Finding room for essential workers

Firefighters, teachers priced out of housing


BEDFORD, N.Y. --This town in Westchester County, famous for its famous - and well-heeled - residents, is sprucing up a rundown ranch house and planning to sell it at a bargain-basement rate to a member of an increasingly endangered species: a volunteer firefighter.

Hastings-on-Hudson allows volunteer firefighters to live outside its boundaries and is giving them and volunteer paramedics first claim on 18 moderately priced apartments built on village property.

For two decades, as New York City's suburban housing has become more expensive, the number of people who can afford to live in the wealthiest communities and also volunteer or hold public jobs there has dwindled. But now, after the recent real estate frenzy, more local officials are looking for ways to address a growing problem: fielding enough volunteer firefighters to save homes from burning down, ambulance workers to get area residents to a hospital quickly and teachers to give area children a literate start in life.

All around the country, high-priced communities are taking measures to shore up municipal work forces that can no longer afford to live within their borders. But the problem is particularly acute when it comes to volunteers such as firefighters and ambulance crews, for whom proximity matters.

The ranks of emergency responders are typically filled by blue-collar workers, not the business executives or professionals who can afford the million-dollar homes in the region's suburbs.

"All these people have heart attacks, strokes and fires at the same rate as everybody else, but they don't volunteer at the same rate," said Jay Leon, the mayor of Ardsley.

He, like others, said he saw housing the municipal work force as the looming challenge for suburbia in coming decades; some officials are now referring to so-called affordable housing in the suburbs as work-force housing.

Even major employers such as military equipment manufacturer Northrop Grumman say the high price of housing makes it difficult to recruit or retain workers.

The number of volunteer firefighters in the nation has declined from 897,750 in 1984 to 800,050 in 2003, a 10 percent drop, according to figures on the National Volunteer Fire Council Web site.

"There are parts of the country, particularly the two coasts, where the price of housing has so outstripped any income gains that moderate wage earners find it difficult to find a home in the community where they work," said Nicolas Retsinas, director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard.

While an acute crisis may be years off, the impact is already being felt. School districts in southern Westchester have been closing schools after just a dusting of snow because many of their teachers live in communities 40 miles or 50 miles to the north, where the housing is cheaper and the snow falls thicker. More fire companies are depending on neighbors to back them up because during certain shifts they cannot muster enough townspeople.

The solution for attracting blue-collar workers and even relatively well paid teachers is to build moderate-priced housing, but such a remedy is fraught with conflicts over zoning, environmental impact, money and sometimes race.

Westchester asked its 43 municipalities to build a total of 5,000 "affordable" units between 1990 and 1999, but only six met their allocations, said George Raymond, director of the Westchester County Housing Opportunity Commission.

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