Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Rate Debate: More apartments, more talk of rental rates at Harrisburg council.

Thirteen more apartments have been proposed for Strawberry Square in Harrisburg.

Affordable housing was back in the spotlight tonight, as the Harrisburg City Council listened to plans for another downtown apartment conversion.

At their biweekly work session, council members heard from Harristown Enterprises CEO Brad Jones about plans to convert empty office space inside of Strawberry Square into 13 apartments—10 one-bedroom and three two-bedroom units.

Jones’ presentation of the project rekindled a discussion from the prior council meeting two weeks ago, when council President Wanda Williams read a lengthy statement saying that she expected downtown developers to include affordable housing in their plans going forward.

“I certainly will be watching,” she said at the time.

Williams was absent from tonight’s work session, but Councilman Dave Madsen picked up the thread, saying that he had spoken with Williams about their concerns over rental rates for newly renovated, higher-end units in downtown Harrisburg.

“We discussed that pricing has been a concern with these projects,” said Madsen. “But, as I understand with Wanda Williams, we’d like to move this project along, but with future projects, that you consider throwing in a few affordable housing units.”

Madsen said that he’s heard from constituents recently who said that they’re troubled over the issue of affordable housing in Harrisburg given recent higher-end projects downtown. Perhaps paradoxically, he also said that constituents seem to desire the high-quality housing being built by downtown developers like Harristown.

“We’ve seen everything downtown,”said Madsen, relating what residents have told him. “Why aren’t we seeing it in our neighborhood?”

Over the past two years, Harristown has brought about a half-dozen projects to council for approval. Nearly all have been conversions from empty, even dilapidated office space, to higher-end residential units. In all, the company has constructed about 60 apartment units from these projects, Jones said tonight.

Just two weeks ago, council approved a Harristown project at N. 2nd and Cranberry streets, which will convert a long-empty, historic office building to an apartment building with 12 one- and two-bedroom units.

And Harristown now has another downtown project on the boards—the conversion of a six-story office building at 124 Pine St. into a mixed-use project consisting of 25 apartments with retail space on the first floor. That project, which requires a variance, is slated to go before the city’s Planning Commission and Zoning Hearing Board this month.

Jones came to tonight’s meeting armed with data, as he tried to counter the narrative that his company’s apartments are too pricey. He said that about 15 percent of Harristown’s existing units could be rented by someone with an annual income of just $25,000 to $40,000 a year, while another 40 percent could be afforded by someone with an average income of $60,000 a year.

He also emphasized that his projects—and, in fact, most apartment projects in the city over the last decade—rehabilitated existing empty and blighted housing stock and did not lead to displacement.

“The point I want to make tonight is that that has not occurred to this point,” he said. “Could it happen in the future? Sure. We’ve seen it happen in other places.”

Several council members said that they should not single out individual projects or developers in a pursuit of affordable housing. Instead, the city, they said, needs to develop a clearer policy on what it expects from all builders as Harrisburg continues to redevelop.

“This governing body needs to figure out what our policies are going to be,” said Councilwoman Shamaine Daniels. “We just can’t have one investor or one developer solve the affordable housing issue in the city.”

Madsen concurred.

“This has long been a concern,” he said. “It should require legislation on our part or our side.”

Council is expected to take a final vote on the Harristown residential conversion in Strawberry Square at its legislative session next week.

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