach’s prediction had been well borne out by the mid-1990s. “Rough It Like A Rockefeller,” proclaimed one strapline in the travel section of the Wall Street Journal, while an article in Vanity Fair encouraged readers to go “camp hopping in the haute Adirondacks” and Travel and Leisure billed it as a place where “the notion of escape endures.” Such articles, liberally sprinkled with posh photographic layouts depicting the rich at play in tastefully rustic lodges nestled on the shores of gleaming silver lakes, recommended such accommodations as The Point in Lake Placid, where guests could take in the clean mountain air for a mere $1300 a night.
Beemers had been traded for sport utility vehicles, and the Adirondacks, it appeared, had become an exclusive retreat for well-heeled consumers seeking respite from their taxing cosmopolitan lives in the newly fashionable wilderness.
Of more immediate concern than the reappearance of the millionaire tourist in the wilderness was an apparent upsurge in second-home construction by developers with somewhat lesser aspirations. For at least two decades before Leach’s official warning of impending re-colonization by the blue chip contingent, more mundane portents had begun to appear on the horizon that signaled the commencement of a more modest if still privileged deployment.
In 1967, a land development corporation named Great Northern Capital had begun construction on a 280-acre site in the sleepy town of Indian Lake with plans to subdivide and sell over 300 lots. This small project was apparently the least of their plans, for the New York Times reported in 1970 that the same corporation intended to buy some 10,000 forested acres near Old Forge, develop them into 5,000 luxury properties, dam a branch of the Moose River, and build several golf courses and marinas – all in a town of only 3,000 people. A similar development scheme was proposed by Horizon Corporation in 1972 for 24,000 acres in St. Lawrence county, on which it planned to build some 10,000 houses in addition to the requisite luxury infrastructures and a dam on the Grass River.
In the Town of Altamont, yet another developer proposed a massive project called Ton-Da-Lay on 18,500 acres in 1969, reputedly to offer horseback riding, moss harvesting, yak-cheese cultivation and ranching in addition to housing 20,000 people. Further large-scale developments were planned for Loon Lake and Black Brook around the same time. Had the State not stepped in, such projects might have been the face of Adirondack gentrification.
The Rent Sink
Yet most of the mammoth development projects proposed in the early days of Adirondack Park Agency regulation never got off the ground, whether through actual green tape or the spectre of same. Reinvestment instead dispersed outward, percolating into whatever cracks and crevices the new zoning system allowed, or pouring new capital into extant structures grandfathered in under the old rules.
Some such capital was invested from within the Adirondack Park itself, as the regional decline in industrial employment induced landowning locals to turn their hand to the AirBnB economy by erecting or converting a seasonal rental on their own otherwise unproductive property.
Despite the appearance of a few multi-unit housing developments – in Northville, North Creek, Inlet and Lake Placid, for example – much of this construction came from individual owners investing in a single dwelling. Many of the structures developed by such amateur investors were modest, and some hardly look gentrified at all. But their collective, cumulative effect has been to make affordable, year-round workforce housing scarce by creating the following conditions in the Adirondacks housing market:
Seasonal structures have proliferated. Seasonal Adirondack housing comes in three flavors defined by use. Some structures are enjoyed only by their absentee owners, and therefore sit empty most of the year. Others are rented out on a temporary basis by their landlords, whether local or absentee, and still others are some combination of owner and renter-occupied.
The ubiquity of what local governments call short-term rentals or STRs has become a topic not only of conversation but of legislation in places like Lake Placid, one of a number of Adirondack communities that have adopted recommendations to register, regulate and tax such units. Similar proposals have been floated in others. STRs operate much like micro-hotels, with lodgings let by the night or the week at significantly higher rents than permanent abodes. Indeed the seasonal fluctuation of the Adirondack climate, which ranges from inhospitable to uninhabitable during significant parts of the year, compels STR landlords to capitalize rents intensely during the high season to compensate for prolonged vacancies through the fallow months. For workers in the local low-wage economy, this means such structures are not just a stretch for their housing budgets, but fantastically out of reach.
Year-round rentals have decreased. Seasonal structures are not simply being added to the current housing stock. They are being converted from it. Census figures indicate that Hamilton County lost 289 year-round rental units between 2010 and 2019. As a percentage of total housing units, its already low rate of year-round rental housing decreased from 5% to 1% between 2010 and 2019. Essex County lost 455 year-round rental units, whose share of the total housing stock dropped from 17% to 14%, in the same period. In all of New York State, by contrast, rental housing comprises around 41% of total housing units.
