A new housing market report sheds light on Lebanon County’s three major housing problems while also offering potential solutions to address those needs. 

The report states affordability and accessibility are adversely impacting the ability of renters, would-be homebuyers and individuals who work but don’t live in the county to secure adequate housing. 

A third finding identifies the subpar condition of existing housing stock as another problem that needs to be addressed. (Still another portion of the study, paid by the city of Lebanon, addresses the city’s metrics.)     

“The report takes a look at housing as a whole, across the entire spectrum of the housing market,” said Nicole Maurer Gray, executive director for Community Health Council of Lebanon County, “and is to be included in the county’s new comprehensive plan. The county is doing a comprehensive plan and these are the kinds of objectives that go into a study of this nature. We are a commonwealth and these kinds of decisions are made at the municipal level.” 

Read More: Lebanon County launches process to craft new 10-year comprehensive plan

The Community Health Council will host an informational session with Bowen National Research to answer questions about the report on Sept. 21 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce. The event is free to the public, but attendees are asked to pre-register.

If you go: Housing needs study public information session

When: Sept. 21, 1 to 2:30 p.m.
Where: Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce
Cost: Free, but pre-registration is encouraged

“The study is completed, so this is not a meeting to gather public input but rather for people to ask questions of the vendor about the findings within the report,” added Gray.

Commissioned by the county and city officials and administered by the Community Health Council’s Coalition to End Homelessness, the “Housing Needs Assessment (HNA) of Lebanon County” report (PDF) was completed to evaluate current housing conditions and forecast future housing needs within the county. 

Gray said the study includes a comprehensive analysis of area demographics, economics, and housing inventory, and concludes with housing gap estimates (number of units needed) and recommendations for addressing local housing issues. 

Information contained within the study, conducted by Bowen National Research, is intended to assist local stakeholders in identifying housing challenges and opportunities and to appropriately plan future housing development, she noted.

The problems identified in the study are not unique to Lebanon County, according to Patrick Bowen, president of Bowen National Research, an Ohio-based real estate market analysis firm hired to conduct the study.

“If there is a silver lining on the housing shortage issue in Lebanon County, it is that you are not alone,” said Bowen. “We do work all over the United States, and since COVID impacted the nation, there have not only been issues with the availability of housing but also the affordability of housing.”

Bowen said the needs of one municipality may not be the same as another within the same county. 

“There is not one answer that’s like a silver bullet for the community,” he said.
“Clearly, when you have a shortage of housing, one of the ways out of it is to build more housing. There are a lot of ways to encourage additional residential development.”

Gray said that’s why it’s important for all stakeholders – business leaders and business owners, community members, developers, municipal government officials and real estate agents – to be involved in addressing these issues.

“We need to get the right stakeholders to the table and we have to convince municipal leaders to make investments and decisions that will have an impact across the entire housing spectrum,” said Gray.

Another need that tends to fall off the radar of local leaders is the worsening condition of existing housing stock, added Bowen.

“At the same time, I think a lot of communities tend to forget about what we need to do to preserve what we already have,” he said. “Lebanon County is no different than much of the nation in that you have a lot of older (housing) product, lower quality product, and some of it is reaching the point where it is functionally obsolete.”

Bowen added there are numerous ways to address this particular concern. Implementing home repair and home weatherization programs and conducting educational campaigns for homeowners about what they can do to repair their homes were a few examples offered by Bowen as solutions.   

One statistic that struck Gray was how little housing is actually available countywide – especially in the rental market. “We’re at 99.3 percent capacity for rental units, which does not contribute to a healthy and well-balanced community,” she said.  

Bowen noted that the desire to cherish a predominantly rural and bucolic lifestyle by preserving open spaces are attributes that can be maintained while addressing housing affordability and accessibility concerns.

“We have seen that in communities that are trying to preserve their way of life and nature of their community, they will often rethink how they approach residential development,” he said. “It may be getting a major employer to donate or sell land for residential development, it could be the community donating or selling publicly owned land for residential development purposes, it may be changing land uses like an undeveloped industrial site to a residential site, or it may involve identifying abandoned or unused buildings like old schools or churches or vacant office buildings and converting them to residential uses. 

“While such approaches aren’t always available or practical, they demonstrate how communities are trying to be a little more creative in their approach to where and how to develop housing.”

One noteworthy fact revealed during the course of the year-long study, which was paid via a state grant, was the long waiting list for people seeking affordable housing.

“You asked me whether anything in the study surprised me and what did was the waitlist for people to get into government-subsidized housing,” said Bowen. “It’s in the thousands. For people who are trying to get on the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8), the waitlist for that, I think, is over 1,200 — or over 1,200 households. So, there are a lot of people who are waiting to get into affordable rentals. While we don’t have any documentation to show you the number of people who are waiting to purchase affordable housing, you do see they have limited choices.”

Bowen added that Lebanon County is not different in this regard from the rest of the nation, either, adding that, “in your area, there are limited choices to (renting and purchasing) affordable housing.”

All of these issues will be exacerbated by the statistic that shows the number of households in Lebanon County is expected to grow by 1 percent over the next five years.   

In 2022, there was an estimated total of 56,422 households in Lebanon County. Between 2022 and 2027, the number of households is projected to increase by an additional 580 households, or 1.0%, at which time the estimated total households will be 57,002.

The report notes: “While this household growth likely indicates a notable increase in demand for housing in the county over the next five years, it should be noted that household growth alone does not dictate the total housing needs of a market. Other factors, such as households living in substandard or cost-burdened housing, commuting patterns, pent-up demand, availability of existing housing, and product in the development pipeline also affect housing needs.”

“Unlike many other Pennsylvania communities, Lebanon County is growing and has a chance to grow further to the benefit of its citizens,” said Bowen. “The failure to address local housing issues will only place greater burdens on local residents and workers, hurt local employers and ultimately prevent Lebanon County from reaching its potential.”

For both Bowen and Gray, these issues are about the community’s quality of life and the health of its residents.

“My advice to community leaders is that they should understand how critical good quality, affordable and safe housing is to the quality of life of the communities’ citizens, that a large portion of the local workforce is struggling to pay for housing and often living in substandard housing conditions, and local employers are not able to attract workers or to grow to a degree they are capable of,” Bowen said.

“Housing is an extremely important social determinant of health,” said Gray. “Essentially, a person’s housing status — meaning are they housing insecure, are they living in substandard housing, is their housing affordable, are they paying less than 30 percent of their monthly income towards mortgage or rent — all of those things affect a person’s health status, so housing has always been very important to healthcare.

“The Community Health Council has an interest in housing based on how a person’s housing can affect their health and well-being.”

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...