PA taking new measures in bipartisan fight against blight

Pennsylvania is stepping up its fight against blight and doing so in bipartisan fashion. 

The state House Housing and Community Development Committee unanimously approved last week a bill sponsored by Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Merski, D-Erie, to help municipalities fight blight. House Bill 225 would allow local governments to cooperate with one another to address blight and establish a fund to support enforcement efforts. 

HB 225 heads to the House chamber for consideration. 

Merski said in a statement that Gov. Josh Shapiro has proposed revitalizing communities via new projects, and those investments can transform Pennsylvania communities. 

“But we need to lay the groundwork by eliminating the blighted, abandoned properties that invite crime and deter investment,” said Merski. “My bill would allow communities to join forces in fighting blight and would bolster those efforts by providing the additional resources needed to enforce code violations.” 

To fund new code enforcement programs and the hiring of enforcement officers, HB 255 would create a grant program administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development. 

From blight to housing 

 Sen. Dave Argall, R-Carbon/Luzerne/Schuylkill, received an award from the Association of Community Development Corporations for transforming blighted buildings into housing. 

Argall credited the bipartisan work of government and volunteers for revitalizing Pennsylvania communities by ridding them of decaying and derelict buildings. 

“One of the biggest issues we face is the need to transform more blighted properties into new housing,” he said. 

Argall’s legislation this year to increase funding for demolition earned bipartisan approval by the Senate Urban and Housing Committee. In 2016 he sponsored Act 152, legislation allowing counties to raise money for demolition programs. The program enlists 25 counties and has raised millions of dollars to tear down hundreds of blighted buildings. In 2022, Argall introduced legislation to make the demolition programs permanent. 

Argall’s work to combat blight includes creating housing for seniors from a blighted building and an empty lot; demolishing the shell of a burned-out factory and converting it into 36 housing units for seniors; restoring the upper floors of vacant buildings into housing units; and transforming unused upper floors of buildings into apartment units.

Home sales nationally break 12-month high

Could the real estate market be changing course again?

In February, existing-home sales across the country reversed a yearlong slide, registering the largest monthly percentage increase since July 2020, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Month-over-month sales – completed existing-house transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops – rose in all four major U.S. regions. Year over year, all regions posted declines.

Total existing-home sales skyrocketed 14.5% from January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.58 million in February. They plummeted 22.6% (down from 5.92 million in February 2022) year over year.

“Conscious of changing mortgage rates, home buyers are taking advantage of any rate declines,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said in a release. “Moreover, we’re seeing stronger sales gains in areas where home prices are decreasing and the local economies are adding jobs.”

Total housing inventory registered at the end of February was 980,000 units, same as January and up 15.3% from a year ago (850,000). Unsold inventory sits at a 2.6-month supply at the current sales pace, down 10.3% from January but up from 1.7 months in February 2022.

“Inventory levels are still at historic lows,” Yun added. “Consequently, multiple offers are returning on a good number of properties.”

The median existing-home price for all housing types in January was $363,000, a decline of 0.2% from February 2022 ($363,700). This ends a record streak of 131 consecutive months of year-over-year increases.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Comcast further expanding network into Berks County

Comcast is expanding its fiber network to more than 5,000 residents and businesses in Amity Township. This is on top of a previously announced Berks County expansion into Exeter and St. Lawrence townships to 8,300-plus households and businesses.

The telecommunications conglomerate has started providing its full suite of services, including Xfinity residential broadband speeds up to 1.2 gigabits per second and Comcast Business speeds up to 100 Gbps, to its first new customers in Exeter Township.

Comcast is scheduled to complete the projects in Exeter and St. Lawrence this year and in Amity in early 2024. This is the company’s latest investment in central and eastern Pennsylvania.

“We are proud to further our investment in Berks County,” Dan Bonelli, senior vice president of Comcast’s Freedom Region, which is based in Pennsylvania, said in a release. “Through our network expansion work in Amity, Exeter and St. Lawrence Townships, we’re able to bring our reliable network to more homes and businesses and provide them with fast, reliable and secure Internet that keeps them connected.”

