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WW II-era barracks being demolished to make way for new housing. Photo: Army Corps of Engineers
WW II-era barracks being demolished to make way for new housing. Photo: Army Corps of Engineers

Ft. Drum housing crunch requires public investment

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The buildup of Fort Drum near Watertown has made Jefferson County one of the fastest growing places in Upstate New York. But it's also created a shortage of rental houses for military families and for civilians.

The problem hasn't come to a head yet because soldiers are constantly rotating in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. But as the U.S. draws down troop presence in the Middle East, the military population around Fort Drum is expected to swell.

Officials have been leading a public-private effort to build more housing for years. Joanna Richards reports now is crunch time.

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Reported by

Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

In 2005, then-Gov. George Pataki stood in front of a condemed apartment complex in Watertown and said the state was going to invest millions of dollars to ensure there was enough housing for military families and civilians alike.

"This is going to be torn down and it's going to be replaced with 17 townhomes which will have 91 units of quality housing for low-income and working and moderate families in the Watertown area," Pataki said.

Today, families are living in that new building, now called the Starwood Apartments. In addition to that affordable housing complex, $9 million in state and local funds were spent to help build 690 market-rate apartments.

More rental units are needed now - at least 1,035, according to Carl McLaughlin of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization - and more will be needed soon – the military population is expected to peak in 2014. That's when all of Fort Drum's soldiers will be back from deployments for a six-month window. And the Army is increasing what it calls “dwell time,” the time soldiers get at home between deployments, from one year to two. That transition is already in progress, McLaughlin said.

"Currently we estimate we're losing about 2,000 families during the deployment cycles. They're going somewhere else; they're not staying here," McLaughlin said. "As dwell times increase, those families are gonna stay with their soldiers. We need to meet that housing need."

Only about 35 percent of Fort Drum soldiers with dependents live on post, but it's not just soldiers who will suffer if there's not enough new rental housing to go around. It's the most vulnerable, those in need of modest, affordable housing. Unlike soldiers, they don't get a housing allowance.

Another push to build rental housing is under way, with Jefferson County, the Development Authority of the North Country and the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency pledging a total of $7 million in development incentives. The goal is to get about 500 to 700 new rental housing units built in the next two years.

The strange thing is that despite the demand, developers are hesitant to build here without generous public incentives.

Kevin Jordan, director of project development at the Development Authority of the North Country, or DANC, said he hears the same message from developers over and over again: "If you try and take a typical multi-family housing project and finance it through traditional methods, when you compare where rents are today in this market, even though they've escalated over time, and compare them against construction costs in the area, there's a gap. A gap based on what banks are willing to lend and what investors are willing to make available in the form of equity. That's what this public money does, is it helps fill that gap.

For developers, putting all their eggs in one basket – a rural, military market – is risky. Especially when the housing market nationwide is still in bad shape.

"So developers are having a little struggle with trying to get their financing lined up in this day and age. Three years ago they didn't have that problem. Today, they have that problem," said Don Alexander, executive director of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency.

Alexander said he thinks even more generous incentives for developers might be necessary. Incentives like the 10-year tax abatement deal Dawn Homes says it needs in order to finish building 400 units in the town of LeRay. That deal would be instead of the standard three-year agreement it already signed with the county, the town and the school district. The developer has not yet made a formal request, but the Indian River Central School District is already upset that it might.

DANC's Kevin Jordan said he doesn't think longer tax abatement deals will be necessary. "We make it a competition. You submit your proposals. You make the request for the public benefits that you're looking for, and these projects are all rated and ranked against each other. So, if you leave it up to a single developer, probably they're going to ask for everything they need and more," Jordan said. "If you make it a competition, they're gonna sharpen their pencils... and take a look really hard at, 'What is it I really need to make this work?'"

Jordan said there is an upside to this problem – Fort Drum's expansion has been huge for the region's economy. "This is probably the largest economic development initiative certainly in upstate New York anytime in recent years. We're talking about 8,000 new paychecks on the street – 8,000 new soldiers who have paychecks who spend them out in the community," Jordan said. "And so it's an important initiative for the Fort Drum area, it's an important initiative for the state to meet the housing demand that's out there."

Funding agencies and developers interested in taking advantage of the latest pot of public funding met last week. Their proposals are due in 60 days.

For North Country Public Radio/WRVO, I'm Joanna Richards in Watertown.

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