Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

New Policies? Revised Zoning? Harrisburg council meets to hear about, discuss affordable housing

Craig Wolf of the York YMCA spoke at Tuesday’s work session.

Should Harrisburg adopt an affordable housing program? If so, what kind?

Those were the topics at hand on Tuesday night, as City Council held a special work session devoted to this issue.

The session was spurred, in part, by last year’s citywide affordable housing study, which stated that, in Harrisburg, 40 percent of renter households are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

“During the next five years, there is a significant need for affordable housing in every area of the city,” said Councilwoman Danielle Bowers, the chair of council’s building and housing committee.

The issue, then, is how to address that shortfall.

To that end, council invited three entities to make presentations: a group of Penn State Harrisburg graduate students; representatives of the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership; and the director of community development for the York YMCA.

The Penn State students led the evening, repeating a presentation they made to council two weeks ago that offered results of a study they conducted of two capital cities that, they said, shared similar characteristics to Harrisburg—Albany, N.Y., and Annapolis, Md.

Their study yielded several recommendations, including taking maximum advantage of federal housing programs, improving the construction permitting process, easing professional licensure procedures for residents, and encouraging landlords to lease to Section 8 (subsidized rent) tenants.

Next, COO Shelby Nauman and Director of Lending Miriam Soto spoke of their work at the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership, which offers loans, advocacy and education to create fair and affordable housing.

Their presentation focused on their mission, the services they offer and the projects they’ve undertaken. While Lancaster-based, they provide services in an eight-county region and are currently providing financing for Paxton Place, a 37-unit affordable senior housing project in Harrisburg near the Penbrook border.

“We don’t only want to do projects in Lancaster,” said Soto. “We want to spread the wealth.”

Finally, Craig Wolf spoke of his experience spearheading the revitalization of the area around the York YMCA. He said that, 20 years ago, the Y was surrounded on all sides by blight and crime.

“We didn’t know where to start,” he said. “We didn’t know what to do.”

So, his team began acquiring what he called “the worst properties” through the use of low-income tax credits, in the process driving out drug dealers and nuisance bars. One project led to another, resulting in $30 million in investment since 1998, he said.

“We must create neighborhoods in which families have a sense of belonging,” he said.

Other advice from participants included creating partnerships with similarly aligned groups, offering residents additional community services beyond affordable housing and persevering when challenges are inevitably encountered.

The work session closed with a heated discussion on the subject of inclusionary zoning, which requires or encourages developers to include affordable or low-income housing in their residential projects.

One of the Penn State students, who lives in Allison Hill and owns rental properties there, insisted that such a measure was premature for Harrisburg, where there has been scant interest from outside developers to build market-rate housing.

“Inclusionary zoning is a very good idea to fix a problem that Harrisburg doesn’t have,” he said. “It’s the wrong idea to use for Harrisburg. We’re on the other side of the spectrum from [places like] Seattle and Denver.”

In fact, the Harrisburg housing study stated that the city currently has some 4,000 vacant houses and commercial buildings, which could help alleviate the affordable housing crunch if rehabilitated.

This discussion caused Senghor Manns, the director of the Harrisburg Housing Authority, to approach the microphone from the audience. He insisted that an inclusionary zoning ordinance would have value for Harrisburg.

“You don’t want to fighting this retroactively, like in Seattle, like in Denver,” he said. “As the city grows and becomes more appealing to investors, there will be more pressure.”

Council President Wanda Williams concurred.

“We certainly need a policy of inclusionary housing,” she stated.

Nauman of the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership said she believed that Harrisburg could use more housing “at every price point.”

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

For now, Bowers said, every idea is on the table as Harrisburg works to develop an affordable housing policy over the coming years.

“I think this is a great starting base to continue the conversation,” she said.

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