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Lehigh Valley renters becoming cost burdened

The Lehigh Valley’s median renter qualifies as cost burdened when it comes to housing these days, as affordability plummets. Households are considered cost burdened when they spend more than 30% of their income on rent, mortgage and other housing needs.

In Northampton County, the median housing cost ratio for renters was 30.1% (an estimated 32,729 occupied rental units) while it was 30.7% in Lehigh County (an estimated 48,003 occupied rental units).

Over 19 million U.S. renter households spent more than 30% of their income on housing costs in 2021, according to data from the 2017-2021 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates.

The burden was especially high in some of the nation’s largest counties where housing is pricier or in areas where incomes are low.

The ACS collects a variety of housing cost information for renters (monthly rent and utility bills) and for homeowners (mortgage principal and interest, real estate taxes, homeowner’s insurance, utilities, mobile home costs, second mortgage payments and condominium fees if applicable).

Homeowners in most of the country had a lower median cost burden than renters.

High housing costs can impact the amount of money households are able to save or use for other expenses. The ACS data show that renters were particularly vulnerable to cost burdens.

Part of the reason that rental housing cost is so high, as a percentage of income, is the lack of homes to purchase, combined with higher interest rates.

Loren Keim, president/broker of Century 21 Keim Realtors, wrote in an email: “There’s an old adage that says you are always buying a house, whether you’re buying one for yourself or you’re buying one for your landlord. And rental rates are a function of supply and demand. The current demand is very high, leading to upward pressure on rental rates. These increasing housing costs directly impact how much money households can save and how much disposable income each household has.”

Consumers have to make a decision whether to buy or rent, he said, and the lack of affordability is affecting home sales, too.

“Housing affordability in the Lehigh Valley dropped to the lowest level since I started tracking it in 2005, at only 79,” Keim said.

An index of 100 means median household income is 100% of what is necessary to qualify for a median-priced home under current interest rates. “A higher number means greater affordability. At a level of 79, that means the median household income won’t qualify with current interest rates for the median-priced home. This index has been at or above 100 since we started tracking in January of 2005, and in fact was above 200 at several points between 2011 and 2015.”

“I expect rental rates to continue to rise, although slower than the last 18 months, for several reasons,” Heim said. “In the Lehigh Valley, although there are several multifamily projects in development or under construction, there is still a low vacancy rate, leading to competition for those rental units. Additionally, developers and investment property buyers are paying more for construction and borrowing at higher interest rates to build projects, which drives their costs higher, which is passed onto the tenant.”

Rising rents can be explained by several factors, he said. The costs to maintain apartments, including lawn care, snow removal, landscaping, repairs and renovations, has also jumped. “The cost of utilities, for those landlords paying for utilities, has risen. All this leads to increased landlord cost, which is being passed along to the tenants in the form of higher rental rates.”

Anecdotally, Keim said, this has led some tenants to move farther from the Lehigh Valley into areas like Carbon and Schuylkill counties in order to find lower rents.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Awards for affordable rental housing total more than $92 million

Awards totaling more than $44.2 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credits, more than $20 million in National Housing Trust Funds for the construction of 1,459 affordable multifamily rental units in Pennsylvania, and more than $9 million in PennHOMES funding, were announced by Gov. Tom Wolf Thursday. 

This is the first year the agency is announcing awards for the new Pennsylvania housing tax credit totaling more than $19.3 million in state credits. The federal and state tax credits were approved by the board and administered by the PHFA. 

“The funding we award today will have a significant impact by adding 1,459 affordable rental units once construction is completed,” Wolf said in a statement. “In all communities across the state, affordable housing is in great demand, which is why the allocation of this funding is important for addressing that need.” 

Developments receiving funding will preserve and create an additional 1,518 total rental units, including 1,459 for low-income Pennsylvania residents, with 123 units for people at or below 30 percent of the area median income supported by the National Housing Trust Funds. 

PHFA Executive Director and CEO Robin Wiessmann said tax credits are important as they fill a void in the marketplace for the construction of affordable housing. 

