08 July, 2006

Spitzer Sets Plan To Make New York More Afforable As Young Adults Flee The State

As the cost of living in New York, particularly the cost of housing, continues to rise, young people continue to leave the state in alarming numbers.

Democratic gubenatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer announced a plan earlier this week, mostly ignored by a press that was focused on the gay marriage ruling, that attempts to stop the bleeding by cutting living costs.

Spitzer's plan calls for lower property taxes (though it doesn't say how this will be accomplished), efforts by local governments to make more land available, improved access to capital, and incentives to local governments to increase building densities. (For more details click here.)

Does the Spitzer plan has merit? It's hard to tell from a short press release and scant media attention. But one thing is clear. Young people are bolting New York City's suburbs in a hurry, because they can't afford to live here.

Here's a story I wrote for another purpose a few weeks ago that sheds a lot of light on how big the issue is and the problems it is creating.

Young Adults Fleeing New York City's Suburbs

Discouraged by sky-high housing prices young adults are exiting the Westchester-Rockland area in droves, raising economic concerns down the road and more-immediate problems for town governments to tackle, such as manning their volunteer safety forces.

Based on the latest figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of 25- to 34-year-old residents in Westchester County plummeted 25.4% from 1990 to 2004, with a drop of 11.6% in the years 2000 to 2004 alone.

The number of Rockland County residents in the same age group tumbled 22.6% since 1990 and 10.2% since 2002.

The trend is very similar in most other counties in the state, with most upstate counties showing declines of 25 to 30% within the 25- to 34-year-old age group, according to a recent New York Times report which was also based on Census Bureau figures.

The pattern holds on Long Island as well, with Suffolk County's population of young adults declining 25% over the 15-year period through 2004 and Nassau County showing a whopping 32.8% drop.

New York City is the only part of the state showing some ability to retain young people, as the decline in the 25-to-34 age group was just 6% between 1990 and 2004.

Because of New York City's relatively stable numbers, the state's loss of young adults is somewhat less pronounced at 7.9% over the 15-year period, putting Westchester and Rockland well above the state average but on not out of line with most other counties in New York.

The country's population of 25-to34-year-olds has dropped by 10% since 1990, so some of the decline experienced in the New York suburbs is based simply on birth rates in the `70 and `80s.

But there are other reasons why young adults are fleeing the area, and if you ask them why they are going they are quick to tell you. The main reason is economic -- the high cost of housing.

Brian Clancy, a 36-year-old trading technologies specialist at a Wall Street firm, grew up in Pearl River in Rockland County among thousands of other children of former city residents who moved to the suburbs in the 1950s and `60s. He says his parents' current home, which they paid $45,000 for in 1975 and is now one bedroom larger, was recently appraised at $735,000.

Clancy, who says he and his wife Marianne, who also grew up in Pearl River and who also works on Wall Street, each take home a six-figure annual salary, but they can't touch housing in Rye, where they currently have an apartment, or anywhere else in Westchester.

According to the New York State Association of Realtors, the median price for a single-family home in Westchester was $616,250 in April, the latest monthly figures available.

Clancy said his search in Westchester yielded older homes on small lots, some of which are going for seven figures. He and his wife have pretty much scratched Westchester off their home-shopping list.

We recognize that school systems like Rye and the others here are great school systems so we tried to justify it in our minds, but taking into account the risk-to-reward it just wasn't there," he said.

The couple found Rockland a bit more affordable, but only in the communities with less-desirable school districts. The median price for a one-family home in Rockland in April was $494,000, up a steep 21.4% from April of 2004.

Clancy said he's feeling a bit frustrated. "We have cash, we've saved. We've done all the right things and yet we can't secure the type of home we were hoping for."

Clancy said he loved growing up in Rockland, with its mix of blue- and white-collar families, but he fears that balance is disappearing. "It seems they are building now only for the elite. That mix is going away and that's what I'm going to miss."

Cara Cea, who works in the public relations department at Pace University in Pleasantville, is one 30-something who has decided to stay Rockland County, where she spent most of her childhood. She and her husband Christian recently bought a home literally around the corner from her mother.

"We could have found a home for up to $100,000 cheaper in Orange County, the farther up we looked," Cea said, "but because of ties to our family and friends and the long commute we decided moving to Orange County would be a killer. If you go up to Orange County you have to figure out where you are going to work."

Enrollment in the region's schools has remained reasonably steady in recent years, primarily because the other major child-rearing group measured by the census -- ages 35 to 44 -- has been growing as the 25-to-34 group has been declining.

The number of 35- to 44-year-old in Rockland has grown 5.8% from 1990 to 2004, while in Westchester, that age group has increased 10.6% percent over the same period.

Westchester County's schools recorded an increase in enrollment of 1 percent between 2000 and 2005, not including pre-school or college students. In Rockland, school enrollment has slipped by four percent in the same period.

Several of the area's districts have completed expansion projects in recent years, including a major addition at Nanuet High School. In Pearl River, the district is adding classroom space at both the middle school and high school this summer.

The problem for the school districts could come as the older students move out of the schools and the younger students move up the ladder. If the students are not replaced in the lower grades, facilities being expanded today could end up being under-used several years down the road.

One key area of community support has already been affected by the flight of the younger adults from New York City's suburbs. Town fire departments and ambulance crews, virtually all manned by volunteers, are short of manpower.

Rep. Sue Kelly, a Republican from Katonah, recently co-sponsored a bill that would provide a $1,000-a-year tax credit for volunteer first-responders. In a press release on her Web site, Kelly estimated the number of fire and ambulance service volunteers has dropped by 30% over the past 20 years. "This federal tax relief could help provide a modest incentive for new volunteers," Kelly said in the release.

In Rockland County, the county legislature passed a bill that would provide emergency volunteers a break of up to $1,000 a year on sales taxes, but the measure was not signed by County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef.

The county legislature can request "home-rule" passage by the state legislature in Albany, but Rockland County Commissioner of Finance and Budget Robert Bergman says chances of passage are slim without Vanderhoef's endorsement.

Bergman said the county would have to add additional staff to administer the program, which would require emergency volunteers to save their purchase receipts to receive the sales-tax refund. Three of every four dollars in the county budget comes from local sales taxes, Bergman said.

Orangetown recently purchased nine homes to provide cut-rate housing for some of its volunteers and is looking into donating or leasing town-owned land to provide more housing for its first-responders.

In a recent story published in the The Journal News, William Harris of the Orangetown Volunteer Emergency Services Coalition said fire and ambulance services provided by volunteers cost the town $3.4 million a year. He estimated paid services would boost the cost of fire and EMS services to about $25 million annually.

Kenneth Smellegar, a captain with the Pearl River Excelsior Fire Co., said his volunteers will take any financial help they can get from elected officials. His department, which is in Orangetown, has tried to compensate for the declining volunteer rolls by dropping the age of eligibility to 16 from 18.

Smellegar says the addition of high-schoolers has helped, but he said "once they go to college, come out with student loans and look to start careers, we are lucky if one in five of those high-school recruits ultimately settles in Pearl River."

Based on his own observations, Smellegar said he doesn't expect any of Rockland County's communities to convert to paid fire and EMS squads in the near future, but, he said, "it's gonna break sooner or later. The pressure's on."


Today's Journal News has a closer look at the Orangetown volunteer housing program and how it is going so far.


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