The shortage of children that closed the Raquette Lake School a decade ago was not due to a housing deficit. On the contrary, Raquette was chockablock with housing when the school failed, much of it sitting empty for most of the year.
While Raquette boasts some unusual features – some of its structures are accessible only by lake – it shares this same predicament with most other gentrifying Adirondack places, lake-locked or otherwise: plenty of lodging and nowhere to live.
How can any community with so many vacant dwellings suffer from a housing crisis?
The Adirondacks have been gentrified by ghosts, at least on paper. Urban gentrification appears on the books as a stark change in income. If the median household income of an urban census block rose from $15,000 to $50,000 between 2010 and 2020, then we can presume some tectonic economic shift occurred beyond the telltale creep of predictable factors like inflation.
What happened? Did the residents all strike it rich? More likely, the occupants canvassed the first time round were replaced by wealthier ones. The same sort of “X” doesn’t always mark the spot in Adirondack gentrification, for two reasons. In the first place, an influx of retirees doesn’t necessarily mean a surge of residents with measurably higher incomes. In the second, most Adirondack gentrifiers don’t reside here.
When the enumerator comes knocking, they are somewhere else, their incomes instead shaping the statistical topography of the communities where they live, work and vote. Indeed, this population tends to leave only one conspicuous footprint upon the Adirondack record: the housing count, and particularly the US Census category of seasonal, recreational or occasional use.
This number lays bare some striking facts about the Adirondack housing situation, especially in the central Adirondack counties of Essex and Hamilton, the only two whose figures are undiluted by any other infrastructure because they are located entirely within the Blue Line. Of the roughly 26,000 housing units in Essex County, around 8,000, or a little under a third, are seasonal homes. In Hamilton County, that figure climbs to a whopping 84%, or about 7500 units out of nearly 9000. By comparison, about 4% of housing is seasonal in all of New York State, as in the United States at large.
These figures alone might not be terribly surprising in a region famous for its sparse population and longstanding resort economy. But they are telling when viewed over time. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of seasonal housing units in Essex County increased by 22%, while the total number of units increased by only 3.9%. In the same period, the number of seasonal housing units in Hamilton County increased by 30%, while the total number of units increased by only 4.5%. The massive discrepancy between new housing and new seasonal housing most likely speaks to conversion. What were formerly year-round homes are being turned into seasonal ones as the previous occupants vacate the premises, whether through death or migration.
These numbers are so stark that it is tempting to attribute them to sampling error. But ethnographic data – the kind of information you glean from living local over a long period of time – support rather than refute them. The names and places below are aliases but the stories are real enough, a few among the legion accounts of displacement (and near-misses) that put the narrative flesh on the statistical bones of Adirondack exile.
One Crisis Away
In the winter of 1999, Molly Riley, a 35 year-old divorced mother of two small children from the hamlet of Laketown, spent a miserable night in a boat launch parking lot, reluctant to impose further on friends after a week of sofa surfing. Molly had packed her car and fled her boyfriend’s trailer after a fight that left her with a black eye.
She’d lost her own creaking double wide some months earlier when the pipes froze and her landlord, who planned to sell the house come spring, elected eviction over repair. Molly earned a modest living from an array of part-time jobs – cleaner, bartender, home health aide – typical of the Adirondack interior, where tourism and government are the chief proprietors of the economy. It was enough to make the rent, until she lost her housing altogether, and found there was no space for her amidst her hometown’s abundant stock of vacant chalets, lodges and cottages that saw human company a few weeks out of the year at best.
Twenty years after Molly’s troubles in Laketown, 49 year-old Kate Sawyer lost her home to divorce some sixty miles away in the more prosaic community of Riverton. Kate was better off than Molly. She was thrown onto the housing market after her children were grown but while she was still reasonably young and healthy. She held a full-time position in local government that would see her through to retirement.
Her family owned an off-grid camp nearby where she could make do for three seasons at great need. And Kate got away with her skin, rather than fleeing a beating in the middle of the night. Yet after several fruitless months, she was close to despair. Despite having full-time, stable work and a modest divorce settlement in the bank, Kate couldn’t find a place to buy, a place to rent, or even a place to build – not in her town, not in adjacent towns, in any direction – that would not strap her with a larger mortgage than a bank would grant, and one she was reticent to take at her age in any event. At length, she convinced a family friend to let her pour some sweat equity into a vacant space above a storefront on Main Street, where she waits anxiously for something more permanent to come on the market.
Just as Kate’s divorce came though, a 26 year-old Bobbie Barlow was engaged in much the same hunt in her own hometown of Mountainville, a bedroom community for a small, down-on-its-luck rust belt city just over the Blue Line that marks the Adirondack Park on local maps. Unlike her siblings and cousins, who got out of Dodge as soon as they attained their majority, Bobbie wished to stay in the Adirondacks after leaving high school. She found steady if part-time delivery work in the city down the mountain.
