Comprehensive plan may address Centre Region’s affordable housing dearth

The Centre Region could take a broader approach to addressing affordable housing across all communities as part of the housing chapter in the latest update to the comprehensive plan.

Discussion of creating a regional policy on affordable housing or a regional housing authority was part of a joint meeting earlier this month between the Council of Governments Transportation and Land Use Committee and the Centre Regional Planning Commission.

Those two groups, and municipal planners and planning commissions, have worked with staff to update the comprehensive plan, a guide for local officials in making future development decisions in the region. Next, municipal boards will receive the draft plan for initial review.

The document also covers community services and facilities, land use, transportation, economic development and environmental resources.

In the draft of the housing chapter, one policy would “encourage municipalities to adopt a regional policy that distributes new affordable housing equitably throughout the community.”

Comments from the various committees and boards helped tweak that with provisions to study providing municipal funds to local land trusts that acquire and administer affordable housing, and to investigate regional strategies before actually creating a new entity.

College Township Councilman Dan Klees said he thinks his group is supportive of those ideas.

“We feel it’s not just a municipal issue, it’s a regional issue,” he said. “If there are willing participants, we’d like to see that addressed.”

State College Borough Councilman Tom Daubert suggested caution, saying he doesn’t want to run into legal issues that could lessen the federal support received by the borough’s Community Land Trust and first-time homebuyer programs.

“I don’t want to see them eliminated or taken over,” he said. “I see nothing wrong with studying affordable housing on a regional basis, but to have a regional authority, I don’t agree with that.”

Klees argued that it doesn’t make sense to end up with five housing authorities and that he hopes the borough will remain open-minded. CRPC and State College Planning Commission member Jon Eich added that a regional authority could exist without the borough’s participation.

“The intent here to just to identify strategies,” said regional planner D.J. Liggett. “We haven’t studied them yet.”

Liggett explained that another housing issue involves protecting single-family neighborhoods from the impact of conversions to rental housing, an issue that has prompted discussion of student housing. She said one suggestion is to study student housing’s impact on housing generally, and to consider Penn State’s role in providing additional on-campus housing to address enrollment increases.

Steve Watson, CRPC chairman and Penn State representative, said those are different issues and that on-campus housing is more expensive than off-campus housing.

“If the assumption is the university building more housing will make housing more affordable for the rest of the community, I don’t know if that’s fact,” he said. “It’s kind of a nebulous connection I see right now.”

Liggett said she’s not suggesting Penn State should build more housing, but that officials and the university should work together on how to address the issue.

CRPC and Ferguson Township Planning Commissioner Kevin Abbey said “metrics” is key, and that statistics can speak to the impact, and if student housing pays for itself.