Pa. lawmakers’ push for denser housing could have a big impact in Harrisburg — and beyond


The Pennsylvania Legislature has a bipartisan interest in relaxing local zoning rules to allow for denser housing — though the political future of the concept is unclear, as evidenced during a House of Representatives committee meeting Wednesday.

The House Local Government Committee approved two bills authored by Rep. Joshua Siegel, D-Lehigh County, both of which would change the portion of state law that allows zoning, giving municipalities the power to limit certain land uses to certain areas.

Siegel’s bills mirror proposals drafted by Republicans in the Senate, although those measures must still be introduced before a committee vote. But the fact that both sides of the aisle and both chambers are paying attention, advocates say, is a significant development for an issue that has often flown under the radar.

One of Siegel’s bills would require municipalities of a certain size to allow multifamily housing developments in commercial zones, with a particular focus on the reuse of vacant office buildings.

The second bill would similarly require small multifamily buildings — up to four units — to be allowed in zones that otherwise limit those municipalities to single-family detached homes.

The intent, Siegel said, is to help stem the tide of the affordable housing crisis by simply allowing more — and more cost-efficient — housing to be built, reducing the supply-demand imbalance that has driven up home prices and rents boosted. .

“We are in danger of becoming the next California or Connecticut, where we are so unaffordable that residents cannot find a home to live in and they flee the state,” Siegel said, specifically appealing to the concerns of his more conservative colleagues on the consequences of climate change. the Commonwealth workforce.

“At the end of the day, this is frankly a pro-free market argument,” Siegel continued, since “we are artificially limiting the market” with zoning laws that limit housing supply.

Both of Siegel’s bills were amended during Wednesday’s committee meeting to weaken them slightly in an attempt at compromise. A provision has been added that allows municipalities to request a study into the impact of a project from provincial or regional planners and to impose additional requirements on the development based on the results.

The bills also only apply to municipalities with more than 5,000 residents, and an additional caveat added Wednesday would place the zoning mandates only on municipalities in counties where population growth occurred between the two most recent censuses.

Still, the bill applying to commercial zones passed the committee on a party-line vote of 11-14, with Republicans decrying what they said would be a loss of local control.

Dad. State Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland County, said Wednesday that the fact that Rep. Joshua Siegel’s similar measures are seeing movement “shows the concept is necessary.”

“We cannot allow the state to override local zoning laws,” said Rep. Andrew Kuzma, R-Allegheny County, saying Siegel’s argument was a slippery slope, akin to the state requiring municipalities to install sewer systems or cell phone towers allowed in residential areas.

The bill requiring small multifamily buildings in single-family zones received an even stricter 12-13 vote, with Rep. Christina Sappey, D-Chester County, joining Republicans in opposition.

Gaining support from lawmakers in wealthy suburban areas — which have long cherished their single-family-only restrictions — will likely be the most difficult part of getting bills through the House of Representatives, where Democrats have a one-seat majority.

In the Republican-controlled Senate, however, the concept already has bipartisan support in the form of a bill that would require multifamily structures of varying sizes to be allowed in single-family zones, tying the number of units allowed to the size of the municipality.

The Senate bill would also limit municipalities’ ability to impose minimum parking and lot clearance rules, both of which reduce the density of housing projects and thus increase per-unit costs.

The fact that Siegel’s similar measures are creating movement “shows that the concept is needed,” said Sen. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland County, one of the bill’s authors in the Senate and someone who has worked as a developer at the real estate company of his family.

The fact that these zoning reforms are often in line with the interests of developers is one of the main objections to them. Speaking about the issue earlier this year, the head of the state regulators association told the Philadelphia Inquirer that “it’s not unusual for builders and realtors to not want there to be rules” and characterized the proposals as “one -size-size-size-1. solutions for everyone.”

However, advocates like Siegel argue the opposite: that a small number of municipal officials are driving up costs for everyone else by banning denser housing is itself much more of a burden.

“For too long, municipalities across the Commonwealth have been very exclusionary and unwilling to open up their zoning laws to meet demand where it is needed most,” Siegel said. That is “why it is so unaffordable for young people to buy their first home or first residence, and why it is so expensive for older people to downsize.”

The movement to relax restrictive zoning has grown in recent years, and the data is starting to show some results; Pew economists found last year that urban areas that were rezoned for denser housing saw rents rise much slower than the national average.

Public opinion is also starting to change. A poll of 910 Pennsylvania voters earlier this year found that 56% supported allowing small multifamily projects in any residential area, and 80% of voters supported it in commercial zones, making both of Siegel’s proposals politically came to the surface.

The poll was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Housing Choices Coalition, which represents a number of affordable housing advocates and business associations.

The problem is also a local one for the Harrisburg region, which has seen rapid increases in home prices tied to slow — and in some cases negative — growth in housing inventory. Even before the pandemic, the Harrisburg-Carlisle metro area had a 9,000-unit shortage of housing affordable to families in the bottom quarter of the income scale, according to data from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve.

Dad. State Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton County, said Wednesday that “since the early 1950s and the adoption of single-family zoning, we have lost sight of the idea” that residents of apartments, townhomes and single-family homes can all live close together.

Proposals like Siegel’s would be “a major victory because it provides an opportunity for more housing in areas that have existing resources,” said Leah Eppinger, president of the American Planning Association’s PA chapter as well as director of the American Planning Association. Dauphin County Housing Authority.

“A lot of it comes down to education and making sure local officials understand what this means and what this looks like,” Eppinger said, emphasizing that multifamily housing can fit very well into single-family neighborhoods.

There are “a lot of negative connotations that we’re trying to get past,” especially with the idea that denser housing is socially undesirable, Eppinger said. A small multifamily structure “doesn’t necessarily have to look very different” from a single-family home and can expand municipalities’ tax bases, she noted.

For decades, single-family zoning was the standard for many townships and suburban boroughs, with large minimum lot sizes and lawn setback rules that limited neighborhoods to more affluent residents — and were sometimes implemented for reasons related to race or class.

“Since the early 1950s and the adoption of single-family zoning, we have lost sight of the idea that residents of apartments, townhomes and single-family homes can all live in the neighborhood,” said committee chairman Rep. Robert. Freeman, D-Northampton, spoke in favor of Siegel’s bills during Wednesday’s meeting.

“The adoption of single-family zoning has itself created an exclusionary process,” even if not always intentionally, Freeman said, and the overuse of single-family zoning has exacerbated the problems of suburban sprawl and excessive traffic in worked by hand.

For developers, it’s a math problem. The costs of buying land and building roads and utilities are largely fixed, and more housing in a given area spreads out costs, driving down home prices and rents.

“You need the density to offset that, to make the project profitable and economically viable, and if you don’t have that density, it kills the project,” Harrisburg-area developer Jonathan Bowser told PennLive on last year’s topic.

Bowser and his partners have completed several high-density, mixed-use commercial and residential projects, such as the Steel Works in Steelton, where the municipality was willing to relax its zoning.

If there were a similar zoning waiver elsewhere, “I think we would see the opportunity to get more housing stock online because a lot of the communities are built out,” Bowser said.

In many Harrisburg suburbs, most of the land is still zoned exclusively for single-family homes, driving up the price of the few plots of land open to multi-family housing.

“So almost before you get into an affordable housing deal, you’re being held back because you can’t get past the land price,” Eppinger said. “Expanding available land is just basic economics.”

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