In beautiful Albany County, housing affordability is not a pretty picture

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Lisa Nicole Viers’s apartment hunt, conducted from out of state, ended with a place in Schenectady that welcomed her three cats. “Milkshake is my oldest cat, and she seems to be quite enjoying herself living in the Stockade District,” says Viers. “I have had little Milk since the summer of 2012, when I adopted her from a shelter in Cleveland, Ohio.”

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Leopard prints on clothes and furnishings show Lisa Nicole Viers’s predilection for all things feline, including her cat, Domino, whose favorite thing about living in the Stockade is looking outside at the birds and squirrels that scurry by.

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Schenectady’s Historic Stockade District is filled with rows of old buildings turned into apartments, preserving the charm of the neighborhood. The trees are just starting to bloom after this past winter’s particularly long stay.

When I first started looking at places to live in the Capitol Region, I went in with a list of requirements, as most people, I assume, would. I needed an apartment that was affordable, reasonably close to my job, in a safe area, and would permit my three lovely cats.
Housing costs in metropolitan areas like Albany and Schenectady, where I was looking, are a lot different than in suburban northeast Ohio, where I had been living. The prices in these cities were also a bit higher than in Cleveland, where I sequentially rented two apartments during college.

In my search, I quickly decided that Schenectady was the more affordable option, with fairly nice apartments in good neighborhoods sitting around $700 or $800, compared to Albany’s $800-plus.

This was a pretty big step up from the $525 I was paying each month for my one-bedroom apartment in suburban Ohio with brand-new carpeting, central air-conditioning, and heat. Looking in the Capitol Region, I struggled to find anything with these amenities — somewhat due to the historic nature of the area, which I have grown to love — at what I considered to be a reasonable price.

However, I was willing to adjust my budget; I was, after all, going to be making more money as a newspaper reporter in New York State than as a retail worker at a mall in Ohio.

By the end of December, I had found a place in Schenectady’s historic Stockade District that worked for me: safe, spacious, close enough to work, and happy to accommodate my felines. I sent in the lease application through e-mail and secured the apartment based on photos alone; I never actually came out to look at it, I did all my home-hunting online.

While that detail may be atypical for the home-hunting experience, many other details may resonate with a lot of people. Cost usually sits high on the priority list when looking for a place to live. In my search, I remember capping my options to places that would be less than half of my yearly salary.

If that sounds egregiously high, that’s because it is.

According to a report recently released by the State of New York Comptroller’s Office, an increasing number of households have housing costs above the “affordability threshold,” which is defined as 30 percent of household income. What this means is, since at least 2000 — the initial data point for the report — more households are spending over 30 percent of their incomes on housing, which includes rent or mortgage payments, utilities, taxes, insurances, and fuels used in the home.

The report details rising housing costs, and also notes that household income has been dropping since 2000. Together, these factors are contributing to the increasing number of households living above the 30-percent affordability threshold.

Mark Burlingame, a Realtor with CM Fox in Guilderland, said he is definitely seeing this trend. He attributes this to a combination of all the factors of the affordability threshold, not just the cost of rent or housing payments; actually, he believes taxes and housing maintenance are the largest contributors to increasing housing costs. Also, Burlingame said, banks are qualifying people for higher amounts than perhaps they can comfortably afford, though technically they have enough money.

Burlingame identified two groups of people who are particularly susceptible to ending up in a situation where they are above the affordability threshold: first-time homebuyers, and people moving in from out of state, such as myself.

He identified first-time homebuyers because, he said, they often do not have a lot of money up front for down payments and closing costs. Also, they may be unfamiliar with the fringe financial implications of owning or renting a home or apartment, such as utilities, taxes, and maintenance.

“They don’t have any experience with what that looks like or feels like to their budget,” Burlingame said.

Out-of-staters, meanwhile, may be unfamiliar with the property tax burden in New York, which Governor Andrew Cuomo has frequently asserted is the highest in the nation.

“They’ve potentially underestimated the housing affordability in the area,” Burlingame said, noting that harsh winters can wreak havoc on heating and maintenance bills.

Locally, the affordability threshold numbers aren’t very encouraging. In 2012, the most recent year for which data was available, 45.7 percent of renters in Albany County were above the affordability threshold. Twenty-five percent of homeowners were in that circumstance as well.

In Schenectady County, 49.1 percent of renters and 26.6 percent of homeowners were above the affordability threshold as of 2012.

According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, households above the 30-percent mark are considered cost burdened, meaning they may have trouble paying for other necessities such as food and transportation.

Over 50 percent of renters and over 30 percent of homeowners in all of New York State were above the affordability threshold in 2012.

The disparity between renters and owners is seen throughout all the data, from both 2000 and 2012, and through all counties. One factor in this may be tied to the strong demand for rental property, and the aforementioned heavy tax burden, which would put landlords in a position to raise their rent prices.

“So that option isn’t really super favorable for people either,” Burlingame said of rentals.

The household income used to determine where a household sits with respect to the affordability threshold is calculated as the sum of annual incomes of all residents above 15 years old in that household. Including income from minors could be interpreted as padding the numbers a bit, since household members under 18 often do not contribute any of their earnings to the costs for running a home.

However, the numbers are still stark. In addition to tracking households above the 30-percent mark, the study looked at those where over half the annual income went towards housing costs. The Census Bureau labels these households as severely cost burdened, and 24.6 percent of Albany County’s renters as well as 9.3 percent of its homeowners fall into this category as of 2012. In 2000, the percentages of households with this label were 18.9 of renters and 6.1 of homeowners, respectively.

The 2012 numbers also show 27.3 percent of renters and 8.7 of owners in Schenectady County as severely cost burdened, increased from 20.5 percent of renters and 5.8 percent of owners in 2000.

The report counted over 121,000 households in Albany County in 2012, and, while I am not among them, I love driving from Schenectady to Altamont every day and basking in the shadow of the Helderberg escarpment, winding along roads flanked by ponds and trees, soaking in the beauty that is Albany County. What can I say? I have expensive taste.