“Even before the pandemic there was clear demand for more rental housing that fits people’s budgets. That demand is even stronger today, and this new round of tax credits, plus the additional funding, are vital for creating and rehabilitating much-needed affordable housing.” 

The 33 multifamily housing developments being awarded for tax credits can be viewed on the PHFA site at https://www.phfa.or/mhp/. Please see the list of tax credit recipients under “News: 2022” and dated 11/10.

Reading-area projects get $20.5M in state money

State Sen. Judy Schwank announced $20.5 million in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant funding for seven projects in her 11th Senatorial District.

· Alvernia University was awarded $7.5 million for the development of the vacant sixth floor of the Reading CollegeTowne building, allowing the university to expand program offerings and student housing.

· Reading Area Community College received $5 million for the Weitz Health Pavilion to fund a series of physical improvements to increase learning space for health care students and workers. The project would allow all health care programming to be housed in one building.

· Albright College was granted $3 million to renovate the Leo Camp Building, which will become home to the Science Research Institute. The institute offers after-school and summer learning programs to middle school and high school-age students. Renovations will include the addition of a food and brewery science lab.

· Olivet Boys and Girls Club received $1 million for safety and infrastructure improvements around four centers operating in Reading, including electrical, HVAC and plumbing upgrades.

· KidsPeace was allocated $1 million for improving at its Berks County facility in Muhlenberg Township. The funding will go toward an upgraded HVAC system; roof replacement; health and safety upgrades; and repaved sidewalks around the facility.

· FirstEnergy Stadium was awarded $2 million in continued support of renovations that are necessary to meet the facility standard issued by Major League Baseball.

· Reading Housing Authority was given $1 million to support the Oakbrook Homes Center for Community Services. The project will renovate the former boiler plant to create a core, shell and exterior for a new Family Services Complex.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

New Bethany Ministries expands housing advocacy program in Bethlehem schools

Bethlehem-based New Bethany Ministries is expanding its presence in Bethlehem Area School District to provide support and resources for homeless children and youth.

Members of the school board approved the addition of New Bethany Ministries housing advocate positions in three more schools through an American Rescue Plan Homeless Children and Youth grant, which sets aside Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds for the initiative.

New Bethany Ministries’ Housing Advocacy Program was first announced last year, funded by a donor from the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, and placed representatives in Donegan Elementary School, Broughal Middle School and Fountain Hill Elementary School. The housing advocates work with faculty to support families and continue to provide rental and other housing assistance services.

With the Emergency and Secondary School Relief funds incorporated, New Bethany Ministries has added Marvine, Thomas Jefferson and William Penn elementary schools to the program.

Each housing advocate spends 20 hours a week providing counseling, rent assistance, housing placement, and establishing relationships at each school. In the program’s first year, about 40 families received housing assistance.

“New Bethany Ministries is committed to its mission of offering hope and support to people who experience poverty, hunger and homelessness, with dignity and care without judgment,” Veronne Demesyeux, associate executive director, said in a release. “Housing insecurity affects children’s mental health and directly impacts a child in school, and we can start to see that trauma in their performance. We want our families to know that they can count on us during challenging times.”

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Competition for homes keeps falling

Fewer and fewer houses listed for sale are receiving multiple offers, real estate brokerage company Redfin reported, confirming what local agents are seeing as well.

Nationwide, 44.3% of home offers written by Redfin agents in July faced competition on a seasonally adjusted basis, compared with a revised rate of 50.9% in June and 63.8% in July 2021.

That’s the lowest share on record, with the exception of April 2020, when the market practically shut down because of COVID-19. It’s also the sixth straight monthly decline.

According to data submitted by Redfin’s agents, the typical home in a bidding war received 3.5 offers in July, down from 4.1 the previous month and 5.3 a year earlier.

Higher mortgage rates – now back over 5% for a 30-year, fixed-rate loan – and inflation are pricing some potential homebuyers out of the market, slowing activity.

As a result, while properties are often still selling quickly, 8% of listings each week experience a price cut, the highest share on record, Redfin said.

