What Happens When Your Waiter Can’t Afford Rent
Many towns in rural New York are bustling with city visitors, pushing up rental costs and pushing out workers.,
If LaToya Flood had her way, she would hire an additional five to seven employees at Ruby Mae Soul Food Restaurant, which she has operated for three years in Kingston, N.Y. With her business open now just on Fridays and Saturdays, Ms. Flood and her sole employee, her mother, prepare all week for what could be a thriving, full-time business.
But finding minimum wage workers in Ulster County has become nearly impossible, she said.
Like many parts of the country, including the city and the Hamptons, Ulster County is facing an employment crisis. Since the pandemic, some workers have moved, while others have reassessed their lives and have found other opportunities. But the problem is driven, in part, by a lack of affordable housing.
Ms. Flood said that when she first moved to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and then to Kingston almost 11 years ago from the Bronx, it was easy to find two-bedroom rental homes for less than $850 a month. But available housing has been dwindling in the county. When the pandemic hit, city dwellers bought up houses or moved into what used to be their second homes, further diminishing availability.
Now a two-bedroom rental in the county averages $1,439 per month, an 11 percent increase from the previous year, according to the county’s rental housing survey.
“It’s difficult to roll up your sleeves and work hard for minimum wage and feel like you’re suffocating because you can’t afford rent,” Ms. Flood said. “So now I’m at a point where I can’t expand my business and am at a loss of what I’m supposed to do next.”
Studies have shown that adding more housing leads to the creation of jobs, but current high building and labor costs, among other things, have led builders nationwide to focus on high-end homes. Construction is at a five-decade low on starter homes, according to Freddie Mac.
Adding to the problem of supply are the homeowners who have opted to rent out their extra rooms or second homes to vacationers instead of to long-term tenants. In Ulster County, slightly over 2,000 rooms and homes were listed as short-term rentals in May, according to AirDNA, a vacation rental data firm. These homeowners averaged $236 in revenue per night’s rental, so even if the money netted was half of that figure, it’s a profit margin that is too hard to resist.
This coincides with a low vacancy rate for long-term rentals in the county, which was just shy of 2 percent in 2020, according to the rental housing survey. (Housing experts say a rate below 5 percent restricts tenant choice and mobility and gives landlords pricing power.) There were only 180 rental units advertised between January and October 2020, down from 269 units the previous year.
A desperate need for infrastructural improvements in rural towns and cities — more populous than ever because of the pandemic — has posed problems for developers. Patrick K. Ryan, Ulster’s county executive, says that courting developers of affordable housing is difficult when there aren’t enough sewer and water lines to begin with.
“It’s been hard to hear about all the potential growth the county could be experiencing because of the lack of infrastructure and therefore housing,” Mr. Ryan said. “But what’s worse is when you hear about the nurses and grocery store clerks, or those who got us through the pandemic, who are anxiety-ridden because they can’t afford to live in the community they just served.”
Throughout Ulster County, community meetings are filled with locals calling for a fix. After months of debate, the Town of Woodstock this week approved a nine-month moratorium on the creation of new lodging, including short-term rentals, which pits a neighbor trying to earn extra money against others being priced out of the community.
“Housing is the No. 1 issue,” said Mr. Ryan, adding that he and other officials are trying to fast-track affordable housing programs. The Kingston City Land Bank has been fixing up long-vacant housing, there are plans to transform an empty county jail into units for seniors and others, and a tiny-home initiative is also underway. Zoning codes are being reviewed in many towns and villages, and Mr. Ryan said there was a push for quick authorization to build accessory dwelling units, like small cottages or basement apartments.
In light of the affordable housing crunch, many business owners have been forced to rethink how to run their businesses. Tom Smiley, the chief executive of the Mohonk Mountain House, a 250-plus-room resort in New Paltz, cut the availability of hotel rooms and services by a third this year because he couldn’t find enough workers. In a normal year, Mr. Smiley hires about 750 employees. This year, he is down to about 630.
For the first time since his family started the business in 1869, Mr. Smiley asked his marketing director to focus on staff recruitment, and not on guest promotions. He spent extra money to advertise available jobs on the radio and billboard space on Route 299 in New Paltz.
Some employees were able to secure cheap lodging at the hotel’s worker dorms, but the number of rooms was cut to 45 from about 180, since the pandemic made it necessary to provide private bathrooms instead of shared facilities.
Mr. Smiley said he had been on the hunt for federal and state incentives that would help him build more dorm space, but has had little luck.
“I have employees that say they don’t know how much longer they can work here as they struggle to find a place to live,” he said. “So now I also worry about employee retention.”
Stew Meyers, a founder of Exago Inc., a software company in Kingston, wonders how his young work force (average age, 29) will be able to keep living in and near Kingston if home prices and rents keep climbing.
“I’ve been focusing on hiring locally to grow a competitive business here, but if my employees say they can’t afford to live here and they all suddenly ask me for an increase in salary, I would be stuck,” Mr. Meyers said.
Housing activists are warning about the effects of gentrification, which has been happening for at least a decade, and the likelihood of a spike in homelessness among the working class. There have been reports of some people who were pushed out of their homes and are now sleeping in their cars, often in the local train station’s parking lot.
Rashida Tyler, a co-founder of the Ulster County Coalition for Housing Justice and the founder of the Real Kingston Tenants Union, said she had been flooded with calls and emails from people asking for her help, which started before the pandemic because of existing economic inequalities in the area involving poorer communities of color. As a third-generation Kingstonian, Ms. Tyler said she used to be able to connect locals in need of affordable housing to a variety of generous landlords. “But I haven’t been able to help anyone in months, as all my resources have dried up,” she said.
The organization, among other things, has asked local legislators to calculate affordable rents using the area’s average hourly wage, currently $13.33, instead of the area’s median income, especially now as more affluent New Yorkers have moved into the county.
“When housing prices are too high, it puts too much pressure and makes it harder for people to remain in their community,” Mr. Meyers said. “I need and want my employees to stay here, but what happens when they can’t?”