Housing

Zachary Norwood, Crawford County's planning director, poses near the Pine Street Commons Active Living construction project that is being led by Calamar of Wheatfield, NY.

At Meadville’s most recent City Council meeting, three residents of Reynolds Avenue came to address council bearing a petition signed by many of their neighbors and photos of two properties in the midst of their neighborhood. They also came with a plea — the sort of plea most neighbors hope never to make concerning other neighbors.

The appeal, Reynolds Avenue resident Juanita Shutsa explained, was provoked by “the deplorable conditions of the exterior of” two adjacent houses located at the corner of Reynolds Avenue and Lord Street, just a few steps away from the historic Baldwin-Reynolds House Museum at Mount Hope.

“The lack of upkeep to both residences in the past two years,” Shutsa said, “really affects the values of our homes, the security of our neighborhood and the overall desirability of our community.”

The properties, one of which has been vacant for more than a year and one of which is occupied, have already drawn the attention of city code enforcement officials, Assistant City Manager Gary Johnson told council. Issues that the owners have been told to resolve range from easily corrected situations such as high grass to more serious problems, such as missing or broken windows, significant amounts of missing paint on one of the structures and a junked vehicle in one driveway.

Anthony LoBello lives directly across from the two properties.

“It’s unbearable,” he told council. “What are we doing, allowing decent people to have their lives destroyed for the benefit of some slum landlords that are just making fools of all of us? I mean, it has to stop.”

The issue of blighted properties is not unique to Reynolds Avenue, nor to the city of Meadville. In fact, City Manager Andy Walker said, “There are literally hundreds of properties in this state” in the city.

Nor are such issues unique to the Meadville. They can be found throughout Crawford County, according to a recently completed housing study conducted by the Crawford County Planning Office and 4ward Planning, a housing and economic development consulting firm.

“Whether you’re walking down a typical city street or driving along a familiar township road there is a good chance you’ll be greeted by a blighted or abandoned home at some point,” said Thomas Gilbertson, assistant planning director for community planning. Not only are these structures unsightly, they can produce more complex problems which are not often visible.”

And while blighted and deteriorated properties can often be the most visible signs of housing challenges, they are by no means the only issues that the county’s Planning Office hopes to confront, according to Gilbertson.

Using a workforce study, direct interviews and focus groups with real estate professionals, the housing plan identified four major areas of concern, he said.

“The findings paint a serious picture of the housing issues that impact our communities,” Gilbertson said.

Affordability

In surveying county workers, the Planning Office found a staggering 41 percent of all of the county’s renter households in 2015 were cost-burdened due to expenses related to housing and utilities. In other words, more than 30 percent of gross income in those households was spent on housing.

That’s not all, according to Gilbertson. The workforce survey that produced the data targeted workers at some of the county’s leading employers, which means they were likely to earn higher average incomes than other county households.

One possible factor contributing to such a high percentage of income going toward housing, participant responses suggested, could be the concentration of poorly maintained properties in certain areas leading to a short supply of quality units. The same factor could be a roadblock to home ownership as well.

Quality of life

Nearly a quarter of the workforce survey respondents indicated they are considering a move out of Crawford County. People who are thinking about moving are less likely to commit to home ownership — especially if they can’t find a good supply of housing options that fit their needs.

According to the Planning Office’s housing study, many potential home buyers want modest-sized homes that can be hard to come across in communities — like many in Crawford County — where available homes consist primarily of older and larger homes. More than 80 percent of the county’s housing stock was built before 1990, according to the study.

Businesses that participated in the study suggested they struggle to recruit and retain talented workers, with housing and local living conditions having a negative influence.

“We can’t continue to build a competitive environment for new investment without establishing a high quality of life for our citizens,” county Commissioner Francis Weiderspahn said.

An aging population

The only portion of the county’s population that is expected to increase in the near future consists of people between 65 and 84 years old, according to Gilbertson. As a whole, population is on the decline — and the speed of that decline is increasing.

Between 2010 and 2017, the county lost 1.5 percent of its residents. Over the next five years, it’s expected to lose another 1.7 percent.

While young potential home buyers are more likely to look for smaller and newer homes, the older homes that are more common across the county are becoming more of a burden to older residents, results of the study suggest. Such homes tend to feature multiple floors and require costlier maintenance even as seniors tend to be on fixed incomes that can be challenged by increasing costs related to taxes and health care, for example.

Struggling local governments

Housing blight doesn’t just affect neighbors like Shutsa and LoBello who have to live next to dilapidated properties.

“These problems encumber local government budgets,” Gilbertson said.

In City Council’s discussion of concerns about properties on Reynolds Avenue, Walker confirmed as much. The city, he reminded council, has just two part-time employees whose job is to handle code enforcement.

Mayor LeRoy Stearns asked about the possibility of issuing citations to repeat violators on a daily basis in order to provoke action.

Such a response may be tempting, but it may not be manageable given the number of properties with code violations and the limited staff to address them.

According to the Planning Office’s housing study, the effects show up on the bottom line for both local governments and taxpayers in a vicious cycle that threatens to spin out of control.

Between 2010 and 2017, the study showed, school districts, municipal governments and the county itself lost out on nearly $1 million in uncollected property taxes. The result is more of a burden on those government entities. The lost revenue creates pressure on local governments to compensate by raising taxes — but higher taxes predictably lead to more delinquency in tax collection.

What can be done?

The housing challenges that can be found across Crawford County are not unique to the county — they can be found across the state.

At the same time, models for responses to those challenges can be found in neighboring counties and elsewhere, according to Gilbertson.

Front Porch Forensics logo

Those possibilities and more will be on the table as the Planning Office staff takes its housing plan on the road the last week of August with “Front Porch Forums” held in Meadville and Titusville.

“We must take a long-term approach to housing,” Commissioner Christopher Soff said. “We didn’t get here overnight, and adjustments will take time to happen.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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