Several years ago, when the Grays Woods planned community sought construction approval from Patton Township, developer S&A Homes proposed a section of affordable homes.
The for-sale townhomes would cost about $140,000 each, a bargain in the Centre Region. But adjacent property owners loudly protested, killing the plan.
As soon as we advertised that we were considering it, some of the people from the adjacent neighborhoods complained that they didnt want that near them, said township Board of Supervisors Chairman Elliot Abrams.
The not in my backyard or NIMBY attitude is just one of many challenges the Centre Region, and Centre County as a whole, continues to face in an effort to provide housing area residents can afford.
Definitions of affordable or workforce housing vary, but they generally state that such housing should be affordable to people earning 60 percent to 120 percent of an areas median household income. According to a Centre County Housing and Land Trust Housing Market Study published last August, the countys median income in 2010 was $66,300.
The problem has escalated in the last month as two mobile home parks one in Patton Township and one in College Township have announced they will close, displacing about 200 people. Municipal leaders say their hands are mostly tied to address the issue, but that they do what they can, and housing advocacy groups are scrambling to connect residents with resources to help them address basic needs as they transition.
Its a problem for which not many answers exist.
Local government response
Its very unfortunate, Abrams said of the announcement of Penn State mobile homes sale and closing. We have a group of people who have the advantage to walk to any shopping they want, to walk to the bus the bus is right there, schools are right there. And now its gone.
Abrams said people might ask why the township cant stop such incidents.
The problem is, for years and years, that and other properties have been zoned commercial, he said. So if a buyer comes in and the owner likes the price, they can sell it.
One way municipalities have leverage is when redevelopment requires rezoning the property. That was the case across North Atherton, where the Mellott mobile home park closed in 2007 and the Woodycrest Center shopping area is under construction.
We convinced them to put in a specific, low-income housing section at the back of their property, which they did, Abrams said.
In the case of the Penn State mobile home park, the site is zoned general commercial along North Atherton, and the remainder for medium-density residential. New owner Heidi Nicholas has said redevelopment plans for the site are not yet defined.
In College Township, the Hilltop mobile home park site is zoned just for mobile homes, and a rezoning request would be necessary for the new owner to do anything else.
I dont know what else we could do but control some of the rezoning requests that would come in, said Township Council Chairman Dave Fryer. Why were so concerned about it is theres nothing new about it. Its something we cant control, and thats whats so frustrating.
College Township is one of a handful of Centre County municipalities that has tried to increase affordable housing through a zoning ordinance. Enacted in 2009, adding affordable units to a development is voluntary but offers various incentives, including a waiver of the open space requirement.
So far, no developer has used the ordinance.
I dont think weve had the right developer come in to bite that and run with it, Fryer said. I dont think the Centre Region is in the real world, either.
Fryer pointed to Centre Countys lower-than-average unemployment rates and healthy housing market. However, that market is producing more expensive homes. Thursday, College Township approved a plan for $350,000 to $500,000 townhomes on Brandywine Drive.
A need for diversity
While the two mobile home parks arent the first to close in the last decade, Natalie Corman, director of the Centre County Office of Adult Services, said having two close back to back heightens concern and awareness of the areas lack of affordable housing.
When the Penn State parks closing was announced, Corman and other human service agents rushed to get organized and start addressing how to help residents find new homes. The announcement of Hilltops closing, just a couple weeks later, added to the flood.
For us, as human service agencies, we know its not just housing, Corman said. Its transportation, its child care, changing school districts if they have to. Its more than the idea of just picking up from one house to another.
To help with the transition, Corman and others on Thursday finished three days of meetings with the Penn State park residents, offering to connect them with local resources such as food pantries and energy assistance, programs Corman said many never thought they would need.
She said about 20 households attended the meetings, and the agencies will hold more until they feel the needs are met. Theyre working on securing a location to hold similar meetings for Hilltop residents.
In the meantime, agencies are taking stock of what housing options are available. While other mobile home parks exist, Corman said many are full, and others have restrictions on taking homes of a certain age or type. Some residents will look outside the county for openings.
We dont have the answers, she said. It comes down to a housing stock issue whats available, whats affordable.
The influx of residents in need is also a struggle for the agencies, which continue to see state and federal funding cuts. Two housing assistance programs that help Adult Services saw 10 percent cuts just this year, Corman said.
One way to address the problem is a diversity in housing, creating what Corman called a housing ladder. Residents can start in a rental unit, graduate to a first-time home, and eventually move to a long-term home.
When we limit an area, there might be three-bedroom apartments available, but four, five or six students might move into a house, she said. We, as much as we can, want developers and townships and our leaders to partner together to improve our housing stock and see that there are benefits to developing additional affordable units for our residents that go beyond the students.
Thats easier said than done in State College, where open land is scarce and the push to develop more student housing is fierce.
In an effort to address the lack of housing, the borough has developed the first-time homebuyer program and the State College Community Land Trust, which helps residents purchase affordable homes.
The bottom line is that the State College area is such an attractive place to live and to shop that its certainly driving up prices, said Borough Council President Don Hahn.
Along with that, when the borough pushes for mixed-use developments, student housing often wins out because its more profitable for developers looking to build or redevelop downtown.
The council last year approved an ordinance that mandates affordable housing units at a rate of 10 percent in developments of six or more units. The move received intense discussion and some council members didnt think it would work, instead dissuading developers from the hassle.
We certainly do try what we can, Hahn said. I think were already coming under criticism for requiring too much inclusionary housing. I think a lot of developers are saying it doesnt make sense financially to build in the borough when there is this requirement.
Hahn said he thinks theres quite a lot of attractive affordable housing outside the borough, in Bellefonte, Penns Valley and the Bald Eagle area.
I think that, in terms of those who want the option of living in State College and having a short commute, that option is becoming increasingly expensive, he said.
Its not for lack of trying to develop affordable units that such challenges arise.
S&A Homes has developed about 200 affordable units in Centre County, said Andy Haines, an executive vice president for the company, who works specifically to develop affordable housing.
When adjacent property owners opposed the Patton Township proposal for affordable townhouses, he said thats common, and makes sense.
I wouldnt blame somebody theyre protecting their investment, he said. When people hear affordable housing, they automatically think its going to be low-income or Section 8.
Centre Region land prices add to the development challenge.
That is why these two parks are being sucked up by a commercial developer, Haines said of Penn State and Hilltop. On the affordable side, I cant pay a million dollars for an acre of land.
Haines said the municipal ordinances help his cause and that, when he started work at S&A 12 years ago, the area wasnt as open-minded about affordable housing. He called it enlightening that municipalities are willing to work with developers that will build affordable housing.
A lack of land in the borough makes development there difficult, but Haines said hes worked with staff and council on two affordable developments.
As Hahn noted affordable housing opportunities outside the borough, Haines said people tell him to build outside the region and let people commute to work. He said many S&A employees do just that.
But, as Corman said, Haines agreed that there should be a mix of housing types.
People have to have options of housing, he said. Not every place should be selling for $400,000 or renting for $2,000.
Its a shame about the mobile home parks, but I think its inevitable that spots like that are going to be used up by market rate developments. I believe in affordable housing, but I also believe if they own a property, they have a right to do what they want.
Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter