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How should Crawford County's communities deal with blighted and poorly maintained properties?

Communities across the county are wrestling with blight — whether it's with older Victorian-style homes that once had fine architectural features to newer homes with cheaper construction or the home is fine, but the yard is in need of work, according to a proposed Crawford County Housing Plan.

Concerns

Housing issues impact everyone and a recent survey of employees working for some of the area’s largest employers suggests many renters struggle to find quality housing in the county, according to the Crawford County Housing Plan.

"The complete exterior needs an overhaul. The roof needs repaired including the slate tiles that have fallen off leaving holes. There are glass panes missing from the porches, holes in screens, broken/decaying cement on the steps. There are a total of five apartments in my building and I am sure they all need attention of some sort,” replied one respondent to the employee survey.

While 75 percent of respondents indicated they were satisfied with their housing situation, responses like that were common in the study done by the Crawford County Planning Office and 4ward Planning, a housing and economic development consulting firm.

Concentrated blight often has a larger impact over how a community is perceived, Thomas Gilbertson, the county's assistant planning director, said.

The sentiment of one workforce survey respondent, who said "There is available housing in Meadville, but the area is so blighted. That is why we moved from the city. Area is all renters that don’t take pride in where they are living…" may demonstrate the impact, according to Gilbertson.

Tackling blight

One potential tool suggested by the Crawford County Housing Plan is for some communities to consider a quality of life ticketing ordinance similar to the City of Erie enacted.

A quality of life ticketing ordinance works similar to a parking ticket by targeting the source of the violation — a renter, property owner or visitor. Violators are given a warning and time to comply, but are fined if they fail to come into compliance, Gilbertson said. Examples of potential violations may include high weeds, excessive garbage, and abandoned or wrongfully parked cars.

Erie recently initiated a ticketing program in a proactive move to notify property owners of code violations and compel them to take action, according to Kathy Wyrosdick, planning director for Erie.

"We saw the quality of life ticketing as a way to provide advance notice prior to costly litigation," she said.

Affordability

Many of those who responded in the workforce survey said the lack of well-maintained rental units appears to have funneled demand toward a limited number of apartments in reasonable condition.

The survey shows many renter households are cost burdened — spending more than 30 percent of gross household income on housing related expenses.

In Meadville, 53 percent of renter households are cost burdened while in Titusville area it’s nearly 49 percent. The survey also found 12 of the 14 geographic housing submarkets identified in the housing plan have larger than expected rate of housing cost burdened renter households, Gilbertson said.

One possible solution for more affordability is the development of "missing middle housing," according to the Crawford County Housing Plan.

Middle housing would be multi-unit developments, but not large-scale apartment buildings. It would be small developments of duplexes, townhouses, and garden apartments with open space, but some shared housing features.

The City of Meadville is looking at zoning ordinance changes to encourage appropriate scale multi-family housing developments in more areas. It easily may apply in places like Titusville and the boroughs of Cochranton and Conneaut Lake both of which have recently seen new apartment developments embodying some of the concepts of missing middle housing.

A starting point

Regardless of how current efforts work to address neighborhood blight and affordability, consensus remains that the status quo is a problem, the Crawford County Housing Plan found.

Cost burdened renter households may be less able to save for a down payment on their first home, inhibiting housing markets across the county. Over time, a cool or stagnant housing market can lead to circumstances which lead to disinvestment and blight, the plan found.

The Crawford County Housing Plan is jumping off point to plan for housing needs around the county, according to some local leaders.

"It's a useful tool in creating a new dialogue," Andy Walker, Meadville's city manager, said. "It's pointing out what we're missing and potentially how to fill in the gaps."

With about 45 percent of Meadville's tax base actually tax-exempt property, Meadville City Council is sensitive to the property tax burden.

"It's hard to compete with outlying areas (of the county) without a fair underlying (property tax) assessment," he said. 

Lifestyles are changing, too, according to Jim Becker, executive director of the Economic Progress Alliance of Crawford County, the county's lead economic development agency.

Many of the older, larger homes are bypassed by young professionals who are seeking a townhouse or condominium which has less maintenance and upkeep at home, not more, he said.

"I also believe there will always be some form of disconnect between the available housing stock and the individual preferences for housing of a younger, more mobile generation," Becker said. "Personal and professional choices being made today are not the same as 15 to 20 years ago. We, as a community should keep that in mind as our planners start to identify what the future housing needs of the community will look like."

Like Walker, Becker said he was pleased to see a study conducted.

"It has help identify the gaps in available housing and desired housing which is a great place for the planners to start," Becker said.

Businesses looking to expand in or relocate to Crawford County haven't raised a lack of appropriate housing as an issue, he said.

"But, with an improved dedication to removing the remaining blight, planned development based on market needs and a blend of available housing styles and options, this will certainly become an asset for us in our efforts," Becker said. 

Strains on the non-profit sector

Housing problems such as affordability, blight, and property maintenance issues also strain non-profit housing providers as they struggle to field the needs of a growing list of clients in the face of limited resources.

Lynn McUmber, executive director of the Crawford County Mental Health Awareness Program known as CHAPS, is hopeful that the County’s proposed Housing Plan will focus more attention towards resources such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “HOME” Program that directly address property maintenance and quality of life concerns for low-to-moderate income homeowners.

CHAPS, founded in 1988, is a local non-profit organization that provides mental health support and housing services to citizens facing homelessness.

“Decent and affordable housing is not only an essential element for a healthy life, it is also the cornerstone of a vibrant and healthy community," McUmber said. 

Tribune reporter Keith Gushard contributed to this report.

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