A lack of affordable, accessible, appealing housing plagues many communities across the state. The legislature recently found a way to help.
It’s the first thing in the morning, which means Ramona DiMassimo has already claimed her spot at one of the desks in the computer room of her apartment building. She says having Internet access down the hall from her apartment has been “habit forming.”
“I don’t get anything done,” she said, laughing. “I headed in half an hour ago for breakfast and, well, I haven’t made it yet!”
DiMassimo, and her dog Elvis, used to live in a mobile home. She couldn’t afford necessary repairs and sometimes the heating bills. She resisted moving into low-income housing, expecting the worst. But Memorial Homes, a new low-income apartment building in Williamsport, surprised her.
The apartments are large, clean and well-maintained. There’s a gym, a full-time staff and a community room. “All us old hens get in there and cackle,” DiMassimo said.
Building Memorial Homes and sprucing up the surrounding neighborhood has been on the county’s to-do list for years, says Kim Wheeler, deputy director of planning at the Lycoming County Planning Department.
“We’ve been talking about this since our strategic plan in 2006,” said Wheeler. “We’ve had great visions, but we don’t always have the resources.”
The county was able to invest $2.6 million into the project thanks to an unlikely source: fracking. In 2012, the state levied an “impact fee” — a sum companies pay to offset the public cost of new development — on each natural gas well. The proceeds went into the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund, known as the PHARE fund.
Gas boom, housing boom
The money was there to help communities deal with the sudden influx of gas workers, says Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.
“Some of these communities had homelessness for the first time in their history,” Hersh said. “They saw apartments go from $300 a month to $3,000 a month.”
Over the past four years, $35 million dollars of the fund has been distributed to 37 counties. Some of that went to solving the immediate housing crisis by building homeless shelters or providing rental assistance. But many communities also used the funding to fix all kinds of housing problems that had been around long before the gas industry.
Long-term problems, long-term solutions
A lack of affordable, accessible, appealing housing is not limited to Marcellus Shale counties, says Wheeler.
“Whether it’s Sunbury or Williamsport or Mount Carmel, it’s a similar picture,” Wheeler said. “It’s really scary to think about what’s going to be in 50 years because we just have so much old housing stock.”
With statewide issues, housing advocates began looking for statewide solutions. Hersh says the four years of distributing gas well impact fees served as a test run for the PHARE fund, whether they realized it or not. The program was successful for the 37 Marcellus Shale counties.
So last month, a bill passed the legislature expanding PHARE funding statewide. The Shale counties will still get all the funding from the gas well impact fee. But all 67 counties in the state will be eligible for funding from a new source.
“The revenue source is future growth in the realty transfer tax,” said Hersh. “What happened is that with the [2008 housing market] crash, the realty transfer tax proceeds went way down because people weren’t buying houses for a few years there. Now, it’s going back up.”
This year’s realty transfer tax income is the base. Forty percent of any additional income in future years will go into the statewide PHARE fund. The fund will be slow to build but could distribute up to $25 million a year in time. All that without raising taxes or cutting other programs, which explains how the bill passed the entire legislature with only one ‘no’ vote.
It’s not a perfect plan, mainly because the realty transfer tax relies on a strong housing market. If there were another stock market crash, assistance would dry up right when counties needed it the most. But Hersh says this is a case of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. “If you don’t have a place to live, you can’t really hold a job, you can’t really do your homework,” Hersh said. “If we don’t have that basic human need, really nothing else can fall into place.”
She thinks PHARE funding can help counties provide that basic human need.
It’s already helping the residents of Memorial Homes.
“I’m so proud of myself because before I moved here, I was on a lot of medications,” said DiMassimo. “And I’m not on anything anymore, because everything just fell into place here.”
DiMassimo is working on quitting smoking, but she isn’t going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good either. And for her, things are finally pretty good.