SARANAC LAKE — The affordable housing shortage is impacting the local health care industry. As local hospitals and biotech businesses struggle to add more staff, industry leaders say housing is a major hindrance to hiring, and they’re turning to new, unique ways to try to attract and keep doctors, nurses, lab workers and researchers.
The housing crisis is not new and not exclusive to this area. But it’s impacting nearly every aspect of life here, from school enrollment to business staffing shortages. It’s impacting some local businesses’ ability to grow and the ability of some families to put down roots in the Adirondacks. It’s also contributing to a reduction in volunteer services and even an increase in homelessness.
A wide range of employees in the health care industry — from nurses to physicians — are struggling to find affordable housing in the Tri-Lakes, according to Adirondack Health Chief Nursing Officer Dave Mader.
Mader has been a staff member in the health care network for over 30 years and has been CNO for around three-and-a-half years.
“Ultrasonographers, nurses, environmental service workers, nurses aides — everybody really struggles to find reasonable rent in the Tri-Lakes area,” he said.
This struggle has pushed the employees — as well as the employers — to develop strategies to assist one another in finding places to live. Mader said one employee has a spreadsheet consisting of upcoming housing and rental information. Most information is found through networking.
“Also, (we’ve) had managers and directors using their own network of neighbors and friends and relations to try and find suitable housing for people to get them where they need to be,” Mader said. “We’ve all kind of learned a few new skills, like writing leases and invoices and new vendor accounts to facilitate that for some of the folks looking to get housing.”
As both a longtime employee and Saranac Lake native, Mader said he has not known the search for living spaces to be this difficult in the past.
Specifically in the nursing field, there are some employees who travel from over an hour away to work.
While struggling to hire more staff, the health care network is supplementing its workforce with traveling nurses.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Mader said the employment of traveling nurses was “very rare.” When employed, they would only stay for “an eight week or a 13 week assignment.”
“Certainly since the pandemic, it has become even more commonplace for us,” he added. “Although we’re still not what I would consider a high utilizer of travelers.”
Long-term care — like at the Adirondack Health-run nursing home, Mercy Living Center in Tupper Lake — is where they utilize most of the traveling nurses’ services, but without accessible housing, use of these services becomes harder.
“I do think pricing as of late has increased,” Mader said, “and the availability of properties has seemed to decrease. And the quality, to be quite honest. A lot of times people say they can’t find anything suitable in their price range.”
Adirondack Health on Friday announced that it plans to close the emergency room at its hospital in Lake Placid, the Lake Placid Health and Medical Fitness Center. Part of the reason behind the closure was the lack of local staff and the high price of hiring workers through third-party staffing services. Adirondack Health President and CEO Aaron Kramer said that the local housing crisis “absolutely creates another barrier to recruitment across our primary service area” in Lake Placid as well as in Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.
“It’s not the only challenge, but it’s a big one,” he wrote in an email Friday.
A slight dip in unemployment rates has also impacted Adirondack Health indirectly, according to Mader.
Every spring, Adirondack Health hosts hiring events where they reach out to recent nursing graduates to see if they would like to intern or work in the health care network.
“We have had a little more trouble recruiting this year,” Mader said. “We’ve always had more applicants than we had positions for. … This year, we had less applicants than we had positions for, so we’ll continue hiring into those positions.”
Something Mader hopes to eventually see in the Tri-Lakes area is more affordable housing options.
Mader even suggested that a complex be built, affordable for “middle-class workers like nurses and teachers and firemen and people like that — that want to live in the area, that have lived in the area for maybe a long time (and) would like to move to the area.”
Access to childcare services in the Tri-Lakes area for working parents adds an additional layer of struggle, according to Mader. In the health care, education and social services fields, working women make up 40% of the labor force.
“We have many nurses that travel great distances to work here from over an hour away — Brasher Falls, Canton, the other side of Potsdam, St. Regis Falls, Malone,” Mader said. “I have had three nurses within the last year and a half that had to take jobs closer to where they had daycare just to have their child within reach so they wouldn’t be an hour and a half each way away from them.”
The housing shortage is impacting not just the health care field, but bio-tech.
Bionique Human Resources Director Ami Parekh said the Saranac Lake-based company is expanding as the bio-tech industry booms. Bionique is looking to significantly increase its current staff of 43 employees, but it can’t hire if there’s nowhere for those new employees to live.
“We’re hoping to grow and expand, but unfortunately, we can’t do that without affordable housing,” she said.
She said six people starting at Bionique in the next few weeks have all struggled to find housing. One hire could have started in June, but they still haven’t found a home. Even local hires are having trouble finding places to live, Parekh said.
She said some applicants have turned down jobs because of the housing barrier and found work elsewhere instead.
Last year, Bionique CEO Gladis Zamparo said the company had been growing at a rate between 10% and 20% in the three years prior.
In December 2021, Bionique had 39 employees with three open positions, plans to employ 50 by the end of 2023 and lofty goals for exponential expansion after that.
“Then, the sky’s the limit,” Zamparo said in 2021.
Parekh said they feel lucky to be in an industry that grew during the coronavirus pandemic. But now that they want to expand and increase the number of jobs they offer in Saranac Lake, they are struggling to do so because of housing.
Parekh said the company feels rooted in Saranac Lake, where it was founded by Daniel and Judith Lundin in 1990, and values supporting the small town.
“We don’t want to go anywhere,” she said.
Bionique is a testing laboratory with a specialty in keeping medicines safe from bacteria. It was acquired by a Japanese chemical company last year with hopes to expand its global reach by growing locally.
That growth is still happening, but it is more “measured” than they had wanted, Parekh said.
Parekh said Bionique pays well over the area’s median income. It offers good-paying jobs in the bio-tech field with a potentially stable career path, she said. But even these attractive jobs don’t offer enough to keep up with the prices investors are willing to pay for a property.
“Everything’s become an Airbnb,” Parekh said.
She blames short-term vacation rentals and second-homes. She understands they are great investments, but said she believes their growth is hurting the rest of the community’s growth.
Parekh said Bionique is even negotiating with STR owners to have its employees rent STR properties as long-term rentals as they look for a permanent home. But paying the nightly rate for an STR is much more expensive and unaffordable than the monthly rate of a year-long lease.
She said the company has changed its hiring process because of the housing shortage, allowing people to start work remotely and take some time before they move here.
Owning a home is now out of the question for some employees, she said, as prices have gone up.
Parekh wants local leaders to look at making way for more “tiny homes” in the area. She said a complex of small houses that are affordable to build and own would be better than renting and are good investments for people with burgeoning careers.
The Saranac Lake-based Trudeau Institute, a biomedical research facility built upon studying infectious diseases of the lungs, is not experiencing impacts from the lack of affordable housing in the area like Adirondack Health or Bionique.
Elisabeth Cain, director of strategic operations with the institute, said Trudeau Institute has on-campus housing available for staff.
“I’ve been here only a couple of months, but am pretty sure that for our staff and new hires, we are good because we have housing available on campus,” she wrote in an email last month.
While she said not all staff need the housing, it’s there for those who do.
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(Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series about the affordable housing crisis and how it’s impacting the Tri-Lakes region. In upcoming issues, the Enterprise will examine what local housing developments are in the works, the state of the Adirondack housing market, things local organizations and individuals are doing to help mitigate the crisis and more. Readers who want to share their story about how the housing crisis has impacted them can contact the Enterprise newsroom at email@example.com.)