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Illinois housing woes mirrored in rural Pennsylvania

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(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania struggles to get more housing built to relieve a statewide shortage.

For rural parts of the commonwealth, communities are in a position similar to rural towns across America.

An analysis of housing in rural Illinois shows that problems are common, but solutions are as rare as a cheap apartment.

“The insufficient supply of housing partially explains why housing costs are one of the key factors driving inflation,” noted Mark White, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “Given relatively slow population growth and aging population, many midwestern communities struggle to expand and/or update their housing stock.”

Pennsylvania has some bright spots: suburban areas of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and northeast Pennsylvania around Allentown have seen some growth. But most rural areas aren’t so lucky. The Center for Rural Pennsylvania expects rural populations to drop by almost 6% by 2050.

“The big picture is housing is a big issue for parts of rural America and there’s no easy solution; you have to keep trying,” White said.

One issue has been regulations that limit what people can do with their land. Local zoning restrictions can kill new housing before it even begins, and legislators have warned that, without reform, these regulations could cause a major housing shortage.

Another problem has been one common across many industries in Pennsylvania: labor shortages. Developers and construction companies struggle to find enough craftsmen to build houses in demand. The shortage also changes what types of homes get built.

“Labor shortages in the building trades and the unpredictable cost of building materials have limited new home construction and home renovations. As a result, builders often focus more on developing larger, more expensive homes that deliver better returns on their investment,” White wrote. “Stakeholders also noted that many homes are sold before even making it to the market, which further limits the number of homes available to current or prospective new residents.”

Getting more young people into the trades, however, takes time. As does changing zoning codes to allow duplexes or four-unit apartments in neighborhoods where it’s illegal to build anything but single-family homes.

“That’s the hard part: many of the solutions are not fast solutions, you can’t do them quickly,” White said. “People know it’s a challenge, but I think it’s one of those challenges that there’s no easy solution. It involves a lot of people thinking about and doing things differently.”

Bills to loosen zoning restrictions have been proposed in the General Assembly, but they remain in committee, awaiting further action.