Ulster County, New York, had the largest rise in home prices in the U.S. during the pandemic. It’s the latest development in a trend that has eroded affordable housing in the area for decades.
First, 9/11 pushed people out of New York City and the 90 minutes north into the Hudson River Valley. Then, AirBnB’s emergence took a big toll on rental properties, with long-term rentals converting to short-term and pricing families out. The pandemic has again brought an influx of people to the area, with tight inventory driving up home sales and rents.
“We’re in the midst of a housing crisis that we haven’t seen the likes of before,” said RUPCO CEO Kevin O’Connor, who has been with the affordable housing organization for half of its 40 years.
RUPCO is based in Kingston, NY, an area dominated by single-family zoning, where it can be difficult to even find sites to support multifamily developments. There’s long been strong NIMBY opposition to affordable developments, a sense of “don’t change anything,” O’Connor said.
That attitude may be changing, though. A new Ulster County housing plan includes zoning reform, the first time since the late 1960s, and encourages a regional, analytical approach to affordable housing. “There’s a shared understanding for the need to provide housing, that home really matters. The pandemic has really brought that out,” O’Connor said.
To help address the housing shortage, RUPCO is working “feverishly” on locating potential development sites, O’Connor said, and pushing new developments forward.
“Neighborworks Capital has been so important to us. The $1,500,000 predevelopment line of credit has really helped bring The Metro to its final construction phase,” O’Connor said.
The Metro development will transform an abandoned 70,000 square foot factory to create a film and TV production studio and maker space. Some of their other active developments include:
- East End II, a scattered-site development of 61 affordable apartments in 22 residential buildings, in a mix of historic restoration and new construction. The project also undertakes the adaptive rehabilitation of a former United Methodist Church and an adjacent building. The vacant structures will be transformed into community space to open in 2022. The church’s sanctuary area will be preserved and used for event space.
- RUPCO is taking over ownership of Lander Street Apartments, an 84-unit portfolio in Newburgh, already managed by RUPCO and owned by PathStone (another NW America affiliate).
- RUPCO is entering the second phase of construction at Energy Square, 57 mixed-income apartments in Kingston with commercial residents on the first floor
- Developing Landmark Place in Kingston, with 66 apartments for seniors, including 35 for formerly-homeless seniors. Their partner, Empire State Housing Initiative, will provide a full array of services for this high-needs population.
“Our mission is to create homes, support people, and improve communities. Our vision is for strong, vibrant, inclusive communities with a home and opportunity for everyone,” O’Connor said.
That includes homeownership. If O’Connor could have one wish for RUPCO’s 40th Anniversary this year, it would be to see a federal financing tool to help fund homeownership. They are working to organize a nationwide group to press the issue.
“Rental housing is critical, but homeownership has a place too,” O’Connor said. “Many of us have not been able to build, develop, or create opportunities for homeownership. It answers a number of calls: social injustice, fair housing, what we’re building and where. Home ownership is the American dream. We’ve got to make it matter for everyone.”
Opportunities for All
O’Connor and RUPCO are aware of the history of housing discrimination and are working in ways thataddress it in more equitable manner. “It really sets a challenge to the industry to address the discrimination that’s occurred,” O’Connor said.
RUPCO’s staff has been through NeighborWorks America’s REDI (Race, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) Leadership Program, including the Executive Director, Executive Leadership, and Senior Staff. A REDI initiative is one of RUPCO’s five strategic goals as well.
The Next 40 Years
In addition to striving for home ownership for all and addressing discrimination, RUPCO’s strategic goals include:
- Innovative Housing – being more creative with their developments. Examples include Energy Square, their first net-zero for living development completed in 2020 that features geothermal and solar, so tenants pay nothing for utilities.
- Community Wealth Building – In Newburgh, NY, they purchased a former church and created a community hub known as HighPoint in partnership with LYNC, a Black, female-led nonprofit that leads job training, daycare and community space.
- Construction Related Services – RUPCO created the Home Squad, their own construction company and recently completed their first project.
- Energy-Related Services – They’re working to lower the carbon footprint of their buildings, which also creates another pathway for jobs.
“There’s not enough hours in the day. The need is there. The challenges have been great: the pandemic; the recent heightened awareness around social justice, which is nothing new for us,” O’Connor said. “There’s also a lot of opportunities, with two stimulus packages and the proposed infrastructure package. We’re working to embrace the new, be open and flexible, and understand this is a time of tremendous opportunity as well.”