balancing act

While Beacon’s comprehensive plan shows — in zoning districts colored brown, red and orange — that residential development has followed guidelines approved by the City Council, it’s harder to say whether the city has made the right moves regarding affordability.

In 2017, the council upped its “inclusionary zoning” policy by requiring that new developments of 10 units or more set aside 10 percent as part of the city’s workforce affordable program. By last year, of the more than 2,200 apartments in Beacon, 851 were “affordable” — most of them either subsidized through federal programs (commonly called Section 8), a state-funded program or part of the workforce program. The latter gives priority to applicants who are volunteer emergency responders, followed by municipal and school district employees.

The number accounts for more than 19 percent of the affordable housing stock in Dutchess County, although the city makes up only 5 percent of the county’s population. (At 60 percent combined, only the City and Town of Poughkeepsie have a greater share of the county’s affordable housing.)

At the same time, a Dutchess housing assessment released last year described a “series of long-simmering trends” that have created a significant shortage for the most vulnerable residents. Countywide, there are 2,155 more households that rent and earn less than $50,000 per year than there are affordable units available to them.

The Beacon council last year amended its zoning code to simplify the process for creating “accessory dwelling unit” (ADU) apartments, a strategy promoted by the federal government. Over the last two months, the council has discussed additional measures but has failed to reach consensus on how to move forward.

John Clarke, a city planning consultant, suggested revising a little-used overlay district to remove some zoning restrictions for developers who build housing for seniors. He also recommended that the city facilitate developments on public land that have higher percentages of affordable apartments — similar to when the council in 2016 sold land next to City Hall to a developer to create the West End Lofts apartment complex.

Clarke suggested a partnership with Dutchess County on an infill project at the DMV building at 223 Main St., a proposal that’s recommended in Beacon’s comprehensive plan. The Beacon Farmers Market, which uses the parking lot on Sundays, could be integrated into the design, along with a three-story, mixed-use building and a transit-linked public park on Main Street, with an expanded rear parking lot, he said.

The Metro-North northern parking lot was also identified in the 2017 comp plan as an excellent spot for housing, Clarke noted. The site is within easy walking distance of the station and a structure would have low “view impacts.”

There’s also the 39-acre former Beacon Correctional Facility site (“Camp Beacon”), which is owned by New York State, and is more isolated than the DMV or Metro-North lots. In 2019, state officials selected a New York City company to create a “bike farm” with a hotel and track-and-field venue at the site, but there’s been no movement there since.

What is ‘Affordable’?

When elected officials, planners and developers talk about “affordable” housing, it is usually a reference to how much household income a renter or homeowner must commit. The assumption is that housing costs, including property taxes, should not consume more than 30 percent of household income.

“Affordable” is sometimes based on the median household income of an area. For example, the fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in 2022 was $1,412 in Dutchess County and $2,340 in Putnam, according to figures compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The affordable rent for a household earning 50 percent of the area median income in Dutchess ($115,700) would be $1,446 per month, according to the coalition. In Putnam, where the AMI is $94,500, the affordable rent for a household earning 50 percent of the AMI would be $1,181 per month.

In a council workshop last month, Clarke said he does not recommend a further increase in the “set aside” of affordable units required of developers. With no offsetting benefits such as tax abatements or assessment reductions, “you’re essentially asking a private developer to subsidize affordable housing on their own dime, without any advantages for them, other than they can get their project approved,” he said.

Upriver, Kingston residents and officials are engaged in a citywide rezoning effort that is set to increase the availability of affordable housing, Mayor Steve Noble said. The city is holding a “Say Yes to ADUs!” design competition and is using $1 million of its federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to incentivize the construction of affordable housing.

It is also creating a “tiny homes community” to provide emergency housing and services to people who risk becoming homeless. Any rent would be in line with affordability guidelines established by Ulster County.

Kingston may extend its 10 percent set-aside to apply to new developments of seven units or more while requiring 15 percent or 20 percent for larger developments, Noble said. It also may offer bonuses, such as allowing construction of taller buildings, in exchange for affordable housing.

The hope with the rezoning project, which also includes environmental, mental health and downtown business initiatives, is that “you end up building a city that is reflective of the core values of your community,” he said.

In Beacon, Paloma Wake, an at-large member of the City Council, said she would like to see Beacon work on “integrated” affordability. “There’s value in having integrated housing, and I want to make sure whatever solutions we push forward have that vision,” she said. “If we just build a building with 100 units, that isn’t a win. That’s segregated.”

Although Beacon’s affordable numbers are relatively high, Wake and Wren Longno, who represents Ward 3 on the council, have argued that the city must address the shortage of housing for households earning $50,000 annually or less.

“We want to do better than the minimum,” Longno said. If a project is providing housing for lower-income residents, “many of us would be quite happy to see more density. If it’s not that, we’d rather just see the meadow stay the meadow.”


Has Beacon Followed Its Own Blueprint?
Was Enough Done to Keep It Affordable?
Is There Room for Lower Incomes?
Recent History (A Timeline)

This series was made possible by contributions to our Special Projects Fund.

Behind The Story

Type: Investigative / Enterprise

Investigative / Enterprise: In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

Simms has covered Beacon for The Current since 2015. He studied journalism at Appalachian State University and has reported for newspapers in North Carolina and Maryland. Location: Beacon. Languages: English. Area of expertise: Beacon politics

One reply on “Was Enough Done to Keep It Affordable?”

  1. Let’s have a conversation and some action on infrastructure instead of housing, which follows infrastructure. Waterworks, transit and materials come before, not after, housing. City, county, state and feds activate a city rail line, for example, then new apartments slot elegantly into the city fabric. Housing without infrastructure, leading to more motor vehicles and fossil abuse? No thanks.

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