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The Upstate Economy

North Country housing market tight as Fort Drum deployments smaller, shorter

Nearly all of Fort Drum's soldiers are at the post right now, not on deployments – and that's a first for the region since the installation's expansion in 2001. That has tightened the region's housing market, for soldiers, who have fewer choices, and for civilians, who don't receive housing assistance like soldiers do and are looking for affordable housing.  

Parts of two Fort Drum brigades plan to deploy this winter, but the length of deployments has decreased from 12 to nine months, and fewer soldiers are going than in previous years.

That new normal encourages families of soldiers to come to the region – and to stay while their soldiers are deployed. All the military families in the region mean the housing market is tightening. 

Carl McLaughlin heads the Fort Drum Regional Liason Organization, a civilian group that works with the post on issues that affect both the military and civilian populations. He says all kinds of factors usually go into a decision about where to live.

"There's the school district, there's the distance from Fort Drum, there's the community you want to live in. Lots of factors that you'd like to consider and like to have the options for. We don't have it in our market," he said.

McLaughlin says it's not soldiers who are most affected by the tight housing market. They are are either provided housing on Fort Drum or receive a BAH, a basic allowance for housing, to find apartments on their own. And it's not the poorest civilians, either, who may qualify for government subsidies. It's civilians in the middle of the economic spectrum who are having the toughest time. 

"It's the broader population that doesn't qualify for that, that no one's directing the monies to, and there's a need there," he said.

Reg Schweitzer is seeing the effects of the tighter rental market. He's deputy director of Neighbors of Watertown, an organization that provides affordable housing in the city. 

"We've seen where our wait lists have increased in the last couple of months," Schweitzer said. "We're already sitting at a pretty high occupancy level, but now we're seeing less units turn over, and more people getting piled onto the wait lists."

Schweitzer says that limits people's choices in housing.

"They maybe stay in a unit that isn't quite suitable for the family or individual, or they're forced to pay too much for a unit, you know, that isn't up to the standards that they'd like," he said.

Schweitzer walks over to one of his organization's apartments with client Troy Clark. Clark looks around his new one-bedroom apartment. He spent three weeks looking for a decent apartment he could afford before turning to the organization for help.

"The problem I was having is the price points, and even when you would look at certain price points, the apartments were shoddy. You can tell this apartment in particular is immaculate. It's brand new, and the price point's $560," he said.

Clark, who's back in school after losing his job in a tough economy, says his new apartment makes him feel more optimistic about the future. 

Schweitzer, of Neighbors, says Clark's story is a common one. He often hears complaints about the condition of the city's more affordable rental housing.

He says prices have gone up, too – that's why more people are filling his organization's wait lists. A studio apartment is expected to jump from about $600 in 2008 to more than $700 in 2013. 

Officials who've been preparing for this moment for some time, though, say the market could be much tougher if it weren't for a lot of advance planning. Carl McLaughlin is with the liason organization.

"We've been playing a catch-up game for a long time, trying to meet demand based on the increased number of soldiers who bring dependents here and need family housing. We're now at the point where we're catching up with demand," he said.

McLaughlin shares information and works with economic development agencies to try to bring more housing online, often with the help of tax breaks. Several big projects are now in the works.

The goal is to increase a 1.5 percent vacancy rate in the big apartment complexes to a more healthy number, allowing more choice for apartment hunters.

Jim Wright heads up the Development Authority of the North Country.

"We believe that if we can successfully bring 1,500, 1,600 units online, that will give us a comfortable vacancy rate in the five to seven percent range, which is a healthy market," he said. 

Wright and McLaughlin – and many of the region's apartment-seekers – are glad to see two new housing projects coming online, which are scheduled to add about 700 units of new housing beginning in 2013.