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See the numbers? Look closer

Jeanne Sager - Columnist
Posted 6/15/21

In 2019, the average median household income in Callicoon was $56,000 a year. Median, for those who haven’t taken a math class in awhile (raising my hand over here!) is the exact middle. …

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See the numbers? Look closer

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In 2019, the average median household income in Callicoon was $56,000 a year. Median, for those who haven’t taken a math class in awhile (raising my hand over here!) is the exact middle. It’s not an average. It’s just right smack dab in the center. That means there are numbers above and numbers below.

By 2021, the median (that middle number) had jumped to $77,000 a year. In two years, we saw a jump of $21,000. This should be good news, right? People are making more money!

But as usual, numbers tell you only about half of the story of the past two years in my hometown.

Incomes are up because the demographics are changing in Western Sullivan County. The pandemic and the resulting real estate boom has resulted in an influx of remote workers from outside of town moving in, and bringing with them wages from outside of the county.

Let me be clear: This is good news.

People are making money from companies outside of the county and spending it locally. I myself work remotely for a company based outside the bounds of the county and spend my money in Peck’s and ShopRite, at Delaware Valley Farm and Garden and the Jeff Pharmacy, in places that employ locals.

The costs of my employment don’t rest on the county’s employers, but they reap the benefits — as do we all.

Out-of-county money coming into the county is a good thing.

So what’s the problem?

The pandemic hit local businesses hard.

Wages for local residents did not rise in those two years, certainly not in the way that those numbers would indicate. The Sullivan County unemployment rate is still higher than its highest point in 2018 — which marks the highest it climbed pre-pandemic — and 8 percent of Callicoon residents specifically are considered to be living in poverty.

Dive deeper into that $77,000 median household income figure, and it turns out just 42 percent of the Callicoon population has a household income of $75,000 or higher. Just 24 percent have a household income above the $100,000 mark.

That’s less than half of the population pulling that median up a whopping $21,000 in two years.

Out-of-county money and the pandemic together have driven our real estate market into a frenzy with homes selling for tens of thousands over asking price, in bidding wars, over a few days ... for cash.

Current selling price data is hard to come by, but Realtor.com estimates the current median house listing in Callicoon is $315,000 — up more than 54 percent over the previous year — and we know from looking at the numbers. The rule of thumb states that you can typically afford a home price two or three times your gross income.

So let’s make another visit to math class.

Fifty-eight percent of Callicoon residents make a household (again, remember, household means more than one person working) income of less than $75,000 a year. Seventy-six make a household income of less than $100,000. Three times $100,000 is $300,000 — $15,000 less than the median home price.

That means more than three quarters of Callicoon residents can no longer afford to buy most of the homes in their own town.

Talking about this vast wealth gap is controversial. It’s often seen as pitting locals against newcomers, seen as being ungrateful for people who have moved in and the benefits that come with new faces and new money.

It can sound unwelcoming.

It shouldn’t be.

This isn’t us vs. them.

This is our NEW US.

This is our new reality.

And we need to talk about it, honestly and openly.

If you’re new to Callicoon and the surrounding areas, welcome to the neighborhood! We hope you enjoy the communities we have built, and we hope you invest in them. That’s what we’ve been doing our whole lives, and we think it’s worth it.

We hope you do too.

We want you to be honest and open with us, to consider what it happens when communities go through periods of immense change.

We ask you to join us, and to help us.

Help us continue to build the communities you so loved that you decided it was worth buying a home in. Volunteer in our organizations, attend our local board meetings, shop in our mainstay businesses, and send your kids to our schools. Come out to our parades and donate to our non-profits. Eat at our restaurants, and buy Girl Scout cookies from our kids.

We ask you to do all of that as we do.

And we ask you most importantly of all to see us, your new neighbors, to see that your good fortunes have not necessarily been shared in the past 18 months, that many among us are still struggling.

You didn’t just score a great house. You joined a community of great humans with great problems and great promise too.

See us, and we’ll see you too.

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