Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Gimme Shelter: What’s the best way for Harrisburg to address its housing shortage?

Illustration by Rich Hauck.

If you want to get a beat on Harrisburg’s problematic housing situation, listening to Ahmad Ibrahim would be a good place to start.

The South Allison Hill resident not only owns his own house, but he leases out several others, all in his neighborhood, where renting, not owning, is the general rule.

To add to his bona fides: Ibrahim’s graduate class at Penn State Harrisburg recently authored a paper called “An Exploratory Study of U.S. Capital Cities’ Affordable Housing Policies”—and presented their results, twice, to City Council.

That’s why I paid special attention when Ibrahim leapt up from his chair during a special council meeting back in May dedicated to a single topic—affordable housing in Harrisburg. The issue that so motivated Ibrahim was inclusionary zoning, and he had something to say about it.

Ibrahim stated that he isn’t necessarily opposed to inclusionary zoning—the requirement that developers set aside a certain number of new units for low- and moderate-income people. He just thinks that Harrisburg’s policy-makers are mistaken if they believe that inclusionary zoning will do much to solve the city’s affordable housing problem.

“Inclusionary zoning is a very good idea to fix a problem that Harrisburg doesn’t have,” he said.

Why might this be?

Harrisburg’s problem isn’t really that developers refuse to build lower-income housing. It’s that there’s hardly any development at all, at any price point. So, there are nearly no apartments to “set aside.” In short, the city suffers from a severe supply problem that isn’t being remedied.


Drop in the Bucket

Currently, the only substantial projects in Harrisburg are two office-to-apartment conversions next door to one another downtown on Pine Street, which together will add 72 rental units when they’re done early next year.

In American cities, inclusionary zoning set-aside requirements vary, but typically mandate that 10 to 15 percent of total units be “affordable,” assuming the project exceeds a certain number of units in total (for instance, at least 20 units).

Therefore, if it were subject to set-asides, the Pine Street project would have yielded seven to 10 affordable units, apartments priced maybe a couple of hundred dollars lower than the going market rate. (This assume that, following a feasibility study, the project would be subject to any set-asides at all.)

Unfortunately, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the city’s need. According to last year’s Harrisburg housing study, hundreds of new units are needed right now, with the shortage expected to get much worse over the coming years.

Now, those seven to 10 units might mean something if Harrisburg were littered with cranes, with builders throwing up apartments to meet the city’s shortage. But that’s not the case.

Right now, Harristown—the developer of those Pine Street properties—is the only builder in the entire city doing new, market-rate projects on any scale. And it’s only here because its stated mission, since the 1970s, is the redevelopment of downtown Harrisburg. That’s why it was formed, and that’s why it’s willing to take risks that other developers can’t or won’t take.

There is, literally, no other developer with a substantial, market-rate residential project actively in progress. I’m not exactly certain why that is. Maybe builders have not yet “discovered” Harrisburg or perhaps they don’t see a reasonable return on investment or maybe their prospects are better elsewhere.

Whatever the reason, market-rate developers continue to avoid the city.


More Supply

Harrisburg, though, does have another, and, I believe, more promising path forward, which also came up during that City Council meeting. According to last year’s housing study, the city has some 4,000 vacant buildings located in every part of the city.

In addition, many other buildings are blighted and barely habitable, and there are countless empty lots that could be developed.

To cite just one example, S&A Custom Built Homes owns, by my count, 58 empty lots in its so-called MarketPlace development, a profoundly well-located townhome neighborhood just north of the Broad Street Market.

In 2005, the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority sold those lots to S&A for $1 apiece. That’s right: a buck. In exchange, S&A promised to develop those units over the course of a decade—and that was 14 years ago. It started the project then stopped and hasn’t built a new house there in years, which actually may jeopardize its agreement with the authority.

In my view, Harrisburg would be better served putting its time and effort doing everything possible to increase supply—convincing developers that already own vacant land to build on it, putting blighted and abandoned buildings back into productive use and encouraging homeownership, which, in Harrisburg, can be substantially cheaper than renting and, all in all, is better for the city.

“We need to help people own the houses, more homeowners versus rentals,” Ibrahim said. “That’s what I’m trying to say.”

Coincidentally, at that same meeting, council members heard from officials of the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership, which offers loans to both builders and homeowners for fair and affordable housing. It would like to do more business in Harrisburg.

The city needs more housing “at every price point,” stated COO Shelby Nauman.

“We’re hoping, if we get more housing, things will come back into balance,” she said.

I agree.

Inclusionary zoning might, at some point, serve Harrisburg well, but that time has not come and is not near.

Sure, the city could pass an inclusionary zoning ordinance and sit and wait for development to occur. But, as they say in economics, hope is not a strategy.

Meanwhile, the city is littered with abandoned buildings, blighted properties, empty lots and rundown rentals that could be improved and owned. Focusing powerfully on these prospects would be a far more promising path to more housing in Harrisburg, which, in turn, would create a more livable, stable city.

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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