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Housing Crisis in Ontario County: Findings, Themes, and Potential Solutions

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  • Josh Durso 

There’s no debate about it — a real housing crisis exists in the Finger Lakes. Forget about the tropes and reasons you’ve heard on the news about why homeownership is out of reach for an alarmingly high number of people across the state and U.S. Forget about the fact that a growing number of families are living rent burdened without the ability to save for a home because of skyrocketing rental prices.

There’s a problem and it needs to be fixed.

Earlier this week I caught up with three people from Ontario County who are working to change the trend on housing. Economic Development Director Ryan Davis, County Administrator Chris Debolt, and Greater Rochester Association of Realtors CEO Jim Yockel sat down to discuss a new initiative aimed at helping communities address major housing needs. It followed a report, which was finalized last year, showing the disparities and realities of the housing crisis in Ontario County.

Now, an ad-hoc committee is taking the show on the road — visiting communities across Ontario County — answering questions and debunking misinformation along the way. The goal is simple: Show residents how they can help be part of the solution by embracing housing development — even modest levels — that fit within the character of those places.

A RECURRING THEME FROM COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR’S DESK

Debolt says the entire team that’s assembled around housing is eager to take the next step, which is showing cities, towns, and villages how they can be a solution to a problem that’s been brewing for years.

“I started my role as County Administrator for Ontario County in December of 2020. And literally from probably the first week on the job, I noticed a reoccurring theme through every conversation I had, whether it was with community leaders or other department heads, or even my personal family trying to find a home when we relocated back to Ontario County,” he recalled. “It was housing. And it came up in economic development conversations with employers who said I’ve got 30 openings or I could expand and create 25-50 new jobs. But I can’t find people because the employees that I have can’t afford to live in Ontario County.”

It didn’t stop there, though. Debolt said conversations with stakeholders and department heads within the county — particularly those in social services — said losing access to affordable housing was an issue impacting the mental health department. “This recurring theme of a lack of housing within the county emerged.”

By 2022 the Board of Supervisors agreed. They were hearing it from their own constituents and family members. By summer of that year, the County embarked on one of the most-comprehensive housing studies undertaken in Upstate New York. “I’ve been doing local government stuff for almost 20 years now — it was probably the most robust public outreach and thorough analysis of an issue as broad as housing as I’ve ever seen or been involved with,” Debolt said. Multiple rounds of public input. Stakeholder meetings with developers and people associated with nonprofits and housing. Community groups and local residents. They even sent out a public survey by mail and dropped another online to get as many responses as possible.

Hundreds-and-hundreds of responses were examined. The process took nearly 18 months. But by the end of 2023 a 160+ page report on housing was finalized. There could have been trepidation or concerns about rolling out such a large report. Housing is a big issue, and often, one that attracts a lot of politicization. That wasn’t the case, though. “After four public meetings, every single person we talked to said, ‘Yeah that sounds right’ or ‘Yes, that’s what I’m seeing’, or ‘I have a child in their 20s who’s trying to move back to the area, and they can’t so they’ve ended up somewhere else’,” Debolt recalled.

DEMAND OUTPACES SUPPLY IN EVERY SEGMENT OF THE MARKET

There were a number of major takeaways from the assessment. The report spotlights uneven growth across the county, disproportionate housing sizes, low vacancy rates in multifamily housing, lack of affordability, local zoning challenges that have curtailed new housing development, and demographic shifts that come with the reality that Ontario County is older than ever before.

Jim Yockel says the issues being faced by Ontario County are hardly unique. In fact, they are pretty standard for communities across the board in Western New York. “What I do think is unique to [Ontario County] is how far you’ve come and the effort you’ve put in,” he said of the effort of leaders to understand and work to solve the problems. “It’s really encouraging for us as housing providers to see somebody so committed to fixing the problem.”

He said the biggest issue involves what many would consider to be ‘middle market’ housing: The stuff that costs between $150,000 and $250,000. “It’s nearly impossible to build anything new that you can sell in that price range,” Yockel explained. “But that’s the price range that’s most in demand. So what we see across the region is this mismatch where people who want to buy in that range are forced down. You can’t be forced up because you can’t afford it. But they’re forced down; and so they start competing with people who are in the $100,000 to $150,000 range and pushes them out.”

But, those starter and middle market homes aren’t the only gap. Senior housing, multi-family, low income, and even additional high-end housing to meet demands of a housing market in Ontario County that is, as all noted, squeezed from top-to-bottom.

RESIDENTS HELP TELL THE STORY AND ADDRESS BLIND SPOTS IN THE COMMUNITY

How do you effectively communicate the findings of a 160+ page housing assessment that effectively says, in order to maintain the type of growth the county has experienced over the last two decades and remain viable, more housing will be necessary?

Ryan Davis, who led one of the first public outreach sessions after the analysis was released to the public, got to experience it first hand. “The response has truly been mixed,” he said, calling back to a meeting in Bloomfield. “A third of the room had been in there home for 25 or 30 years and probably made their last mortgage payment years ago. They didn’t see an issue. But then sitting right next to them, neighbors who have sons or daughters desperately trying to get back here. All of a sudden, everyone in the room is talking with each other and learning. It was by total accident, but everyone in the room felt comfortable saying what they thought without politics involved.”

The housing issue isn’t just an economic development challenge or social services issue — it’s creating real family issues for people who are forced away from loved ones because housing is simply unattainable.

“It’s really interesting that if you’re in the market to buy or rent, you know there’s a crisis,” added Yockel. “If you’re not — you’re not so sure, and even if you are home values have increased a lot, so if we’re going to put this big effort into moderating prices or lowering them, there’s some uncertainty there too for those people.”

SO WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS? NO LIMIT TO OPTIONS

The committee wants it to be clear: No one is forcing a particular development style or housing type on any community in Ontario County. In fact, if communities choose not to take any steps to address the housing crisis, that’s their prerogative. All three agreed that the goal of this effort was simply to help streamline development efforts if and when communities are ready to act. Whether that means assisting with zoning or permitting, connecting town or city leaders with developers, or anything in-between.

It’s as close to an open call for solutions as one could imagine. A situation where, because of need across the spectrum, the County will do its part to help communities with the most-creative or standard ideas to increase housing stock.



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