You can learn a lot about a city when you walk its neighborhoods to collect basic household information, as I did for the US Census Bureau in the City of Poughkeepsie during August and September. This work on our Constitutionally required national headcount provided me a snapshot of life that defies stereotypes and cynicism.
Generally, my assignments were on Main Street and the Route 44/55 arterials, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods immediately north and south, as far west as Clinton Street and as far east as Holy Trinity Church.
Residents inevitably shared personal tidbits during our brief exchanges. An excited parent told me she recently brought her small family to Poughkeepsie from New York City so she can attend Dutchess Community College. A Jamaican-born gentleman talked proudly about owning his tidy home for 50 years.
Of course the pandemic loomed large when people answered my knock on their door. Numerous healthcare workers realized that because they had put in so many hours in recent months, they simply lost track of completing the census by mail, by phone, or online.
It was also very revealing that, like me, most of the people I surveyed were tenants. Many live in what appear on the outside to be single-family houses, which on the inside have been divided into apartments. In fact, according to federal data from the 2019 American Community Survey, only about 35 percent of Poughkeepsie’s housing stock is owner-occupied; the proportion is closer to only 20 percent in some of the neighborhoods I worked.
Such a low owner-occupancy rate makes Poughkeepsie’s rising rents a great concern, and highlights the urgent need for local action to prevent tenants from being displaced by cost.
This imbalance also sets back overall housing conditions and quality of life in a municipality. For example, the nationally regarded researcher Alan Mallach found that in the residential neighborhoods of midsize cities, upkeep is much weaker on rental properties. I observed this on my census rounds, though even on the most discouraging blocks, I was reassured to see a few well-maintained homes. In just about every case the owner lived there, even if they also had tenants. So it makes sense for Poughkeepsie to consider how to bring about more owner-occupancy in its community, especially in neighborhoods where comparatively few homeowners reside.
Designated funds will be needed, and finding them will be a challenge for my cash-strapped city. Conceivably, initial funding could be secured largely from other sources, but that would need to be vigorously pursued. To proceed with true conviction, the city would have to announce such a housing policy as a top priority, make it widely known to residents, and commit staff to fulfill the commitment over a number of years.
There are likely two key goals in a comprehensive approach to increasing owner-occupancy: Stabilize established homeowners who live in their dwelling (so they remain a solid nucleus to build upon); and spur a new wave of homeowners who live in the property they own.
The most vulnerable members of the first group are seniors and people with disabilities on moderate fixed incomes, who often delay or forego maintenance on their homes to cover basic cost-of-living expenses. Without help for these resident homeowners, neighborhoods also lose the expected benefits of better upkeep on the properties.
Local nonprofits such as Rebuilding Together Dutchess County, Community Action Partnership for Dutchess County, and Habitat for Humanity of Dutchess County provide free or low-cost services to address some of these maintenance needs, supported by county, state, federal, and private foundation grants. Their work includes installing wheelchair ramps and smoke detectors, critical structural repairs to roofs, stairs, and electrical systems, and weatherizing windows and doors.
While these small agencies make a difference, their modest budgets limit the scale of their impact, both in the scope of repairs (which often rely on volunteer labor) and the extent of people they can serve. To boost the impact of these nonprofits in Poughkeepsie, the city government could provide funds to them for strategic partnerships, focused on repairs of owner-occupied properties in targeted neighborhoods.
Repair grant programs of this kind typically require an extended period of owner-occupancy for a property to qualify, to ensure a lasting impact for overall housing in a community. This benefit would be lost if a subsidized owner sells a property soon after repairs are made, with no certainty that the buyer will reside there (rather than rent out the place).
To serve the second goal—creating a new group of Poughkeepsie homeowners who live where they own—the city could provide a pool of funds to programs that help first-time homebuyers afford a mortgage. Usually such buyers get assistance with their down payment or closing costs, and to qualify for city-funded support they would need to purchase in designated areas. Perhaps a tie-in would be possible for vacant and abandoned properties returned to the real estate market through the newly established Dutchess County/City of Poughkeepsie land bank. Owner-occupancy commitments of 5-20 years are already stipulated in some first-time buyer programs. Of added value, this assistance is a proven way to help people with small to mid-level incomes become homeowners, and begin to build lasting family wealth.
Incorporating a vigorous public information campaign will also be key to the success of a comprehensive owner-occupancy growth plan. As a board member of the Poughkeepsie-based nonprofit Hudson River Housing, and as a result of my recent graduate studies, I have learned over the years about significant funding opportunities for established and prospective homeowners. But too often these programs are not widely known by the people who need them the most, because the private and public sponsors make insufficient efforts to get the word out, even relying far too much on word of mouth.
Increasing owner-occupancy and its positive influence on housing in Poughkeepsie will take time, financial investment, and steadfast commitment. This kind of approach would also be useful in other mid-Hudson Valley cities such as Newburgh and Kingston, which face similar challenges.
Hand-in-hand with such efforts, stiff accountability policies must be enforced with negligent landlords, many of whom are absentees and disconnected from the consequences of their neglect. They should not only be heavily fined, but also required to make property improvements. A municipality needs to ensure a healthy and affordable quality of life for its many tenants, while it gains the benefits of increased owner-occupied housing.
Jeff Kosmacher is a City of Poughkeepsie resident with a Master’s in community development practice and policy, and was the director of media relations and public affairs at Vassar College.
The River is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newsroom.