On the House: Shale drilling results in upstate Pa. housing boom

Posted: May 26, 2013

We were on our way across country in 2008, planning to stop at Fallingwater, the renowned Frank Lloyd Wright design, and were looking for a place to stay the night.

We ended up near the turnpike outside Uniontown, Fayette County, Pa., but finding a hotel room was difficult.

Large blocks of rooms in motels and hotels had been booked by drilling-company executives and their employees, and not only did we have to search for a room, getting into even a chain restaurant for dinner wasn't easy.

I don't know enough about the history of Marcellus Shale drilling in the central and western counties of the state to determine whether this was the beginning of the natural-gas boom there.

But from what I learned during the biennial Commonwealth Housing Forum in Harrisburg recently, drilling has turned many places into boom towns, creating a need for housing where little has been built for decades.

Drilling is underway far to the north and west of here, the map shows.

In Lycoming County, there is drilling in 24 of 52 municipalities, but those two dozen represent 75 percent of the county landmass, said Kim Wheeler, lead planner in the county's planning and community-development department.

Since the drilling began, "1,160 wells have been permitted, and more than 700 drilled," Wheeler said.

Overwhelming numbers for what had been an area in decline, especially the county seat, Williamsport.

Yet in the words of Bryan Maretzki, director of business development for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA), Lycoming also is "the model for proactive and strategic use" of funding generated by fees to reduce the impact drilling has on the 36 counties affected.

In 2010, the legislature approved the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund, or PHARE, to finance affordable-housing efforts statewide. Act 13, passed in 2012, allocates a portion of the impact fees charged drillers to PHARE, to create affordable housing in counties with "unconventional gas wells" that have adopted a local impact fee required by the act.

Last year, that amounted to $7.9 million, Maretzki said, with $5 million in hand and $5 million more expected this year.

That doesn't seem to be a lot of money, but in 2012, PHFA received 29 applications from 19 counties and funded 25 of them. The $7.7 million spent helped spur an additional $120 million from county and private sources.

The result thus far: 317 new rental units, rent assistance for 166 households, 36 new single-family homes, and rehab and repair for 231 rentals.

"It is an opportunity for leveraging," said Wheeler, noting that 80 percent of the $26 million for projects under Lycoming's PHARE award comes from private sources.

Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, called PHARE "an opportunity to do things right."

"We used to just respond to crises and didn't think strategically," she said. "PHARE lets us be 'plan-ful' and think what we are doing proactively."


On the House: Town by Town

In the Sunday Business section, Alan J. Heavens takes a look at real estate and life throughout the region. This week's focus: Lansdale.


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or follow @alheavens at Twitter.

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