Workers in the Catskills Can’t Find Housing. Bosses Are Trying to Help.
Cooped up in the city during the pandemic, New Yorkers flocked to Hudson Valley for the fresh air, spacious yards and idyllic lifestyles. The urban dwellers quickly learned that they missed the convenience of 24-hour bodegas and live-in supers and had to contend with the drawbacks of rural life, including pesky beavers. There has been no shortage of complaints.
But the influx of transplants — the ones who have turned weekend getaways into year-round residences and others into lucrative Airbnbs — has intensified another shortage: affordable housing.
The living options for local, low- and middle-income workers are scarce. Many rentals in the area are multifamily houses, not units inside large apartment complexes, so when houses sell and become owner-occupied, the impact on the market is considerable. In January 2019, Ulster County, roughly at the center of the region, had 1,052 homes for sale, according to Zillow. This past May, that figure was 538. Nearby, Greene County’s inventory also fell from 595 to 213 in the same time period, and Dutchess County’s fell from 1,577 to 957.
Now, in an effort to retain employees, business owners and managers are building houses, renting out apartments and, in some cases, opening up their own homes, significantly expanding a longtime tradition in the area of work force housing. For some employees, it’s the only way they can keep their current jobs, and they are more than happy to avoid the stress of finding their own housing in the area. But it has also created a situation that is hard to get out of — when one’s housing is tied to their job, it can feel like there is no escape from work.
“If they didn’t provide housing, I definitely wouldn’t be working here,” said Junior Taylor, the head chef at Tabla, a restaurant in Tannersville in Greene County. Since March, Mr. Taylor has worked at Tabla, which opened last fall. He lives across the street from the restaurant, in a three-bedroom apartment he shares with another employee. He pays $500 a month for his own bedroom, which is subsidized by the restaurant’s owner.
It’s a nice apartment by most standards: It has lots of natural light (enough to keep Mr. Taylor’s growing collection of plants thriving), a full kitchen and hardwood floors. “I’m not from here, so I wouldn’t know who to reach out to, where to go to find a place,” Mr. Taylor, 32, said, as he spritzed his plants with water. “I’m from Jamaica. I came from nothing, so I could live anywhere. It just needs to be clean and have four walls.”
The mere seconds it takes to walk from the restaurant to his apartment means that he often brings work home with him, but he doesn’t mind. “Even though I have a kitchen in the restaurant, I like to do a lot of R & D stuff here in private, where I’m more comfortable,” he said of the research and development of his recipes. One specialty of his on the menu is the farinata, a savory chickpea pancake. And, the 60-hour or longer work weeks mean the less of a commute, the better.
‘Even When You’re Not Working, You’re at Work’
Hudson Valley, a 10-county region home to the Catskill Mountains, Storm King Arts Center and a number of wineries and breweries, is a few hours drive away for New York City residents.
There was always some push-and-pull between locals and the city day-trippers and country-home weekenders, a boost for the economy as long as the visitors were in moderation. The pandemic upended that fine balance: About 49,000 New York City residents moved to the Hudson Valley in 2020, according to the nonprofit research organization Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress.
The sudden increase and ensuing bidding wars forhousing stock have driven up home sale prices and rents. Last year, the median sale price for a home in Ulster County was $349,900, up nearly $100,000 from 2019, according tothe Ulster County Board of Realtors.
The available housing options in Ulster County are not only low, but old— the median year of when homes were built there is 1969, according to Point2 Homes.
“The housing issue is to the point that we had many of our frontline workers, from grocery store workers to health care workers, are not able to afford to live in the same community they’ve risked their lives to protect,” said Patrick Ryan, 40, the Ulster County executive.
Some businesses have been dealing with the issue for decades.
Mohonk Mountain House, a 265-room, 153-year-old resort in the Shawangunk Mountains, has offered employees housing since the 1880s, said Jon Levin, Mohonk’s director of human resources. The hotel employs nearly 700 workers, and several had to stay through lockdown, even while the resort closed its doors to guests, because they had nowhere else to go.
One of those workers was Letecia Zudock, 64, a housekeeper from the Philippines who has been working at the hotel for 18 years. Ms. Zudock started living at Mohonk in 2013, after her husband became terminally ill.
“I don’t have any relatives. Nothing. I’m by myself. This is my home,” said Ms. Zudock, trying to hold back tears.
Most of the work force housing at Mohonk is dormitory style (typically, employees have their own room, but amenities are shared). In total, there are 108 year-round rooms, 22 seasonal rooms, six cottages and nine management residences on the property. Per-week costs for the dorms and meal plans, which come with 21 meals a week in the employee cafe, range from $86.50 to $112.70. Mohonk declined to let The Times see inside of the dorm buildings, citing privacy reasons.
