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Restrictive zoning could spark ‘major’ housing shortage

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(The Center Square) — House Republicans support Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s rhetoric to reform the commonwealth’s permitting process, but they’re not satisfied with the pace of his push.

“We have a governor that ran on permitting reform,” Rep. Josh Kail, R-Beaver, said. “Unfortunately, there hasn’t been progress made the way there should have been in the first year of his administration.”

The House GOP Policy Committee met Wednesday in Tamaqua to discuss how to remove obstacles to opportunity, and much of the hearing centered on housing issues.

“We’re going to have a major housing issue in the very near future,” said Nick Boyle, a housing developer. “What’s slowing down progress? The government.”

He warned that older places across the commonwealth have constrained themselves by adopting “generic zoning and planning codes” that don’t take into account older buildings and streets. Those rules make it illegal to build apartments and mixed-use buildings because developers can’t put up structures today that already exist throughout a town.

“An easy example is our property on 46 Mauch Chunk Street,” Boyle said. “That building has a 2,250 square footprint. If that was a blank lot today, we would only be able to build a 900-square foot building with the generic setbacks that we have for zoning ordinances.”

Though there’s interest from developers to renovate old buildings, rigid planning codes kill the projects. Instead of Pennsylvania’s small towns preserving their architectural heritage, the localities face higher rents and more property blight.

Boyle gave another example where an old staircase in Tamaqua was 42 inches wide, but current code requires staircases to be 48 inches wide — but updating it would kill the project.

“To rip out that staircase, it’s literally going to cost more than the entire cost of the building,” he said. “We’re using everything in the name of safety to stop and slow down our projects.”

Developers can go through the variance process to get an exception, but the process is costly and time-consuming.

“In my experience, code enforcement officers will say, ‘file for a variance and you’ll get it,’” Boyle said. “Well, if that’s the case, why don’t I just pay $500 at closing and we don’t delay the development for 90 days? It’s going to cost between $400-$800 to file, attorney fees, engineering, surveying.”

The variance hearings, he said, have become another form of revenue generation for municipalities because zoning and code rules requires so many projects to get one.

The problem is a national one, even in super-dense places. A 2016 story in The New York Times noted that 40% of the buildings in Manhattan could not get built today due to zoning restrictions.

“Is it really a safety concern that the light switch is two inches higher than code?” said Mike Tobash, principal of Tobash Financial Solutions and a former state representative. “It’s what’s causing projects to be dead on arrival.”

Without strict codes and zoning, he said, dilapidated buildings would get renovated and returned to the housing market.

“We’ve reached a point in time where safety requirements have become roadblocks,” Tobash said. “We have safety regulations that are causing some buildings to remain unsafe.”

Elsewhere, legislators have called the commonwealth’s housing shortage the “elephant in the room.” Rising rents and home prices are a result of a restricted supply that has hit urban, suburban, and rural Pennsylvania. Labor shortages, in addition to red tape, have made it harder to get more housing built to meet housing demand.

“One of the things that we’re seeing right now in our region is an affordable housing crisis,” said Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Weissport. “It is so costly to develop property.”

The Pennsylvanians who suffer, he said, are senior citizens who can’t downsize and young people who leave the state because they can’t afford housing costs.

“If our children aren’t able to buy homes in our communities, we’re not gonna live near our grandkids and our communities aren’t going to thrive,” Heffley said. “We’re making it so restrictive and so costly to develop.”

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