It is no coincidence that the type of occupant who prefers this category of housing is exactly the type of resident the North Country is desperate to keep: young adults, who often have neither the resources nor the inclination to buy property outright. Recent research suggests that the general rise in housing costs across the nation has propelled more young families into this type of dwelling, as well as its more traditional single occupants, indicating that rental housing is becoming an ever more prominent site of social reproduction.
New builds are growing more expensive. The increasingly complex New York State building code has placed a considerable burden on prospective builders, with the DiY rural homesteading of yesteryear made all but impossible by maximum occupancy rules, heat efficiency standards and sophisticated septic requirements in ecologically sensitive areas, of which the Adirondack landscape has many.
New Yorkers who are already housed have a right to a minimum standard of same. But they have no right to housing of any sort in the first place. This peculiarly American system of propertied citizenship means it is preferable by the standards of the state to live in your car or under a bridge than in an insufficient dwelling, the prohibition of inadequacy scuppering habitation altogether for those priced out by the rising regulatory bar.
Small lots have grown scarcer. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the State goal of landscape contiguity has succeeded. Here, the devil is in the detail of directed disinvestment. Outside the Hamlet designation of private Adirondack property, developable lots must be of a minimum size. Construction must be set back from sensitive wetlands no matter what the lot size or location, and subdivision is generally discouraged. Private forces may also have conspired to keep Adirondack lots large. Contiguous land is prized by hunters and hunting clubs, for example, which have been no small force in Adirondack land politics for over a century.
For prospective builders with limited resources, a developable lot must therefore hit a sweet spot between the minimum size requirement for its zone and the maximum size the buyer can afford. Whatever the cause, fewer and fewer such lots appear on the Adirondack market, and more acreage of course means more initial outlay for the prospective home builder.
The price of land has increased. Recent analyses of the price at which Adirondack land changes hands have documented two remarkable trends. Lots inside the Blue Line are pricier than comparable lots outside the Blue Line, and private property near the Wilderness category of Forest Preserve land trades at particularly high prices. This point is absolutely crucial for understanding Adirondack gentrification.
With a very few exceptions, the Forest Preserve is something akin to a gravity trap. Once land enters it, it almost never escapes. It is removed permanently from both production and circulation, permitting limited use in the form of recreational consumption and generating limited rent in the form of a public property tax. Yet something happens on the event horizon of the Forest Preserve: ground rent heats up, like particles around a black hole. Where proximate private properties are sufficiently disinvested, a rent gap develops, and the conditions for gentrification are established. Preservation actually works like a rent sink, drawing capital toward it before supercharging it on the edge of wilderness.
From Space to Time
This last development is both intuitive and remarkable. It reflects what realtors have known for years: that property investors consider not only location in their investment decisions, but time. “Borders State Land!” notices have been appearing on Adirondack real estate signs for several decades in acknowledgement that investors value the prohibitive effect of ecological regulation on proximate lots. A private parcel that borders State-owned land will never have a neighbor; a private parcel that borders State-restricted land will have few.
The tamping down of large-scale development by the State effectively keeps development capital from eating itself through the destruction of the commodifiable attributes that drew it there in the first place: beauty, solitude, peace, and privacy.
The spatial arrangement of the Adirondack Park has created an expansive frontier where such calculations figure into real estate transactions. The “patchwork” of public and private lands often invoked as a folksy metaphor for Adirondack rusticity bears real economic significance, vastly enlarging the surface area of the rent sinks where ground rents surge along the edge of planned disinvestment. Unlike the largely contiguous plots that comprise America’s national parks, the proprietary configuration of the Adirondacks resembles more closely the greenbelts of Britain, whose national parks similarly contain significant amounts of private property.
This strategic uneven development makes the Adirondacks particularly receptive to gentrification, for its rent-fertile borderlands are involuted, found not only around it but also within it.
Yet similar studies have found the same phenomenon in other wilderness areas of the United States, where heavily protected lands are also found to generate higher ground rents. We turn to the broader context of rural gentrification in Part 6.
This is part five of The Devil’s Due: Adirondack Gentrification and Environmental Justice, a seven-part series considering the role of rural gentrification in the Adirondack Park. Read the entire series here.
Photos, from above: Rough it like a Rockefeller, a second life for Great Camps through Gentrification; a more typical short-term rental, or STR, in Lake Placid, part of the growing seasonal Adirondack housing stock; and the Land Use & Development Map and State Land Map showing the frontiers of Adirondack gentrification.