Friday, March 23, 2012

Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling & The Region's Housing

A series of programs about the Marcellus Shale gas drilling is taking place on the Bloomsburg University campus this week. Kevin Clark, on assignment to the College of Liberal Arts, provided this report on Wednesday's program: 

Bloomsburg University’s week-long forum on the Impacts of the Marcellus Shale Industry on our Region continued today [Wednesday, March 21] with a discussion of the effects the natural gas drilling boom has had on the region’s housing.  Dr. Bonita Kolb investigated the strains on rental housing that Marcellus Shale drilling operations bring with them, noting that rental prices rose and housing shortages added new challenges for the non-working poor, seniors, the disabled, and the working poor.  

Kolb, who conducted the survey in both the northern tier counties of Bradford, Sullivan, and Lycoming counties, as well as in the southwestern Pa. counties of Greene, Washington, and Westmoreland, described the three waves of demand that have affected housing options for both locals and industry out-of-staters.  She described the first wave as industry representatives who clamored to the area to tie up land leases for potential drilling sites.  They needed short-term housing and occupied most of the existing hotel space.  The second wave came when drilling began; these tend to be long-time hires who need apartments and houses.  One consequence of the second wave has been to create more demand for rental units, rendering moderately priced housing a thing of the past in places like Williamsport.  “Gone,” Kolb says, “are the days of $300 to $400 apartments.”  She told the story of one recent graduate who felt lucky to find a new one bedroom apartment for $1,200 a month in Williamsport.  The third wave of industry newcomers are professionals who make good salaries and are demanding new houses where there are few new houses available.  Kolb noted that some of these professionals are commercially licensed drivers, who command 80,000 to 100,000 a year—and who “after purchasing big screen TVs and pickups, want to buy homes.” 

Lost in the din and dust of drilling are the elderly and working poor, who often count on Section 8 government housing vouchers to meet their residential need.  Kolb says this has led to people doubling up with other family members or “couch surfing” as they board with family and friends temporarily.  Tioga County is opening its first-ever homeless shelter, and Kolb found that more rural places like Sullivan County are receiving the displaced poor of neighboring Bradford County as rising rental prices force them out.   

Some bright spots associated with the boom include new incentives for developers to build additional housing.  Kolb pointed to a new Hilton Towers and Conference center slated for Williamsport.  Still, the downside is that those locals who used to be able to afford modest housing are forced to accept substandard housing, while the poor are being forced onto the streets.  A housing summit is slated for April 3 in Harrisburg for state and federal housing officials who will review Kolb’s study and discuss long range solutions to the housing situation in Marcellus Shale communities.

The series is organized by the Green Campus Initiative

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