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Why the affordable housing in 22 municipalities can't meet Lancaster County's demand

On her first night in her new apartment, Josephine Shade settled into bed feeling like this must be what heaven is like.

“It was so nice to be warm, to be comfortable, to not be awakened by the screaming and things falling off your wall because the (next door) neighbor’s getting beat up again,” Shade said.

Formerly a resident of a low-rent apartment house in Mount Joy, Shade, 69, now calls Rockford Chase home. It’s a complex of three attractive, multigabled apartment buildings in a suburban corner of Mountville.

It’s the kind of general occupancy, multifamily neighborhood built with federal tax credits that sometimes spurs “Not In My Backyard” opposition even as it helps working, low-income families make ends meet.

A retired licensed practical nurse who lives on monthly Social Security of $946, Shade wasn’t sure what to expect. Like many, when she had heard the term “low-income housing,” she pictured dysfunctional big-city projects of a half century ago.

It’s imagery that President Trump evoked when he sais the Obama-era efforts to reduce barriers to low-income housing outside cities are a threat to “people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream.”

But rather than something to fear, the affordable communities in 22 of Lancaster County’s 60 municipalities — from Denver to Quarryville — have proven to be a lifeline for low-income workers, retirees and people with disabilities, allowing them to live within their means near workplaces, desirable schools, extended family, and familiar hometowns.

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Homes on Utley Place at The Willows in Pequea Township on Oct. 28, 2020.

“We weren’t sure what to expect honestly,” Pequea Township police Chief John Michener said of the opening of 72-unit Willow Run four years ago. “Any time you add people, you’re going to obviously have an increase in calls for service. But I didn’t see any more of an increase there than if it would have been a normal 70-family development.”

It’s the same story in Manor Township, home to 60-unit Brunswick Farms Apartments and 70-unit Willows at Manor Heights.

“While we may have calls there, it’s like any other development that creates calls,” Manor Township police Chief Todd Graeff said.

More secure

Advocates say a strong community begins with safe, decent and affordable housing. Renters who are paying no more than 30% of their income on housing — a marker of affordability — are better able to support their children, pay student loans, save money for retirement and a down payment on a home, and contribute to the local economy, experts say.

Shade is a Columbia native who raised four children while a private-duty nurse and convenience store clerk. She and her roommate, Dorothy Frame, who is in her 80s, pay $737 rent for a modern, two-bedroom apartment at Rockford Chase. The rent covers sewer, water and trash.

They were paying $1,095 for a one-bedroom apartment in Mount Joy, where Frame turned the dining room into her bedroom and the heat never got above 66 degrees.

“We’d sit around with coats and blankets on,” Shade said.

With Frame contributing $300 a month toward rent at Rockford Chase, Shade has $509 left after it’s paid. She has enough to buy groceries and put gas in her car, pay the electric bill and a supplemental health care plan, and take care of Spirit, their cat, and Little Bit, their rescue Chihuahua mix-breed.

“I don’t have to be knocking on friends’ doors and asking for things or going to my kids and saying, ‘Can you help me out?’” Shade said. “And I feel safe here. I feel secure here. It’s very clean. It’s very quiet.”

An affordable apartment is a big deal. But demand for the kind of housing where Shade lives far outstrips supply as too few federal dollars, strong competition for scare tax credits, high prices for land, and stigma frustrate efforts to build more.

Let’s take a deeper look.

The need

 Calculating the need for affordable housing is an inexact science that may best be grasped by looking at the length of waiting lists.

First things first: How many Lancaster County households get some kind of rental assistance already?

A tally by LNP | LancasterOnline puts that number at 5,823. That includes households living in 3,553 units with fixed, but subsidized, rents, 595 living in public housing, and an additional 1,675 households receiving federally funded vouchers that pay part of the rent directly to market-rate landlords.

Those units and vouchers are in high demand.

HDC MidAtlantic is the largest developer of affordable communities in Lancaster County. It operates 21 developments here totaling 1,278 units. But currently only six communities have waiting lists defined as “short.”

For most of the other communities, applicants might wait for three years. Four other communities are not even accepting applications because of a three- to five-year backlog, according to HDC MidAtlantic’s website.

Meanwhile, Community Basics operates 11 communities here totaling 437 units, and an applicant today can typically expect a wait of one to three years.

The Lancaster City Housing Authority has 595 public housing units, and currently 200 households are waiting for an opening. Last fiscal year, only 54 units became available.

Separately, 1,674 Lancaster County households live in market-rate apartments but have a portion of their rent subsidized by federally funded vouchers. The waiting lists are in the hundreds, and the two authorities that manage the programs aren’t accepting applications.

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Church Street Towers, 333 Church Street, Lancaster. Oct. 28, 2020.

Barbara Wilson, Lancaster City Housing Authority executive director, said she’s seeing an uptick in the number of people inquiring about housing, but “we have nothing” available.

Why are so many waiting for the 5,000 subsidized units and vouchers available in Lancaster County? Because many times that number are eligible for the help.

Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies calculated the total number of low-income renters here at about 26,600 in 2017.

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau estimates that over 43,000 of Lancaster County’s more than 545,000 residents — or about 8% of its population — live at or below the poverty line.

Any way you look at it, only a fraction — perhaps one-fifth — of the need for affordable housing is being met.

Low wages

Can Lancaster County do a better job at trying to meet the need?

Only at the margins.

That’s because the marketplace sets the cost of apartments, and the economy drives what people are able to pay.

The earnings of many working people are too low to afford the $812 rent that’s the median cost of one-bedroom apartments in Lancaster County, according to a study by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

The average food service worker here earns $15,495, meaning 63% of his or her earnings would be consumed by the typical $812 rent, the study shows. The average retail worker would spend 44% on rent.

