Wages often fail to keep up with housing costs
By Jeff Simms
Twenty-seven-year-old Katelyn Stamper works two jobs in Beacon — during the day at Dia:Beacon and two nights a week bartending at Quinn’s Restaurant on Main Street. Living in an apartment off Main with two roommates, the Plattsburgh State graduate says she wouldn’t be able to afford rent otherwise.
“Most of the people I know have two or three jobs,” she said this week. “That seems to be how to get by.”
Sasha Freeman, 25, who bartends with Stamper at Quinn’s, is in a similar boat. Freeman is a freelancer by day, working with clients in the Hudson Valley and New York City on content development and social media strategies. While she presently lives with her parents, she too says she wouldn’t be able to make ends meet if she were paying rent in Beacon.
“I probably wouldn’t live here,” she says. “If I’m going to be paying $1,500 a month for a one-bedroom (apartment), I would live somewhere where I could sustain that without working two jobs.”
While the Beacon City Council considers a series of changes to its affordable housing laws, there are many qualified people living in the city unable to find the type of work they need to afford local housing prices.
“The housing costs here cater to weekenders,” says Freeman, who studied public relations at Temple University. “I don’t know anyone who is young and able to support themselves without doing a service-industry job or a second job.”
Of course, the situation isn’t restricted to recent college graduates. One look at the line of cars on Beekman Street at 7 p.m. as commuters return from New York City confirms that.
According to the Newburgh-based Pattern for Progress, 30 percent of Beacon’s roughly 15,000 residents work within the municipality. Just over 31 percent of the city’s workforce travels to either Westchester County or New York City for work.
Overall, wages in the region just aren’t keeping up with the rising cost of housing, “hence the term ‘cost burden,’” says Joe Czajka, the senior vice president for research, development and community planning at Pattern for Progress and executive director of the organization’s Center for Housing Solutions and Urban Initiatives.
Gone are the days, Czajka says, of large companies employing hundreds or more members of the community. Today, 90 percent of the businesses in the Hudson Valley — these figures include Columbia and Greene counties — have less than 20 employees. Almost 80 percent employ fewer than 10.
“It’s small business that wins,” Czajka says, and he believes municipalities in the region should create incentives for people to go into business for themselves.
One model would phase in tax assessments on small business owners. Say an entrepreneur buys a building on Main Street in Beacon and then puts an additional chunk of money into rehabbing the building before opening for business. Tax the entrepreneur on the initial cost of the investment, Czajka suggests, and then phase in the increase as the business grows.
“It gives them the opportunity to get the business up and running and they can enjoy a bit of a revenue stream. Then, as the business develops, they have more ability to pay for it,” he said.
In Beacon, Mayor Randy Casale says “we have people coming here everyday who want to do something in Beacon. But to find a spot — that’s hard to do.”
Casale said he hopes that a committee appointed earlier this year to draft the city’s next comprehensive plan will help resolve ongoing zoning issues at its waterfront. If that happens, he said, “then we’d have an area to try to entice someone to come.”
Still, the two-term mayor said he recognizes that housing costs continue to rise in Beacon. That’s simple economics, he says: “If people are willing to pay the price, people are going to charge the price.”
City Council member George Mansfield owns Dogwood Bar & Restaurant on East Main Street, and probably employs at least a handful of Beacon’s twenty-somethings.
“That’s the problem with a tourist-based economy,” he says. “It’s all service-based. We need to diversify the economy. In order to do that the city needs to have someone hyping it and saying, ‘This is what we have to offer.’ And possibly offering incentives. That’s the way things get done. But you have to have a vision. The city needs to be in the drivers seat.”
Mansfield also believes Beacon’s waterfront area could be an asset if it’s used for more commercial office space. Tech offices, for instance, complemented by restaurants and some residential development along the waterfront might bring some of the workforce back from New York City and Westchester.
“When you have office space and commercial development, it’s far more lucrative financially for a city than residential (building),” he said. “You don’t have (additional children in) schools, and there are fewer fire, sewer and water costs. And it gives you a much more diverse economy.”
For Stamper, the Plattsburgh State grad working two nights a week at Quinn’s, Beacon is a great place to live. There’s a flourishing arts community and tremendous natural resources. The lack of work is the only major drawback. “I would love to stay local,” she says, adding that she’s not planning to leave anytime soon, “but there just really isn’t much out there.”
But as the city continues to grow, Mansfield says he believes Beacon will ultimately outshine other Hudson Valley municipalities by attracting and then supporting higher-paying industry.
“A lot of developers will probably show you numbers saying there’s ‘X’ amount of office space in Dutchess County that’s empty,” he said. “I think Beacon is unique and we have to play our cards smartly. Those numbers don’t really represent what Beacon has going for it. I think we have a great community and I think a lot of offices will want to be here.”