Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Panel advances housing strategy

by on May 14, 2014 10:55 AM

With the Indiana Housing Plan nearing completion, members of the Indiana Housing Consortium held their final public meeting detailing their recommendations on how to best serve those who develop and need housing.

The meeting, held at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, highlighted several strategies to be used in the plan. Previous meetings had touched on such elements as consulting stakeholders, collecting data and reviewing existing plans, and calculating neighborhood topology. The development of a strategic plan is the second to last stage in the process, to be followed by the actual implementation of the plan.

“Following the wrap-up of the final planning document, the county will review and publicly display (the plan), in accordance with the municipality’s planning code, because it’s going to be the housing plan as part of the comprehensive plan for Indiana County,” said Marjorie Williams, principal with Mullin and Lonergan Associates, Inc.

Mullin and Lonergan Associates Inc. had been contacted by the consortium to study and compile the plan for the county. The study was financially supported by the County of Indiana and the United Way of Indiana County.

The plan touched on seven items, each with its own goal and objectives:

• Housing availability, with the goal that an adequate supply of housing is available to meet the needs and affordability levels of county households now and in the future.

One of the primary objectives in maintaining availability is the use of existing infrastructure in order to remain cost effective. Williams highlighted the use of tax incremental financing, which was used in the development of Walmart and the Windy Ridge area in White Township. Under this strategy, taxes are suspended on blighted or vacant property and loans are used to support new developments. Upon completion, these new developments are taxed at a higher rate than when the property was vacant or blighted. This new tax revenue is used to pay off the debt on the development. Once the debt is paid, the taxes revert back to the city, school and county.

• Housing quality, with the goal of ensuring a safe and healthily built environment and preservation of existing housing and improvement of neighborhoods.

The use of a land bank in these instances, according to Williams, can be especially useful.

“What this involves is either creating or using an existing entity in a county to create a land bank for the purpose of acquiring vacant and dilapidated properties,” she said.

A land bank is granted power through legislation that allows for the clearing of titles for dilapidated or vacant properties. This frees the property for demolition of the existing structure and development of new ones.

• Sustainable housing, with the goal of encouraging housing that supports sustainable development patterns by promoting efficient use of land, conservation of natural resources and easy access to public transit.

This encourages higher density residential development in designated and future growth areas, such as near parks or schools, and uses conservation and energy-efficient elements and technology in publicly funded rehabilitation initiatives.

• Housing affordability, to promote the development and preservation of quality housing that is affordable to households of all income levels.

The objective of the housing plan is to narrow the gap between housing costs and income, helping to create cost-appropriate housing and rental properties while promoting mixed-income development in both single and multi-family communities.

• Maintaining a balanced community while striving for livable mixed-income neighborhoods.

The plan will promote development of mixed housing types to accommodate the aforementioned mixed incomes while avoiding concentration of lower income households in any one area.

A balanced community also supports the development of housing for special needs populations, considered some of the most difficult to house in the market.

• Ensuring a range of housing is available with appropriate services.

Developers are encouraged to plan and coordinate the provision of housing opportunities for households whose needs are not met by the private sector, including special needs individuals and the elderly. This also includes encouraging production and preservation of existing houses that are affordable to low-income households.

• The development of fair housing, ensuring freedom of choice is available to all.

Ultimately, according to Williams, the housing created is up to the municipality.

“Primarily in Pennsylvania,” she said, “the authority for the true land use rests in the municipalities. So, quite often, in the strategies that you will read for the housing plan, that’s why a lot of the words we use are ‘encourage’ and ‘facilitate’ … because it’s going to be the county working in collaboration with one of the municipalities.”

Jeremy Hartley is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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