SARANAC LAKE — The shortage of affordable housing is impacting the local health care industry. As local hospitals and biotech companies struggle to recruit more staff, industry leaders say housing is a major barrier to hiring, and they’re looking to unique new ways to trying to attract and retain doctors, nurses, laboratory workers and researchers.
The housing crisis is not new and is not exclusive to this area. But it is impacting almost every aspect of life here, from schooling to staffing shortages in businesses. This impacts the ability of some local businesses to grow and the ability of some families to put down roots in the Adirondacks. It also contributes to a reduction in volunteer services and even an increase in homelessness.
A wide range of health care workers — from nurses to doctors — are struggling to find affordable housing in the Tri-Lakes, according to Dave Mader, director of nursing for Adirondack Health.
Mader has been a staff member of the health network for more than 30 years and has been a CNO for about three and a half years.
“Sonographers, nurses, environmental services workers, nurse aides – everyone is really struggling to find reasonable rent in the Tri-Lakes area,” he said.
This struggle has pushed employees — as well as employers — to develop strategies to help each other find housing. Mader said an employee has a spreadsheet with information about upcoming accommodations and rentals. Most information is found through networking.
“Also, (we’ve) had managers and directors using their own network of neighbours, friends and acquaintances to try to find suitable accommodation 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 make that easier for some people looking to get housing.”
As a longtime employee and Saranac Lake native, Mader said he’s never experienced finding living spaces so difficult in the past.
Specifically in nursing, some employees travel more than an hour to get to work.
While struggling to hire more staff, the health network supplements its workforce with traveling nurses.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Mader said the employment of traveling nurses was “very rare.” When they were employed, they stayed only for “an eight-week or 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 heavy traveler user.”
Long-term care — like at the Adirondack Health-run Mercy Living Center retirement home in Tupper Lake — is where they use most traveling nurse services, but without accessible housing, the use of these services becomes more difficult.
“I think prices have recently gone up,” Mader said, “and the availability of properties seemed to decrease. And the quality, to be quite honest. Often people say that they can’t find anything that suits them in their price range. »
Adirondack Health on Friday announced plans to close the emergency room at its Lake Placid hospital, the Lake Placid Health and Medical Fitness Center. Part of the reason for the closure was the lack of local staff and the high price of hiring workers through third-party recruitment services. Adirondack Health President and CEO Aaron Kramer said the local housing crisis “absolutely creates another barrier to recruitment in our core area of service” in Lake Placid as well as Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.
“It’s not the only challenge, but it’s a big challenge” he wrote in an email Friday.
A slight drop in unemployment rates also had an indirect impact on Adirondack Health, according to Mader.
Every spring, Adirondack Health holds hiring events where they contact recent nursing graduates to see if they would like to do an internship or work in the healthcare system.
“We had a little more difficulty recruiting this year” Mader said. “We have always had more applicants than positions. … This year we had fewer applicants than we had positions for which we will continue to hire for those positions.
Something Mader hopes to eventually see in the Tri-Lakes region is more affordable housing options.
Mader even suggested that a complex be built, affordable for “middle-class workers like nurses, teachers, firefighters and people like that – who want to live in the area, who have lived in the area for maybe a long time (and) would like to move to the area.”
Access to child care in the Tri-Lakes region for working parents adds an extra layer of struggle, according to Mader. In the fields of health, education and social services, active women represent 40% of the active population.
“We have many nurses who travel great distances to work here over an hour away – Brasher Falls, Canton, across Potsdam, St. Regis Falls, Malone,” Mader said. “I’ve had three nurses in the last year and a half who had to move their work closer to where they had daycare just to have their child close at hand so they weren’t an hour and a half away. half in each direction.”
The housing shortage has an impact not only on the field of health care, but also on biotechnology.
Bionique’s human resources director, Ami Parekh, said the Saranac Lake-based company is growing as the biotech industry booms. Bionique is looking to significantly increase its current headcount of 43 employees, but it cannot hire if there is nowhere for these new employees to live.
“We hope to grow and expand, but unfortunately we can’t do that without affordable housing,” she says.
She said six people starting at Bionique in the next few weeks have all struggled to find housing. A hiring could have started in June, but they have still not found housing. Even local hires struggle to find housing, Parekh said.
She said some applicants had turned down jobs due to the housing barrier and instead found work elsewhere.
Last year, Bionique CEO Gladis Zamparo said the company had grown between 10% and 20% in the previous three years.
As of December 2021, Bionique had 39 employees with three vacancies, plans to employ 50 by the end of 2023 and ambitious goals of exponential expansion thereafter.
“So the sky’s the limit,” Zamparo said in 2021.
Parekh said they feel lucky to be in an industry that has grown 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 the support of the small town.
“We don’t want to go anywhere” she says.
Bionique is an analytical laboratory specializing in the protection of drugs against bacteria. It was acquired by a Japanese chemical company last year hoping to expand its global reach by growing locally.
This growth continues, but it is more “measure” than they wanted, Parekh said.
Parekh said Bionique pays well above the region’s median income. It offers well-paying biotech jobs 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 property.
“Everything has become an Airbnb,” Park said.
She blames short-term vacation rentals and second homes. She understands these are great investments, but says she believes their growth is hurting the rest of the community’s growth.
Parekh said Bionique is even negotiating with STR landlords for its employees to rent STR properties as long-term rentals as they look for permanent housing. But paying the nightly rate for an STR is far more expensive and unaffordable than the monthly rate for a one-year lease.
She said the company changed its hiring process due to housing shortages, allowing people to start working remotely and take some time off before moving here.
Owning a home is now out of the question for some employees, she said, as prices have risen.
Parekh wants local leaders to seek to make room for more “little houses” in the zone. She said a complex of affordable tiny homes to build and own would be better than renting and a good investment for people with growing careers.
The Trudeau Institute of Saranac Lake, a biomedical research center built on the study of infectious diseases of the lungs, is not feeling the effects of the lack of affordable housing in the area like Adirondack Health or Bionique.
Elisabeth Cain, the institute’s director of strategic operations, said the Trudeau Institute has on-campus housing available for staff.
“I’ve only been here a few months, but I’m pretty sure for our staff and our new hires, we’re good because we have housing available on campus,” she wrote in an email last month.
Although she said not all staff need the accommodation, it is there for those who do.
— — —
(Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series on the affordable housing crisis and its impact on the Tri-Lakes region. In future issues, the Enterprise will look at ongoing local housing developments , the state of housing in the Adirondacks market, what local organizations and individuals are doing to help alleviate 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 protected])