Affordable homes, the effects of the Marcellus shale industry and higher education’s impact on the real estate market are key housing issues facing the county, according to residents, officials and consultants who gathered Tuesday evening at a public meeting for the Indiana County Housing Study.
Held at the Department of Human Services Office in White Township, the public meeting brought stakeholders together with representatives of Mullin, Lonergan and Associates.
The Pittsburgh-based planning consultants have been working with the county since early summer to assess housing needs and, ultimately, create a strategic plan that will be used to guide housing-related decision making.
The project was initiated and is supported by the county commissioners, the Housing Consortium of Indiana County and the United Way of Indiana County.
Expected to take a total of nine months to complete at a cost of $50,000, the housing study is supported by a community block grant, a United Way contribution and county money from Act 13 and Act 37 funds.
The plan is expected to be complete by February, according to Marjorie Williams, a planner from Mullin, Lonergan and Associates.
Other project milestones include the development of a document identifying housing needs and the creation of a series of goals and objectives for commissioners and other county officials.
Those within county agencies expect to rely on the plan to make positive changes well into the future, according to LuAnn Zak, Deputy Director of Community Development and Housing at the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development.
“(Consultants) are going to help develop a 10-year plan on how we can take advantage of what we do have and spend our resources wisely helping those who need help,” she said.
Questions officials hope to address, she said, relate to where residents want to live and what’s holding them back from doing so.
Other issues Zak noted include a lack of housing available in the $100,000 to $200,000 range and residents who lack access to utilities and live in unsafe conditions.
As Zak’s concerns suggest, diversity — of both needs and opportunities — is emerging as a characteristic of the county, according to Williams.
The study will gather information and assess the varied housing needs throughout the county. It’s already apparent, she said, that there is no room to make “countywide assumptions.”
“I think that what became really clear is that you cannot paint the Indiana County housing market with the same brush,” she said.
According to data and feedback, housing matters concerning county residents can range from the problem of limited resources in sparsely populated areas to the question of sprawl in growing municipalities.
“We’re trying to break it down by issue as much as by geographic area,” she said.
The public meeting attracted about a dozen participants. Guided by Williams, attendees shared their thoughts on what they perceive to be the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing Indiana.
Despite a small turnout, she praised the quality of the input attendees offered.
“I thought the comments that were given were very good,” she said.
The public meeting is one of several that consultants have been conducting this week. Others brought together individuals such as real estate agents and municipal officials to discuss the same issues, also using the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — otherwise known as SWOT — analysis model as a framework.
Collecting information from different perspectives is essential to the study,
“We’re hoping to cover the entire housing market,” Zak said. “That’s why it was so great to see a lot of the realtors come.”
The feedback gained in a forum setting, according to Williams, is invaluable.
“You can only hear that from the stakeholders,” she said. “You can’t go to the census and get that info.”
At Tuesday night’s public meeting, participants identified a number of matters using the SWOT model.
Among the strengths identified by attendees were the county’s low cost of living, its low crime rate and a mix of both rural and urban living.
Some of the weaknesses discussed included the lack of zoning and municipal police in many areas, the lack of zoning in municipalities, rental rates that are unaffordable for some and the aging infrastructure of older homes.
Opportunities covered touched on the potential offered by tax abatements and the interest of younger adults to remain in or return to the county.
Participants also shared their thoughts on threats. Some suggested were lack of available technology — both on the job front and for individuals — the lack of resources to tear down vacant properties and the challenges of creating new jobs.
County commissioner Chairman Rodney Ruddock said those at the county level are doing as much as possible to attract businesses with an eye toward the future.
“We’ve got to prepare for the next generation’s need,” he said. “I think we’re working to do that.”
According to officials, the housing consortium and consultants will host another public meeting, perhaps as soon as December.
Tuesday night’s meeting will be available to view on YouTube.com next week. Copies of the firm’s PowerPoint presentation and a survey open to all residents will also be available.
The YouTube link, PowerPoint and survey can be accessed through the Indiana County Department of Human Services website at www.humanservices-countyofindiana.org.