Indiana, PA - Indiana County

County officials take stock of housing needs with survey

by JULIE E. MARTIN jmartin@indianagazette.net on November 04, 2013 11:00 AM

A survey of residents, being completed to gather input for Indiana County’s new housing strategic plan, is winding down this week, but there is still time to respond.

Those in the county have until Nov. 8 to complete the 13-question online survey, available through the Indiana County Department of Human Services website.

For residents without Internet access, those at the agency are offering to provide hard copies that can be mailed out or picked up at the department’s office on Indiana Springs Road.

Officials said that resident responses will be an important piece of the puzzle that Pittsburgh-based consultants Mullin and Lonergan Associates put together when developing the strategic plan, which was spearheaded by county commissioners and the Housing Consortium of Indiana County.

The plan aims to identify and address priority housing needs in the county. After review, it will likely be unveiled in February, according to officials.

“One of the best ways to do a plan is to use a variety of means to get our answers,” said Bonni Dunlap, executive director of the Department of Human Services.

“It’s a very good way to approach doing a study.”

Dunlap stresses that the survey, and the resulting strategic plan, is one designed to address countywide housing issues and take into account the needs of those from all parts of Indiana.

The Housing Consortium’s survey, which takes about 10 minutes to complete, aims to gather information like whether respondents rent or own their homes and what factors were important in selecting their residence.

As of late last week, close to 200 had completed the survey. Dunlap describes that as a good response, but said she would like to see as many as possible weigh in, especially renters, who are currently underrepresented in the results.

“The housing survey is important as an overall piece of this plan,” she said. “So we really want to have more residents respond.”

In addition to the survey, Mullin and Lonergan have also been gathering information through public forums and stakeholder interviews.

Among identified stakeholders are those from county human service agencies, for-profit and public housing developers, and county planners.

According to Jeff Raykes, chief planner at the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development, stakeholder responses will go a long way toward directing where the county focuses its housing efforts in the future.

“It directs private and public investments,” he said. “One of the basic tenets of planning is community engagement, so planning always necessarily involves engaging the stakeholders.”

“I think what you get in a (strategic housing plan) is a set of recommendations based on community input and the expertise of consultants and staff, but leading that is what people think is important.”

Selecting consultants who would take into account what individuals in the county think matters was important when reviewing candidates. According to Raykes, officials believed that doing so was essential to creating an effective plan.

In addition to stakeholder interviews, forums and the survey, Mullin and Lonergan have also been compiling and reviewing U.S. Census data in a preliminary effort to get a sense of the county’s housing priorities.

The consulting firm was hired in the latter half of the summer and will be paid about $50,000 for the project. Financial support for the strategic planning process comes from county Community Development Block Grant money, Act 37 and Act 13 funding, and the United Way of Indiana County.

While the findings are preliminary and may differ in the final plan, key areas initially identified as having potential to impact the housing market include the Marcellus shale industry, the supply of and demand for affordable rentals, the needs of elderly and special-needs populations, and the effect student housing has on the market.

The housing strategic plan was identified as an important undertaking when Indiana County officials created a new county comprehensive plan several years ago. Its results are expected to illustrate where county housing resources should be directed in order to address residents’ needs.

With the economy tightening in recent years, efficiently doing so is priority for the county and its agencies. That’s a trend, according to Raykes, that is leading planning efforts throughout western Pennsylvania and the rest of the state in an attempt to prioritize housing needs and offer tangible housing solutions.

“I think that’s the big thing for us. Are we going to come out with something that’s real and operational?” he said.

From the viewpoint of those involved with creation of the plan, doing so can only come about with input from the community. The survey, they hope, will go a long way towards that.

“Everybody is a stakeholder in a housing plan,” Raykes said. “So the challenge for us is making sure we have their voice in the plan. That’s what the survey is all about.”

 

 

To take the survey:

• Go to www.humanservices-countyofindiana.org

• Click the “Information About Human Services in Indiana County” from the menu on the right side of the webpage

• Select “Housing Consortium” (last selection in Resource Library list)

• Choose “Housing Survey” to be linked to the survey

A link to the survey is also available on the Indiana County Department of Human Services Facebook page.

Both sites also offer access to the presentation materials and a recording of the first public meeting hosted by Mullin and Longernan in mid-October.

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