After the death of her grandmother, Bobbie moved into her empty house as a caretaker while the family undertook cleaning and repairs in preparation for sale. With five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a large garage, two barns and a $3000 annual tax bill, the house is overkill for Bobbie and her dog. Her precarious job makes her ineligible for an Adirondack-sized mortgage, and no year-round rentals have come available in Mountaintville in the last few years.
Her parents have contemplated building her a small cabin on their own property next door, but building to New York State’s stringent health and environmental specs will cost most of their equity in the house Bobbie inhabits, and they have other children as well as retirement to consider. Bobbie waits, and like Kate, keeps a close eye on the market, but she fears she will have to leave the Adirondacks altogether, as Molly did twenty years before her.
Eviction is an old affliction in the Adirondacks. Its most acute outbreaks have been inflicted by the region’s most formidable landlord. The 1910s, when the State undertook a mass removal of Adirondack squatters from Lake George to Little Canada, were red-letter years for this sort of dispossession. But its prospect has cast a shadow over the embattled landscape since the late nineteenth century, when New York began to stockpile vast swaths of tenant-less Adirondack acreage for a park, and found the local population it had previously encouraged to settle there an impediment to that revised imperative.
The strain of Adirondack eviction experienced by Molly, Kate and Bobbie is stealthier, shadier, and far more systemic. In this version, a local gets to keep her foothold in the Adirondacks as long as she doesn’t shift. If she should lose her footing for any reason – her husband beats her up or the landlord raises the rent beyond her means or a catastrophic failure demands a repair she can’t afford or she simply grows up and ages out of her childhood digs – there isn’t anyplace to land softly, because few landlords will trade the $700 in rent a week they glean from tourists for the $700 a month she can afford on local wages.
Such haphazard crises are not unique to the Adirondacks, but over time, they add up to a pattern of regional eviction that is slowly eroding the local population in the chronic absence of any domestic amelioration. If this displacement first began to take hold in Adirondack resorts like Laketown, it is now ubiquitous in the Park’s Rivertons and Mountainvilles as well.
Molly, Kate and Bobbie all had one ace in the hole when the rug went out from under them: social capital. Indeed what working class remains in the Adirondacks endures largely by the grace of kith and kin to whom they can cling for some purchase on the slippery mountain landscape.
Molly left her kids with her mother while she sorted out her housing situation. Kate appealed to the goodwill of a friend to mitigate displacement-by-divorce. Bobbie found a haven in her grandmother’s home. In each case, connections coughed up affordable shelter when the Adirondack housing market fell short during a period of crisis.
It is hardly unusual for family in particular to provide such a safety net when the market fails, and the state is absent or ineffectual. But it is precisely the continuity of kinship that Adirondack gentrification threatens to disrupt.
We consider how kinship came to be in the cross-hairs of gentrification in Part 3 of this series.
This is part two 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.
Illustration: census tables from the American Community Survey 2010 & 2019, compiled by the author; and evicting squatters from Little Canada, Indian Lake, from the Albany Times Union, March 16, 1914.
Big Burly says
An insightful 2 articles. Wishing to access the entire series. Family members have been coming to the DAKs or living here for a century. As public policy, what is described in unacceptable. The past 18 months have accelerated the trend described.
Eliza Jane Darling says
Cheers Big Burly. The whole series is now up.
Jobs, jobs, jobs! That’s the big problem that keeps people from earning the pay they need to put a good roof over their heads. Hint: when a company screams that “nobody wants to work” it really means that the company isn’t willing to pay enough for people to want to work there.
Eliza Jane Darling says
One of the interesting facets of this crisis that I did not have time to address in this series is the reinvention of the company town. I’m aware of more than a few Adirondack employers who know that if they want a workforce, they have to provide housing for it, whether that is on a seasonal or permanent basis, and they are literally providing it – perhaps out of plain common sense, perhaps to stave off a legislative solution that might see their funds levied for local housing in other ways. Keep an eye on this trend; it is likely to spread in the near future.
Kathy Ruscitto says
Well stated. Now how do we develop policies that build new trends. Converting vacant schools to 202 housing or young family apartments. Land Banks for smaller parcel development, all kinds of best practices out there.
Eliza Jane Darling says
Yes, one of the solutions that has been attempted is the community land trust. I address this (and link one of the initiatives) in Part 7. I think there is some promise here but these also have their problems. One of the biggest challenges in resort areas like the Adirondacks is the convergence of the housing and labor market; housing isn’t just where people live, but for many is a means of livelihood, whether you are cleaning cabins or building chalets or selling real estate. There is an impetus to keep feeding the seasonal housing beast, which then eats the year-round housing stock, in a sort of vicious circle. As I note in the last part, I see the best hope in the environmental justice movement, which would help us to reframe the very meaning of the Adirondack environmental movement to acknowledge that the failure of the region’s human communities *is* an environmental failure rather than a victory of one at the expense of the other. That’s the first step IMO. But we have to have the will.
Kathy ruscitto says
Thank you for this wonderful body of work.