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Pennsylvania’s housing shortage ‘the elephant in the room’

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(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania’s stagnating population and climbing rents has garnered the attention of lawmakers as they feel pressured to act.

Though housing becomes more of a state-level priority, solutions to lower rents, build more housing, and prevent blight aren’t so easy.

Republicans and Democrats have both dedicated committee hearings to how to get more housing built, warning that the root problem is a lack of supply. Unless more apartments and homes get built, Pennsylvanians face rising rents — be they in an urban, rural, or suburban area.

Gov. Josh Shapiro, in his budget, proposed more state funding for two housing-related programs: raising the cap for the state’s housing trust fund (known as PHARE) from $60 million to $100 million over four years, and providing another $50 million for the Whole Home Repairs programs, which provides grants to rehabilitate homes.

The PHARE grants supported about 850 new housing units (mostly apartments) and rehabilitated another 2,400 units in 2023, along with helping more than 11,000 families get assistance with a down payment or rent and utilities.

The Whole Home Repairs program was funded with $120 million to repair homes across the state, but demand has far outpaced funding. In Allegheny County alone, the program would need $230 million to fund every eligible application it received, U.S. Rep. Summer Lee said during a February 2 press conference.

The program has also been beset with problems like restrictive rules that make landlords and contractors avoid accepting the grants, with reporting requirements and prevailing wage mandates undermining the original intent.

The piecemeal approach of those targeted programs may hide the dire housing situation.

“My push is just to get people to understand how big the elephant in the room is,” Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, said. “I look at it and say, I don’t care what kind of housing you’re building as long as you’re building more housing.”

Sturla called Whole Home Repairs a laudable program, but it’s not getting more homes built. He argued the state has a housing shortage of 235,000 units — an $80 billion housing shortfall — and it’s undermining economic growth.

“When I’ve talked to the state Chamber of Commerce, what they tell me is that there are businesses that have job openings, they have people that apply for those jobs, they offer them the job, and the person goes to try and find housing — and they realize the only housing they can find is an hour’s drive from the job, and they turn it down,” Sturla said. “It’s one thing to create jobs – it’s another thing to have a place for people to live that are gonna work in those jobs.”

A massive state program to fix the housing problem doesn’t exist; Sturla and others are engaged in finding ways to clear out roadblocks to new housing.

Rep. Josh Siegel, D-Allentown, is touting a package of bills with Rep. Tarik Khan, D-Philadelphia, to promote “gentle density” where office parks can become housing and small apartment buildings can get built in neighborhoods composed of single-family homes.

Sturla spoke of converting empty big box stores into apartment complexes and working with the state planning board to create zoning overlays to speed up the process. Getting a home built in Pennsylvania can take months longer than in other states, driving up costs for developers and home-buyers alike.

“There’s private capital out there that’s willing to do this stuff, as long as I can remove barriers,” Sturla said. “There’s not a town in Pennsylvania that doesn’t have a vacant big box somewhere in a strip mall or a real mall.”

Those big boxes, he said, already have parking, stormwater plans, and utilities in place, speeding up the construction process for apartment complexes by years. They could also revive other businesses in those malls.

Pennsylvania isn’t alone in its housing struggles; neighboring states have focused on the issue, too.

“There’s only one solution to New York City’s housing crisis: Build. More. Housing,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul tweeted.

If the housing shortage isn’t dealt with, its effects could spill over.

“It’s not happening fast enough and it’s actually hurting us economically,” Sturla said. “The fact that we have a shortage of housing does not bode well for us in terms of intensifying our economic development.”