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A rural community in New York aims to turn vacant homes into affordable living spaces


Here's a contradiction in the U.S. housing market. Home prices are high in many places. It can be hard even to find a place for sale. But there are also millions of vacant homes and apartments across this country, especially in rural America. North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell reports on one county that wants to unlock the housing stock that could be available.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: A lot of the houses in Saranac Lake, N.Y., were built more than a century ago. Back then, tuberculosis patients came to the village for fresh mountain air. Some of those big, grand homes have been really well-maintained, while others have not.

SHAWN DUHEME: Come on in.

RUSSELL: I should just duck under?


RUSSELL: I duck under the scaffolding outside a home just a few blocks up from the lake.

Hi. I'm Emily.

DUHEME: Hi. Hi, Emily. I'm Shawn.

RUSSELL: Shawn Duheme is wearing a thick, blue hoodie covered in a thin layer of sawdust. We step inside what is essentially a construction zone. This house had been vacant for years when it went up for sale at a tax foreclosure auction back in 2019.

DUHEME: All the properties I was looking at, I had physically gone and seen, were going way too high. And this one popped up, and nobody bid on it. And I said, I can bid on that. How bad can it be?

RUSSELL: Turns out it was pretty bad. Duheme posted a tour of the place on his YouTube channel last spring.


DUHEME: You know, paneling, ceiling tiles falling down, falling down - a real mess.

RUSSELL: There were holes in the ceiling, rot in the wood, trash everywhere. Duheme is a local contractor. His plan is to renovate this place and sell it as a single-family home. There's a big demand here for housing. But there are also a lot of places like this, rundown and abandoned homes. Duheme says, he gets it.

DUHEME: If you don't know how to maintain that Tudor or that cedar or whatever, it's just going to degrade, right? And then it gets to the point where it's so expensive to maintain your home that you just let it go.

RUSSELL: According to the Saranac Lake Housing Task Force, about 19% of units here are vacant. That's nearly twice the national average. Housing expert Allan Mallach says the problem can start with just one vacant home in a neighborhood.

ALLAN MALLACH: People start to say, if this property is being neglected, why should I bother? And it sort of creates a chain reaction.

RUSSELL: Mallach is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress. It's a national nonprofit focused specifically on vacant housing. The issue is unfolding in Appalachia, in the Great Plains, in the Deep South. Mallach says it's a sign of a broader economic problem.

MALLACH: The American economy, to an extraordinary extent, has kind of walked away from rural areas.

RUSSELL: There is no national strategy to deal specifically with vacant housing. But there is one tool that's become more popular on a more regional level, land banks. When someone stops paying their taxes and their home goes into foreclosure, a land bank can step in to decide what's best. Franklin County, which includes Saranac Lake, is applying to create its own land bank. Jeremy Evans is the county's CEO of economic development.

JEREMY EVANS: When a town or village comes and asks the land bank for help with a problem property, the land bank has the resources, the technical expertise, the financial resources to say, yes, we can help with that.

RUSSELL: The land bank can then decide whether to invest in the property and eventually put it back on the market or demolish it. Cities like Greenville, S.C., and states like Michigan have their own land banks. There's even a bill in front of Congress to create a national network of them. For now, though, people like Shawn Duheme in Saranac Lake are largely on their own. He's scrimping and saving. He's actually hoping to monetize the YouTube channel where he's documenting his renovations.

DUHEME: And if that happens, then I can start buying these properties up and putting this level of work and higher into them.

RUSSELL: At the end of our interview, Duheme takes me on a quick tour. He pulls back the plastic on one of the windows in the master bedroom.

DUHEME: So when the leaves are down, you can see the mountain range in the back there. And over here, you can see the lake.

RUSSELL: Today, the lake is shimmering in the sun. It's Duheme's hope that maybe a year from now, it'll be a local family who will get to live with this view.

INSKEEP: North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Russell