Casey Dow, 31, an I.T. systems technician at Mohonk, has been employed there since he was 16, and he has been living at the resort’s dormitory-style employee housing on and off throughout. Mr. Dow, who is from Ulster County, has held various positions during his time with the resort, including working as a server, prep cook and a room service attendant.
He shared stories he has heard of people’s rent going up by hundreds of dollars overnight. “I’ve never thought about where I’d be living if not here,” Mr. Dow said. “I might not be working here at all. I would be struggling.”
Despite the convenience to his commute and his pocket, living where he is employed has its disadvantages. “Even when you’re not working, you’re at work,” Mr. Dow said.
Mr. Levin, 76, the human resources director, said employees who live there have different perspectives on work-life balance. “I’ve been here a long time, but I’ve never lived here. It’s a very individual preference.” he said.
David Schneider, 56, the owner of the restaurant Tabla, has been on a spending spree, hoping to scoop up inventory. In June, Mr. Schneider and his wife bought a four-bedroom house for about $500,000 that they want to turn into shared employee housing. “My concern was that everybody’s buying everything up here and turning them into Airbnbs, which don’t benefit the town,” Mr. Schneider said.
Currently, Mr. Schneider has seven bedrooms that he’s able to rent out at a time at a low rate (three in use, and four available).
‘She Put Up a Curtain.’
Long-term affordable housing projects are in the works. In partnership with a private developer, the Ulster County Housing Development Corporation plans to demolish the former county jail and turn the site into a new neighborhood. The project, which began in 2020 and is expected to be completed in 2024, will include over 160 new one- and two-bedroom housing units.
Another 600 to 800 residential units, as well as businesses and office space, could come to fruition in the next few years on the former IBM campus (known as “TechCity”), said Joe Cotter, the head of National Resources, the real estate company that acquired the site.
But business owners and workers have more immediate needs.
Gabe Lawrence, a guide with Rail Explorers (a quadricycle railroad tour company with a branch in the Catskills), has been crisscrossing the country to work at various locations. He knew finding housing in New York would be hard. “I’ve done my own research, looking at Airbnbs and motels or hotels. It’s definitely not the easiest thing to find out here,” Mr. Lawrence said.
So he took what he could find: a little space in the apartment of one of the company’s managers. “She turned her living room into a private bedroom. She put up a curtain that blocks it off and built me a bed frame,” he said.
Mr. Lawrence, 22, who has been with the company for two years, moved into the living room in June and will leave at the end of August for his next seasonal gig. Part of the company’s reasoning in holding onto staff, even if it means employees crashing at the homes of managers, is the several-weeks-long training process of becoming a Rail Explorers guide, said Mary Joy Lu, the company’s chief executive.
Frank Falatyn, the president of FALA Technologies, an advanced manufacturing company in the town of Ulster, has at times let early-career workers stay in the spare bedroom of his own home for months on end. But he won’t need to do that any longer: In July, the town board approved his request to fully convert the second floor of the company’s office building into employee housing. “How do you bring talent in from outside the region, if you don’t have any place to put them?” Mr. Falatyn, 65, said.
Elizabeth Ryan, who owns Stone Ridge Orchard, Breezy Hill Orchard, Knoll Krest Farm and Adair Winery, said that she has lost more than a dozen employees in the last two years because they couldn’t find affordable housing.
For the past 20 years, she has put up her farm manager, Martin Fuentes-Europa, and his family in a trailer on one of her properties.
Earlier this year, Mr. Fuentes-Europa, 49, and Christina Pinelo, a baker for the orchard, became grandparents. Mr. Fuentes-Europa said the trailer — shared with his wife, daughter and son-in-law — just wouldn’t do anymore. “The trailer’s a good place to live, but when it comes to a child, it’s not enough room for them to run around,” he said.
Ms. Ryan, 68, desperate not to lose Mr. Fuentes-Europa as an employee and as a close friend, decided to build the family a house that will cost her more than $400,000. But she is not stopping there, she said. In the last few years, Ms. Ryan has bought houses adjacent to her farms. She’s letting the current tenants renting those properties stay as long as they want to, but as soon as they vacate, she plans to offer the homes up to her employees.
That could greatly help Roy Dowdall, 60, a veteran who now does odd carpentry and building jobs around Ms. Ryan’s farms. Mr. Dowdall currently lives in a small room in a shared house, where he didn’t have hot water for months (he showered at the farm during that time), and he’s worried that his landlord might sell the house altogether.
Employee housing could come in handy.
“I love the people here at the farm, but I’d have to go somewhere else,” Mr. Dowdall said. “I have no problem living out of a tent if I need to, but I’d have to do it in a place where the climate is better.”