Affordable-housing projects would help meet ‘tremendous’ need

mcarroll@centredaily.comFebruary 9, 2014 

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The closing of the Hilltop Mobile Home Park eliminated some affordable housing options in the area.

NABIL K. MARK — CDT file photo Buy Photo

The lots sit empty on East College Avenue and North Atherton Street.

A year ago, dozens of families lived at Hilltop Mobile Home Park in College Township and the Penn State Mobile Home Park in Patton Township. They were preparing to leave, though, many were unsure if they would be able to find homes again in the Centre Region.

In the months that followed, the last would move on to make way for future development.

Some found new opportunities to purchase homes in the area. More settled for rentals. Others doubled up with family or found roommates to help make ends meet, according to those who helped place families in new homes after the mobile home park closures.

About 250 affordable housing units went off the market with the closures of Hilltop in March 2013 and Penn State Mobile Home Park in July, as well as serious fires in Bellefonte and State College, said Susanna Paul, development and community relations coordinator with Housing Transitions Inc. in State College.

“The bottom line is, we have less affordable housing stock in the community, and some families are really struggling,” Paul said.

The generally accepted definition of affordable is that a household spend no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

Families above that threshold are considered “cost-burdened” and often struggle to afford necessities such as food, clothing and transportation, and often put aside medical care, HUD reports.

Paul has seen the scenario play out locally.

“Many of the people we work with are spending far more than 30 percent on housing,” she said. “Whenever there is strain on the budget in one area, other things have to give.

“We are seeing families make very difficult budget decisions.”

Housing Transitions is a nonprofit corporation that works with those in need and was one of a group of agencies spearheaded by Natalie Corman, director of the Centre County Office of Adult Services, that helped families deal with the mobile-home park closings.

“It was a challenge for them because they had ownership,” Paul said. “Many owned their own mobile homes. It’s a different living style.”

Particularly in the case of the Penn State Mobile Home Park, the location also afforded residents easy walking access to shopping, dining and even places of employment on North Atherton Street.

“One of the challenges people are facing is that many didn’t own a car but used the bus service,” Paul said. “For people who had those benefits, it created some new challenges, not just finding a roof over their heads.”

For many who lived near retail or service industry jobs, moving meant finding new employment.

“I think it’s really important that people who work in the service industry in our community are also able to live in the community in which they contribute,” she said. “For that to happen, there has to be diversity in the housing stock.”

But while the loss of 250 homes was significant, strides are being taken to increase affordable-housing options, Paul said.

State College officials expect a significant downtown development will provide a first for the borough.

The Metropolitan, a 12-story building planned at the intersection of College Avenue and Atherton Street, is expected to provide the first affordable housing units since the borough approved an inclusionary housing ordinance in 2011.

Under the ordinance, any development creating more than six new housing units must provide one affordable housing unit for every 10 market-rate units. That could mean providing space in the development for affordable housing, building or securing it off-site, or paying a fee.

Other significant projects since the ordinance was passed have opted to pay the fee in lieu of providing affordable housing units. That fee must be comparable in value, considering land purchase. When paid, the funds would be directed toward borough affordable housing efforts.

The Retreat, the student housing complex on Waupelani Drive, and Cliffside Apartments, a three-story apartment building under construction on South Atherton Street, each paid a fee, according to Carl Hess, State College community development and planning director.

“There are a variety of options,” Hess said. “You could build on-site, contribute land or a building of equal value, or you could pay into a housing-development fee that would be used by State College borough to develop affordable housing,” Hess said.

The borough has generated about $400,000 from the fee so far, and Hess said officials are discussing how best to utilize the money toward the ordinance’s goal of providing affordable living options.

Ara Kervandjian, developer of The Metropolitan, would be the first to provide affordable housing units, but additional details of his plan were not immediately available.

Borough Councilman Evan Myers said developments such as the Metropolitan, which will offer student and professional housing downtown, could create more opportunities for affordable housing in borough neighborhoods.

If students leave more traditional rental properties in the neighborhoods, the borough could explore turning the units into affordable-housing sites, he suggested.

“If the borough can buy those back and sell them to families, it helps strengthen the neighborhoods, creates workforce housing,” Myers said.

And it’s not just State College. Local leaders in communities across the county are having the affordable housing discussion.

Kervandjian also is involved in affordable housing projects in College Township and in Bellefomte.

Plans for the Limerock Court development call for 36 two- and three-bedroom units for low-income residents in a complex on Limerock Terrace, in College Township.

Officials say the proximity to amenities is critical for such a project, with the Limerock site near a grocery store, school and bus stop. A mulch path will lead to the Giant shopping center on East College Avenue.

Bellefonte Mews is a planned 32-unit workforce housing apartment project incorporating the Cadillac Building, Hotel Do De and Garman Theatre plots in downtown Bellefonte. Kervandjian owns the three properties, where structures were damaged by fire.

The Garman and Do De buildings have been torn down, while the Cadillac structure will be reused.

When previously describing the College Township project, Kervandjian pointed to the growing need for such housing.

“As you know, it’s very limited in this market,” he said in 2012. “So the need is tremendous.”

College Township Manager Adam Brumbaugh said his municipality has designated funds for use in workforce housing projects.

Money from the fund has been used to provide minor assistance to two projects, he said. Some of the money went to the Limerock Court project, to support the relocating of a water line.

Dave Fryer, township council chairman, said officials there have been working to find ways to encourage or provide more affordable options.

“It’s an important concept,” he said. “What can we do to attract a younger professional workforce to get them closer to their jobs?”

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