The Northern Forest Center, a Northeast nonprofit focused on building stronger rural communities, recently purchased two lots in downtown Tupper Lake. The buildings are on Park Street and the Northern Forest Center plans to convert them into 9 year-round rental units aimed at middle-income residents.
Leslie Karasin is Director of the Northern Forest Center’s Adirondack Program. She says her organization is dedicated to creating and reviving housing because it is a key factor in attracting and retaining young people in rural areas. “We are working to create the conditions to attract and retain young people in Adirondack communities. And we especially saw these accommodations [the lack of] quality rental housing can be a barrier to someone moving into the community.”
Karasin said this has pushed the organization to come up with “creative solutions to meet that housing demand” in states like Maine and New Hampshire. And now they’re doing it in New York, with the two properties in Tupper Lake.
New, quality rental units at a mid-income price
One of the properties is a single family home and the other is a large building of approximately 6500 square feet that was formerly the Plaza Hotel. The Northern Forest Center intends to “renovate it quite extensively,” Karasin said. “You know, it needs a new roof, it needs significant foundation work. It could be a full bowel.”
When they’re done, they hope to have eight apartments of various sizes (one, two, and three bedrooms) for rent, as well as the family home next door. They expect to rent the units for between $800 and $1600 a month, depending on the size.
Millinocket, Maine is the first place where the Northern Forest Center delved into housing, buying and renovating about half a dozen homes there. Karasin said: “It was a reaction to the fact that employers told us that housing is a barrier for them to recruit qualified workers.”
She hopes the new Tupper Lake homes will be a model for others while providing quality housing for middle-income residents, including younger people who could find jobs in the area.
“The hope is that this is the kind of thing where a young nurse or teacher who moves into the community looks at the apartments that we’re offering and says, ‘Oh, yeah, I could make Tupper Lake my do at home.’ That’s the goal here.”
The financial conundrum of new, quality housing and why nonprofits are stepping in
One of the major challenges when building new homes or renovating old vacant homes is cost. This is expensive and often not worthwhile for developers, says Karasin. “This makes economics a real challenge for anyone, but especially for a for-profit developer. The profit margins just aren’t there when you’re after them.”
Renovating and redeveloping the Park Street lots won’t be cheap (the NFC predicts at least $1 million) or easy, and isn’t the sort of thing for-profit developers would aim for, Karasin says. But “as a non-profit organization, our profit margin is not what we are there for. We can usually put together deals that allow us to invest more in a property compared to what a for-profit developer would be able to do.”
The money comes in the form of soft loans from private investors who want to support the Northern Forest Center’s mission, and private and public grants from organizations like the Adirondack Foundation. According to Karasin, these groups “are making impact investments to test a new way in which they can use their funds outside of traditional philanthropic models. Many individuals, several foundations and even a bank have invested in this approach. We are truly grateful for these facilities that help make this housing investment possible.”
Karasin says they hope to walk away at the end of the day “after getting it right with the community and the properties that have been gotten right by our tenants and our investors, but not like this, with wads of cash in our pockets.”
Part of a “wave” of new investment and development in downtown Tupper Lake
When asked how this project fits into the larger picture of Tupper Lake housing development, Karasin said she hopes it will be part of a wave of investment and construction that is already underway. “Tupper Lake has been, I think, very proactive and aware of housing issues for quite some time and they did a housing study a few years ago to think about how to deal with it.
“So I think, you know, we see this project as one piece of a bigger puzzle. There are currently some exciting possibilities regarding the new development of the Oval Wood Dish. There is a planned hotel and a planned brewery right down the street I think we look forward to in the fact that this segment of the community and the community in general will continue to see some sort of exciting momentum. And that’s by no means the only part of it. It’s just the right size that we can tackle. And you know, we look forward to being a part of that bigger picture too.
Karasan says they hope to be ready sometime in 2024 and have units for rent. The Northern Forest Center is also considering similar housing redevelopments in Elizabethtown and Keene.