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Sullivan County, like many rural upstate communities, has seen a spike in evictions

This story is part of a reporting partnership between Radio Catskill and The Times Union exploring the housing crisis in rural communities. Listen to the audio version and reporter debrief on wjffradio.org.

LIBERTY — All week, Marty Colavito and his wife Lynn deliver food and groceries to people in need across Sullivan County in the Catskills. They have been doing it since the pandemic started, and now they serve around 600 people regularly.

But lately, all along Colavito’s route, people are just disappearing. They’re getting evicted, or they’re leaving because they can’t afford to stay. Driving around near Liberty recently, Colavito pulled up to an apartment complex and pointed at the mostly empty building.

“When I first started delivering here, I was delivering to 10, 12 people,” he said. “They’re all gone, except for one person here. There are still some people up there, but they’re redoing it again, and the rents are going up. The rents are going through the ceiling.”

Colavito said the tenants who are still around are worried their housing complexes will get bought up and they’ll have to leave. He stops by another apartment.

“So the person who lives here, every time we deliver to him, he gives me an update: ‘I don’t know if I have to leave or not,’” Colavito said. “And the stress and anxiety that that perpetuates is palpable.”

Since New York’s eviction moratorium expired last year, evictions have risen across the state. But in Sullivan County — and many other rural counties — those eviction rates are even higher than before the moratorium, according to research from Cornell University. And these are often the counties least equipped to deal with housing issues.

A “chaotic” situation

In 2019, evictions affected 5.8 percent of rental households in Sullivan County. When the pandemic hit, that number dropped down to just over 1 percent for two years. But last year, with the end of the eviction moratorium, eviction filings shot back up, affecting 8.3 percent of those households.

“If there’s one word to describe housing in Sullivan County, it’s chaotic,” said John Liddle, Sullivan County’s commissioner of health and human services. “We’re going in so many different directions right now.”

According to Liddle, part of the problem is that Sullivan County doesn’t have much middle-to-upper-income housing. That’s a pretty common issue in rural upstate communities. There is often limited housing stock and much of it is deteriorating and needs repair.

Usually, that would make it more affordable. But with a recent wave of new demand, local tenants are competing with developers, short-term vacation renters, and new residents from New York City for the same housing stock.

“There’s not a lot of inventory there. So they’re buying down to that group of houses, which is driving the price up for somebody who can only afford a $75,000 to $100,000 house,” Liddle said. “This about that in terms of rents — for people who are really struggling to get by, it’s making obtaining housing extremely difficult.”

A recent study from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that the supply of low-cost rentals has dropped in every state across the country, in part because of the way populations have changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With an increase in remote work and movement out of cities and into rural areas, the pressure on rural housing markets has risen quickly.

As rents rise for tenants, costs are going up for Sullivan County as well.

The cost of emergency housing, such as government-rented motel rooms, has tripled in the last five years, according to the county’s annual reports. In 2017, Sullivan Countyspent $516,776 on emergency housing to keep people off the street. Last year, the county spent nearly $1.6 million.

Another challenge is finding housing for families who rent. Liddle said there just aren’t that many affordable apartments with multiple bedrooms.

"The families that we get, that we provide shelter for, tend to stay in the system much longer,” Liddle said. “Because it’s so much harder to find them a permanent place to live.”

Liddle said with deteriorating housing conditions, code enforcement has gotten more proactive. But that also means the county is condemning more buildings and displacing tenants. He said Sullivan, like many rural upstate counties, ends up treading water: stuck making tough, and often inadequate, choices.

Overly focused on cities

Russell Weaver, director of research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, helped put together an online tool to track eviction trends across the state. He and his team found that the counties where eviction rates were higher than pre-pandemic levels were all located upstate.

“The bulk of filings are still downstate, and in urban regions, just because of the sheer number and volumes,” Weaver said. “But in terms of those relative rates of filings, Rensselaer was at the top and Sullivan County isn’t too far away from that.”

Weaver said part of this surge is a backlog following the two-year moratorium. But with a statewide rise in eviction rates, he said rural communities are especially vulnerable because they often have fewer protections for tenants, such as rent control laws or the right to counsel.

Weaver also pointed out that eviction data for rural counties like Sullivan could be undercounted because rural town and village courts track filings less reliably than city courts.

“So much of the eviction policy solution does focus on cities, especially downstate,” Weaver said. “Because we don’t have the data at the town and village court scale, we could be missing a whole host of related concerns in more rural communities.”

Weaver argues that it’s important to explore the data on a more detailed level to find solutions that work for both cities and rural areas.

In the meantime, Marty Colavito said he will keep delivering food to people across Sullivan. He’s not afraid of change, he said.

“(But) once you construct the housing, what are you doing with it? Are you constructing the housing to move people out?” Colavito said. “Or are you constructing the housing to have livable housing for the people who have anchored what little economy we’ve had for generations?”