Identifying the problem is the first step to solving it. What follows is orchestrating a plan and executing it. Therein lies the details.
Last week, Bethlehem Town Board members allowed an exception to their residential development moratorium. NRP Group will continue to see its proposal run through the review process with the hope its 72-unit affordable housing project called Selkirk Reserve ultimately breaks ground. The plan it has for the Bethlehem hamlet is just one of several it has in the works, or has finished, across the country to address a national problem.
It’s a local problem, too. The lack of affordable housing in this town was identified years ago. The Town’s Comprehensive Plan Committee documented the issue in its townwide zoning plan in 2005. Nearly 20 years ago, community leaders watched as housing developments replaced farm lands and woodlands, for expensive one-family homes. Today, Realtor.com states the median listing price of a home in this town as approximately $310,000.
Market experts advise would-be homeowners to stay within a price range that resembles three-to-four times their annual salary. The median household income in the Capital District according to the U.S. Census Bureau is $71,000. That means the average person in this area can’t buy the average-priced home in this town. Not in today’s market.
Would-be homeowners have sought after Bethlehem for its high achieving school districts and for its town services. They want to shop around Delmar’s Four Corners and wade in the Elm Avenue Town Park’s pools. They want to be close to downtown Albany’s nightlife and take their kids to the mall. All within a reasonable driving distance from work. That’s this town in a quick glance.
Bethlehem is a large enough town that it can be split into two. In fact, the town is nearly split in half between two of its three school districts. Bethlehem Central and Ravena Coeymans Selkirk cleave the bulk of the town horizontally down the middle, while families in North Bethlehem attend Guilderland Central. The hamlets of this town are distinguished by their own characteristics, to the point there is a sense of pride oftentimes. And as you try to make a blanket observation about this town to have it fit into any corner, you’ll be corrected.
In May, town residents attempted to explain how Selkirk Reserve would not be ideal nestled between Route 9W and the Jericho Drive-In. For it to be a place for low-income, working force residents to live, they’d reside three miles outside the retail center of Bethlehem Center — and that much farther from the city of Albany. And after a summer of fiery debates surrounding the perceived dangers of Delmar’s Delaware Avenue, there are no sidewalks along Route 9W where traffic buzzes along at 55 mph.
Somehow the debate over this project was initially molded into a protest against affordable housing and that some had heard racist undertones. Those who spoke up before the Town Board each said they want affordable housing, but the need is not in Selkirk, and not within the RCS school district in which district teacher and Albany County Legislator Matt Miller said is already challenged with providing services for underserved students.
Comparisons were drawn between Selkirk, Slingerlands and Delmar. The former two are hamlets to the north, and reside within the Bethlehem Central school district. Each one is listed among some of the more affluent areas in the Capital District. The U.S. Census Bureau has Slingerlands’ median household income as $89,000 and Delmar’s as $103,000 — 1.5 times higher than the state and regional amount. In this statistic, Selkirk also lists higher than the state and regional figure, with an income of $85,000, but the average may be skewed. Of its nearly 7,000 residents, 30 percent earn an income under $50,000. Another 27 percent earns between $50,000 to $100,000. The other 43 percent makes more than $100,000.
There’s also the poverty rate in Selkirk, which differs a bit more than its neighbors to the north. Approximately 9.8 percent of Selkirk residents live below the poverty line — just a little less than the regional rate of 10.2 percent. In Delmar, the same rate is 5 percent; Slingerlands, 3.6 percent.
Assuming the project is to introduce affordable housing into a neighborhood in which the housing market is attainable to the few, Selkirk is not it. The median value of an owner-occupied home is $223,000, running on par with the Capital District and two-thirds lower than that of New York State ($313,700). Following the advice of that real estate agent, assuming an annual income of $71,000 — you can grab a home in Selkirk. You may even grab one in Delmar, where the same median value stands at $275,800 — though recent market trends suggest houses are more expensive. In Slingerlands, where the median value is $343,500, you’ll be priced out.
The State may see Selkirk Reserve as an ideal plan to address affordable housing issues here in the Capital District and in Bethlehem. Taking a broad look at Bethlehem, this town needs affordable housing. Looking deeper at the zip codes within this town, it’s not needed in Selkirk. Ravena Coeymans Selkirk doesn’t need it, either. After all, the intent is to introduce affordable housing to a neighborhood who needs it. This isn’t it.