Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

City-wide affordable housing study could inform long-term development policies, Harrisburg officials say.

Historic row homes on Boas Street in Midtown Harrisburg.

How far do you travel to get to work in Harrisburg?

That’s one of the questions that the city is asking as part of its first comprehensive housing study, which will examine the availability of affordable rental housing in the city across different neighborhoods and income brackets.

The project was jointly commissioned by the city, the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority, the Harrisburg Housing authority and Harristown Enterprises.

Members of that coalition say that affordable housing close to employment centers has become increasingly rare, especially after the 2008 recession.

“What was once a large supply of rather nice, unsubsidized housing for the workforce is gone,” said Bryan Davis, executive director of the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority. “In today’s market, we want to know what residents’ income is and have a sense for what their rent is so we can understand their needs as we plan for future development.”

The study will help officials plan for several large building projects expected to create jobs and boost demand in the city’s housing market, according to Community and Economic Development Director Jackie Parker.

As examples, she pointed to the $15 million renovation to the Harrisburg Transportation Center, the Paxton Creek reclamation project and the construction of the federal courthouse.

As the city economy grows, public officials ought to ensure that workers in the service industry have access to affordable, quality housing close to their place of employment, Parker said.

To that end, city officials are asking employees across Harrisburg where they work, how far they travel from home to their job, and what they pay for rent and transportation. They have distributed surveys to retail and service workers across the city and are accepting responses online.

The Maryland-based Real Property Research Group will compile the survey responses with census and housing market data. Parker said that RPRG has compiled studies for Harristown before, so much of the research is already on-hand.

Parker said that the city, the Redevelopment Authority and Harristown will split the cost of the project. The city has committed only $1,000.

The final study, which Parker expects will be published by the end of the summer, will include socioeconomic and demographic profiles of every neighborhood in the city; an inventory of the city’s current housing stock by unit type and value; and a summary of rent trends since 2000.

It will also describe economic and workforce trends on neighborhood, city and regional levels and compare them to the pipeline of proposed housing projects. Its authors will ultimately offer an opinion on the availability of affordable housing relative to the need of city workers.

Potential for new policy
Parker said that the study will help city officials craft data-driven policies to promote equitable development across Harrisburg.

One option they could consider is an inclusive zoning ordinance, Parker said, which would require developers to set aside a quota of units for low- to moderate-income renters.

Inclusive zoning laws have become common across the country since the 1970s, when they arose in response to racially segregated zoning laws. They compel private developers to subsidize some units by renting them at below market rates.

Those units are available to renters who meet an income threshold, usually set at 80 percent of the area’s median income.

Harristown CEO Brad Jones said he wants to see the study data before he starts talking policy.

“The details matter on these things,” Jones said, when asked about a set-aside requirement for developers.

The city’s busiest downtown housing developer, Harristown has developed dozens of apartments in downtown Harrisburg and plans to add hundreds more.

“If there is interest in an ordinance like that, we’d be happy to see if we can make it work with what we’re doing going,” Jones said. “I think that rather than committing to something now, let’s get the study, see what market looks like, and have a conversation among public and private stakeholders.”

Harristown announced its own workforce housing program in April that sets aside units for employees of Harrisburg Property Services, the Harristown subsidiary that provides janitorial, security and maintenance services to its properties.

Any HPS employee whose household earns $40,600 per year, which is 80 percent of Dauphin County’s median household income, gets a $50 to $75 reduction on market-rate rents between $700 and $800, Jones said.

While that program mirrors some aspects of an inclusive zoning program, Parker pointed out that units set aside under the law would be open to any renter—not just one who works for the property owner.

The “set-aside” requirement would also be attached to the property in perpetuity, Parker said.

Policy researchers debate whether inclusive zoning ordinances actually increase housing costs by decreasing the supply of market-rate rentals. Critics, including some developers, also say they violate private property rights.

While eligibility and subsidy requirements vary by city, some affordable housing advocates also say that inclusive zoning does not help enough people in the lowest income brackets.

Even so, inclusive zoning remains one of the most frequently used tools for policy makers to bring the private sector into the affordable housing market. A report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy says that 886 municipalities in the United States had adopted inclusive zoning laws by the end of 2016.

Are you a retail or service worker in Harrisburg? Complete the housing study survey here

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