Low-wage workers need a subsidy to afford Lancaster County’s rents, but subsidies are a federal issue. Congress decides how much to spend on rental vouchers and the tax credits that incentivize construction of affordable housing. Lancaster County can’t change federal policy.

Construction challenges

Meanwhile, building our way out of the problem is not feasible. Developing more affordable housing faces challenges at every step.

Step 1 is finding a place to build. Suitable tracts near services and bus lines in Lancaster County are hard to come by, said Claude Hicks, vice president and director of real estate development for HDC MidAtlantic. HDC investigates five to seven sites for every one that works.

A key consideration is the municipality’s openness to affordable housing.

“Many communities are welcoming, but there are probably an equal number (in Lancaster County) that are not,” Hicks said. “There are some municipalities that use zoning as a way to not have multifamily housing of any kind built,” he added, declining to name them.

Four years ago, Salisbury Township battled a proposal for 111 apartment units to be built with federal tax credits near the 1.6-million-square-foot Urban Outfitters fulfillment center in Gap. The developer gave up after its legal challenge with the township dragged on for months.

And this summer, East Hempfield Township banned new multifamily housing in Landisville and Rohrerstown, places the Lancaster County Planning Commission says are good fits for apartments and townhouses.

It’s noteworthy that 10 years ago the planning commission found East Hempfield, Salisbury and West Lampeter townships to be the least affordable in Lancaster County. To this day, West Lampeter does not have an affordable housing neighborhood, along with 37 other of the county’s 60 municipalities.

Step 2 in building affordable housing is buying the property, which is challenging for a couple of reasons. Land in Lancaster County is expensive, with the average acre selling for $203,800 in 2017, up 11.7% from five years earlier, Harvard’s housing center found.

But even if a tract’s price is reasonable, a seller may balk at having to wait a year, and often much longer, to settle while the developer seeks to clear municipal reviews and secure federal tax credits.

“It’s hard for us to find someone who’s willing to wait, really, for the greater good,” said Lisa Greener, executive director of nonprofit Community Basics. “We try to sit down to explain who we are, why we (build affordable housing) and the impact they could have on the community. We do a lot of work selling what our mission is.”

Scarce tax credits

 Step 3 is obtaining federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits, without which affordable communities aren’t built.

The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency has a complicated formula for deciding which proposals around the state merit tax credits.

This year, the agency received applications for 75 projects seeking a total of $89.1 million in tax credits. But it had only $42 million to award.

As a result, the agency gave tax credits to only 36 projects, including two from Lancaster County. Selling the tax credits will allow Community Basics to build Saxony Ridge Apartments, a complex of 62 units of senior housing in Lititz, and Gatesburg Road Development to build 36-unit Mount Joy Senior Apartments. Both projects waited a couple of years before securing the tax credits.

Not funded was an application for 57-unit Manor View Terrace in Millersville.

In the past 10 years, only nine projects here received tax credits for a total of 495 new units. (Tax credits were also used to preserve 64 units at Sassafras Terrace in Mount Joy.)

That means, on average, only 50 units of tax-credit funded affordable housing are being built in Lancaster County each year.

 What’s next?

 Low wages. Insufficient government support for housing. Obstacles in the way of constructing more units.

These are the building blocks of a crisis.

Families who struggle to afford where they live teeter on the edge of eviction and homelessness. And those who have a record of eviction, poor credit or criminal conviction will always struggle to find a landlord willing to rent to them.

“We are now seeing a lot of households displaced in hotels” because of blots on their record, said Brittany Mellinger, director of housing equality at Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership.

Elsewhere across Lancaster County, the poor double up, couch surf, or occupy places unfit for people to live.

Substandard housing compounds poverty with “a litany of health issues,” such as lead exposure, Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace said. It also “costs all of us more in terms of safety-net services, and it can result in a long-term financial spiral that is difficult for families to recover from.”

A $160,000 grant that Tabor Community Services recently received to prevent evictions and hire a housing locator will help some renters keep or find a decent place to live.

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Declaration House, 240 Main St., Denver. Oct. 28, 2020.

Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership operates a revolving fund of about $5.5 million in low-interest loans that helps apartment construction and renovation projects cross the finish line.

For example, a $170,000 loan last year helped to transform a blighted property in Denver into 10 affordable apartments, part of a building called Declaration House.

These collaborative efforts chip away at the problem, said Shelby Nauman, interim director of Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership.

Mayor Sorace’s administration has elevated affordable housing as a priority in the city, requiring the developer of the former St. Joseph Hospital properties to include affordable units. The developer of the mixed-used project has partnered with HDC MidAtlantic to include up to 120 units built using federal tax credits.

Meanwhile, Sorace supports other ways to increase the stock of affordable housing across the county in the face of stagnant federal support.

Her ideas include a dedicated county property tax, the issuance of a county bond or an increase in the real estate transfer tax.

Helping essential workers, retirees

Six decades after Lancaster County began attacking the issue of housing for the poor and low-income workers, the door to true affordability is only partly open.

Dana Hanchin, president and CEO of HDC MidAtlantic, said more voices are needed to convey the urgency of the issue to policymakers.

“It is your neighbors. It’s essential workers,” Hanchin said. “Those are the people who need affordable housing.”

They are people like Josephine Shade of Mountville’s Rockford Chase.

“I know so many people who are struggling and don’t know, especially during the pandemic, what’s going to happen next week. Are they going to be evicted?” she said. “Until people walk a mile in our shoes, they will never know what it is like to need these places.”