Housing Shortage Leading to Homelessness and Exodus
By Rick Hiduk
The shortage of housing in Bradford County due in large part to the influx of workers to support the gas drilling boom and other emerging industries is affecting a larger cross section of society than originally reported. Those who have the means to purchase properties are finding few available, and residents with limited incomes, including those who have relied in the past on public assistance to make ends meet, are being evicted from their rental units in growing numbers and finding little help at the county or state level.
While people at both ends of the spectrum are finding few practical solutions to their parallel but very different challenges, the housing crunch is creating a gap between the haves and have-nots that neither real estate brokers, property developers, nor agencies that assist low- and moderate-income families anticipated. One thing that many of those affected have in common is that they are being pushed out of the area and into Susquehanna, Wyoming, Sullivan, and Tioga Counties in Pennsylvania or into the southern tier of New York state, where more homes are available.
“They have no solution for this, and it’s going to get worse, not better,” predicts Sandy Vanderpool of South Towanda, who has struggled to help her sister, Debbie Reeves, and two other relatives find suitable housing after the three of them were evicted from an apartment on Second Street in Towanda that Reeves had rented for three years. When she was evicted, Reeves first lived in a tent and now sleeps in a camper on Vanderpool’s South Main Street property, as there is not enough room inside her sister’s house.
The fact is that there are a number of projects in motion to relieve the housing shortage, but tangible results are at least a year away.
“Our board has initiated a long-range planning process to work with local counties to address some of the housing issues,” said Dennis Phelps, executive director of Trehab, an organization that fosters housing development programs for low- to moderate-income families, among many other services. In the past year, Trehab broke ground for a 20-unit development for elderly people in Mehoopany and a 40-unit family development in Wellsboro. This year, Trehab board members hope to obtain funding for family housing in Towanda and Susquehanna County’s Bridgewater Township that will provide homes for 35 and 40 families respectively. “At the same time, we continue to look for other sites,” Phelps explained, adding, “the long range plan doesn’t help for what is happening today. This crisis is right now. Poor people and elderly people need homes now.”
“The whole thing is in process, but that doesn’t help the guy who’s looking today,” state representative Tina Pickett agreed, noting that low-income housing projects take longer to bring to fruition because they are usually funded through a combination of private and public funds from agencies like the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA).
In the meantime, people like Reeves, who suffers a disability and requires both oxygen and a motorized chair, are often told when they contact agencies in Bradford County that they should be willing to relocate if they will need housing sooner than later. Reeves’ daughter wants to finish high school in Towanda, and Vanderpool was finally able to secure an apartment for them in Durell that they will move into in the fall. Others aren’t so lucky.
Phelps, Pickett, and Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko agree that quick solutions are few and far between and that the housing crunch is being felt across the socio-economic spectrum. While an outsider might think that a housing boom in Bradford County would be a logical response to the influx of industry workers and their families, infrastructure for housing developments here is lacking.
“Water and sewer are often an issue,” said Pickett. “It’s very tough for our municipalities to build out to attract builders.” Pickett expects to see development increase dramatically in Wysox Township when community sewer and water lines are installed there.
In a July 11 press release about regional leaders soliciting Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett for assistance with the housing crisis, Sullivan County Housing Authority representative Mark Roinick was quoted as stating, “We recognize the many benefits to the Marcellus shale drilling. We are pleased to see the influx of new jobs, new people, and economic growth. At the same time, low-wage workers, seniors, and people on disabilities are inadvertent victims.” He urged the governor to take action so that nobody is literally “Left out in the cold.”
McLinko expressed concerns about using public funding to address the situation. He has been trying to attract developers from Lancaster County, which is suffering from a building slump, to pursue construction of homes in Bradford County.
“They won’t do it if they have to compete with the government,” said McLinko, who added that he is most concerned about senior citizens on fixed incomes who are also losing their homes. Although he asserted that there are many reputable landlords in the area, a few greedy ones are creating long-term problems in the area and some of them are already reaping what they have sewn.
“A lot of them are getting lessons taught to them,” McLinko said of the apartment house owners who see the prospect of renting to employees in a transient industry as more lucrative than leasing to local families. “They’re finding that the workers can’t afford these high rents either. (Some of the workers) are trashing the places, and they’re leaving during the night.” McLinko doesn’t feel sorry for those who have been left with vacated apartments after evicting good-paying tenants who had previously maintained the same properties. “They still have to live in this community when all is said and done.”
There are a growing number of stories floating around about young couples who get married and want to settle close to their families in Bradford County, but they either end up in crowded conditions in the family homestead or crossing into New York state to find adequate and affordable housing. Pickett attributes the inability of people who have the means to purchase a house but are unable to find one to the national economy and the continued reluctance of banks to provide loans. In the normal course of life, people “bump up” their lifestyles and move into a slightly larger home.
“There are also mortgage assistance programs to help you bridge into a full mortgage, but banks have gotten tighter,” she stated. “Another thing that has changed is that nobody is selling land. Things are backed up, and not enough people are putting land on the market.”
It might be assumed that real estate companies are either so busy with deed transfers associated with gas pad and pipeline leasing or simply overwhelmed by inquiries for properties to purchase or rent that they have been temporarily sidelined from the natural order of business. Not one local company responded to numerous emails and phone calls from the Rocket-Courier in an attempt to include their perspectives in this story.
A recent proposal to streamline the approval of RV sites has received mixed reactions from civic leaders and those struggling to find adequate housing. Creating such sites, as well as expanding campgrounds and extending their seasons, will do little to help those who have been evicted, Vanderpool maintained, as the RVs are intended solely for gas workers and employees of support industries.
Not so, countered Pickett, who feels that an increase in the number of RV sites will pull workers from rental properties and make a number of them available to local residents again. She also expressed hope that a number of new hotels being built in the area will make a significant dent in the housing shortage.