Officials Discuss Housing Choices in Chester County

Housing choices for all residents is becoming an important topic of discussion in Chester County these days, and developers, municipal officials and experts recently shared ideas for how to tackle this issue during the county’s Urban Centers Forum. 

Chester County Commissioners’ Chair Michelle Kichline noted that the county’s 15 boroughs and the City of Coatesville, known as urban centers, “are a key focus within the county and their success is critical to the county’s overall success.”

“Continued revitalization of our urban centers is a core principal of Landscapes3, the update to the county comprehensive plan, which is moving forward toward adoption,” Kichline said, adding there will be a Landscapes3 public hearing at 7 p.m. November 29 at the Uptown Performing Arts Center in West Chester.

Commissioners’ Vice Chair Kathi Cozzone said there was significant discussion of various issues related to housing during the development of the revised comprehensive plan.

“This forum will continue that discussion and assist the county in determining future actions and collaboration to provide appropriate housing options to serve existing and future populations,” she said.

Cozzone noted that the Commissioners have supported numerous affordable housing developments over the years. Steel Town Village, a 48-unit affordable housing development in Phoenixville, will begin leasing up later this month. In addition, the Commissioners recently awarded three new affordable housing developments – two in the Phoenixville area and one in Thorndale.

Chester County Planning Commission Urban Planner Kevin Myers said future growth projections show there will be 146,000 more people, 55,000 more homes, 88,000 more jobs and 64,000 more seniors in the county in the next 30 years. “We need to figure out how to accommodate growth and different population types,” he said.

Levana Layendecker, deputy director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, encouraged forum attendees to support state Senate Bill 1185, which will increase private investment in affordable housing by creating a state housing tax credit. She said the new tax credit is modeled after the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit and will incentivize private investment in new and existing affordable housing. The goal of the legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Tom Killion, R-9, of Middletown, is to increase affordable housing options for struggling families, she said.

Kathryn Evans and Janice Biros, co-chairs of the Council on Affordable Housing in Phoenixville, said the council is developing ideas for affordable housing options that ensure all people who want to live in Phoenixville can stay there. The council is comprised of 25 people with various backgrounds from the private and public sectors. Evans noted housing is an issue everywhere in the United States these days “from California all the way to New York.”

Chip Huston, director of Habitat for Humanity of Chester County, said his organization has built or rehabilitated 151 homes in Chester County, including 117 in Coatesville, 17 in West Chester, 16 in Phoenixville, and one in Downingtown. Current projects include the completion of Coatesville’s Cambria Terrace development and a 40-home development on a 6.8-acre lot in West Grove.

Sarah Peck, principal at Progressive New Homes, discussed the benefits of infill housing developments, which are typically located near towns and underutilized industrial properties.

These types of developments provide housing choices for many people. Peck said the key to these developments is increased density, which lowers the land cost per unit and lowers infrastructure cost per unit. With the help of a performance zoning ordinance in Downingtown, Peck turned a former vacant Quonset hut located in a floodplain into Green Street Mews, an attractive, walkable affordable housing community.

Myers highlighted countywide housing statistics, including that the median housing sales number was $337,000 last year—a 6.5 percent, or $20,000 increase, from 2016. Notably, there were 1,675 homes built in 2017—the most Chester County has seen in nearly a decade. Of the new homes built, 39 percent were apartments, 31 percent were attached homes, and 30 percent were single-family detached homes. There is a continuing trend in which multi-family and single-family attached units comprise most of the new units built in Chester County versus the traditional single-family detached homes.

Of the county’s 196,000 housing units, about 19 percent are located in the urban centers. Within the urban centers, 50 percent of the housing units have homeowners; the other 50 percent are rental properties. In the county’s townships, about 81 percent of the housing units have homeowners; the remaining 19 percent are renters.

During the question-and-answer portion of the event, there was some discussion about housing preferences of millennials. Different experts offered their views on this topic.

Peck said millennials have a desire to buy homes when financing is available. Layendecker said a major barrier of home ownership for millennials is student loan debt.

Nancy Frame, executive director of the Housing Partnership of Chester County, said millennials are looking for their forever homes and not interested in buying starter homes. She has found that millennials won’t buy a home if it doesn’t have all their preferred amenities and features.

About 40 people attended the forum on Oct. 11 at the S.T.E.M. Academy in Downingtown. Chester County Department of Community Development Director Patrick Bokovitz said the Urban Centers Forums have been conducted since the development of VISTA 2025, the county’s economic development strategy. The forums are the result of a partnership involving Bokovitz’s department, the Chester County Planning Commission, and the Chester County Economic Development Council.

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