Of the metro areas analyzed by Redfin, however, Philadelphia had one of the busiest markets, with a 60.4% bidding-war rate in July, about the same as a year ago.

The cities with the lowest rates of homebuyer competition were Phoenix, 26.6%; Riverside, California, 31%; Seattle, 31.5%; Austin, Texas, 31.7; and Nashville, 33.3%.

In addition to Philadelphia, metros with the highest bidding-war rates were Raleigh, North Carolina, 63.8; Honolulu, 63%; Providence, Rhode Island, 60.5%; and Worcester, Massachusetts, 54.8%.

The city with the largest drop from July 2021 to July 2022 was Orlando, where listings with multiple offers fell from 81.4% to 37.4%.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Pennsylvania home prices rise again

Pennsylvania’s median home sales price climbed to $219,154 in July, up almost $3,000 from June, according to a report prepared for the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors.

Meanwhile, activity continues to slow. Closed sales totaled 13,096 last month, down 19.4% from July 2021.

“Median home sales price is up about 10% compared to last year at this time, as the commonwealth continues to see rising prices in most markets throughout the state,” Pennsylvania Association of Realtors President Christopher Beadling said in a release. “Higher prices in combination with increased mortgage rates is causing an affordability issue for some potential homebuyers.”

Beadling noted that the number of listings was about the same for June and July, and is down more than 20% year over year.

“We’re still seeing strong demand for homes in most markets and competition for those properties,” Beadling said. “However, conditions are making it harder for first-time buyers … . Some of the buyers I’ve been working with have made offers on multiple properties over a longer period of time before they’ve been successful.”

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

LV home sales slump in July on higher interest rates, record prices

With rising mortgage rates and record-high sales prices the housing market was cooling in the Lehigh Valley during July. 

“As more and more prospective buyers find their home purchase plans delayed, many are turning to the rental market, where competition has intensified due to increased demand,” said Greater Lehigh Valley Realtors CEO Justin Porembo. “A few downsides are rental prices are also increasing and scammers are taking advantage of someone’s desperation by posting fake rental ads and then stealing deposit money.” 

 According to GLVR, closed Sales dipped 18.3% to 752 listings. With inventory still not at sufficient, comfortable levels – there were 826 units in July for Lehigh and Northampton counties. The Median Sales Price increased 9.1% to $300,000. 

New Listings slipped 19.9 % to 876 for the month.
Pending Sales were down 11.9 % to 745.
Months’ Supply of Inventory was down 14.3% to 1.2 months.
The percentage of list price received increased 0.1% to 102.6% of asking price.
Homes sold, on average, in 13 days, down one day, or 7.1%. 

 In Carbon County, the Median Sales Price was unchanged at $220,000.  

Closed Sales were down three listings to 58.  

Pending Sales slipped two listings to 81. New Listings increased 13 listings to 114. Inventory saw a jump and came in at 156 units, leading to a Months’ Supply of Inventory that also increased to 2.2 months.  

Properties moved at a swift pace for the association’s more rural county, with Days on Market coming in at 19 days, up just two days from the previous July. 

 “Despite the current housing market struggles, there are bright spots,” said GLVR President Howard Schaeffer. “Inventory of existing homes has continued to move in a more positive direction, even if it’s not noticeable month-over-month, and despite the summer slowdown, homes are still selling quickly, with the typical home staying on market an average of 13 days.” 

Mortgage rates slip below 5%

For the first time since April, the 30-year mortgage rate average has fallen under 5%. Freddie Mac’s Primary Mortgage Market Survey, released Thursday, showed the average for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage was down to 4.99%.

The week before, the average was 5.3%. A year ago, a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage averaged 2.77%.

“Mortgage rates remained volatile due to the tug of war between inflationary pressures and a clear slowdown in economic growth,” Sam Khater, Freddie Mac’s chief economist, said in a release. “The high uncertainty surrounding inflation and other factors will likely cause rates to remain variable, especially as the Federal Reserve attempts to navigate the current economic environment.” According to the survey, a 15-year, fixed-rate mortgage averaged 4.26%, down from 4.58% the previous week and 2.1% a year ago.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer