Recently, early one morning, bright flashes lit up my bedroom, the light filtering through the curtains into my downtown Harrisburg house from the street below.
At first, I figured it was just the usual car headlight, maybe someone stopped at the intersection. But, it persisted, so I got up to see what the problem was.
From my window, I witnessed a raid on the rundown building across the street. U.S. marshals and city police simultaneously smashed through two windows and a door to a first-floor apartment, put someone in cuffs and hauled him away.
Four days later, I attended, as I regularly do, a meeting of the Harrisburg City Council.
At that meeting, council considered its own downtown issue.
A developer was seeking approval for two projects: construction of a small office building on one site and, on another, the renovation of a long-vacant office building into 12 higher-end apartments.
So, now, a quiz.
Which of these two is a bigger problem?
1. Downtown Harrisburg, despite progress over the past decade, remains saddled with numerous dilapidated buildings, which attract drugs and crime.
2. A developer wishes to spend nearly $9 million on projects that will bring new office and residential tenants into downtown Harrisburg.
There’s an old saying about finding only thorns in a bushel of roses, and that’s how I felt after I heard council President Wanda Williams deliver a tongue-lashing to city developers. Before voting “yes” on the projects at issue, she read a lengthy statement warning developers, going forward, to include more affordable housing in their downtown projects.
“I certainly will be watching,” she told them.
Like Williams, I would love to see more quality affordable housing in Harrisburg. However, as a downtown resident, I can say, with great confidence, that the problem in the neighborhood is not that a few developers have built a smattering of higher-end units over the past few years. It’s that downtown remains plagued with shabby housing, owned by negligent landlords, which adversely affects the quality of life for those who of us live and work there.
The real problem, in other words, is not too much investment, but a lack of investment, especially in the existing housing stock.
Let’s examine some data.
According to the city, Harrisburg has about 13,500 total rental units, which constitute around two-thirds of the city’s housing stock. Of these units, about 2,300 are located downtown.
The downtown apartments are a mix. Two 1960s-era high rises contribute a few hundred market-rate units. Several hundred more apartments are in high rises for low-income seniors and the disabled.
Much of the rest are scattered in small apartment buildings, in row houses carved up into apartments and in units over commercial buildings. Much of that housing is in terrible shape and, thus, rented relatively cheaply. Some buildings are little more than rooming houses, and several are notorious for drug activity.
Against that unpromising backdrop, a few developers, over the past few years, have taken huge risks to try to create a class of multi-family housing that practically didn’t exist before in downtown Harrisburg—I’ll call it “professional-grade.”
Harristown, WCI and Vartan all have acquired empty or nearly empty structures, mostly rundown, historic office buildings, and invested millions to bring them back to life as residences. The projects have been small—from three to a few dozen units each.
Most (though not all) have higher-quality finishes, such as granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. Some are small in size; others are spacious. They rent in the range of about $850 to $1,300 a month depending on size, quality, location and number of bedrooms and baths.
The idea is to appeal to the small army of professionals who go to work each day in and around the Capitol complex but who otherwise would commute in. If we offer them decent housing, the theory goes, maybe some will stay, frequenting downtown businesses and restaurants instead dashing out of town as quickly as possible and spending all their money—earned in Harrisburg—in the suburbs. Their tax dollars would stay here, too.
And if you’re looking for a solution to the problem of high parking rates that keep away suburban customers—this is a good one.
Now, I might be less sanguine if people were being displaced en masse, as has occurred in some other cities. But, in downtown Harrisburg, that’s not happening. In total, the three developers have added about 100 units to the downtown, about 4 percent of downtown’s total apartment stock and far less than 1 percent of the city’s. And, again, these are additions to the housing stock, not replacements, since nearly all of these buildings previously were low-end office space or just empty.
As I walk around my downtown neighborhood, I see some wonderful historic buildings and caring people. But I also see far too much blight, neglect and trash. I see dozens of rundown buildings owned by exploitative landlords who don’t care a damn about the neighborhood or even their own tenants and who refuse to put a penny into their derelict properties.
That’s the real problem in downtown Harrisburg. When will that be addressed?
Lawrance Binda is editor in chief of TheBurg.
Disclosure: Alex Hartzler, TheBurg’s publisher, is a principal with WCI Partners.