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Marcellus gas drilling fees generate $5M to ease housing shortages

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The state is looking to spend $5 million in fees generated from Marcellus shale drillers to ease housing shortages in areas that have been flooded by a migrating stream of industry workers.

The money administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency is from a special fund that lawmakers carved out of impact fees from the booming drilling industry to address housing issues.

At least a third of the money will go to help the poorest residents, and much of it could end up in the counties surrounding Pittsburgh, according to the agency, which put out a request for proposals for projects to build and renovate homes.

“We're very grateful for this money,” said Robbie Matesic, executive director of economic development for Greene County. “It's something that people have been waiting for a long time.”

The $5 million is a fixed amount the agency receives annually from gas drilling impact fees. The money for housing projects can balloon with additional funds that are above a cap that lawmakers have placed on impact fees municipalities can receive from gas drillers.

The housing finance agency doled out $7.9 million in 2012, the first year of the program.

Washington and Greene counties each received about $600,000 last year, putting them among the top five counties in the state, said Bryce Maretzki, the agency's director of business development. Beaver, Butler and Fayette counties each received about $300,000 last year.

Greene County has earmarked its area for a $10 million building with about 52 units for seniors. It still needs to win $8.5 million in state tax credits before it can go forward, said David Burg of PIRHL Developers in suburban Cleveland.

Counties all across the state have anecdotally reported that housing price increases have often followed an influx of drilling during the shale gas rush. It has been a point of emphasis both for county leaders, state legislators and Gov. Tom Corbett's shale drilling advisers.

The working poor, the disabled and seniors are often the worst affected by the influx of drillers, according to a report the Housing Finance Agency's commissioned from Lycoming College researchers in 2011.

Rents have often doubled or tripled up to $1,500 a month for a single-family unit, Matesic said. Workers found 20 homeless people in Greene County during a count in August 2012. Usually there is one at most, she said.

Westmoreland County plans to use $125,000 to reinstate a program that fixes roofs, heating and cooling systems, plumbing and other issues to keep homes from deteriorating. By stabilizing the housing stock, the county hopes it will give migrating workers with healthy incomes more options for buying homes and permanently joining the community, said Terri A. Yurcisin, deputy director for the county planning and development.

It's too early to say how well the program has worked, she said. The county is waiting to finalize the contract to get its money from 2012, she said.

“We've essentially invited these people to take one more step to becoming a resident,” Maretzki said. “It's a much more positive community and economic benefit rather than just renting an apartment or a hotel room for a couple weeks and then heading back to Texas.”

The agency has been working with the state Public Utility Commission to make awards quickly, he added. The commission gave it advance estimates on how much money it would receive in 2012, allowing it to seek proposals in advance and make awards as soon as the money came in last fall.

It awarded $7.9 million to 25 projects last year, Maretzki said. That leveraged $120 million in private and public funding to build or repair about 750 new units statewide, he said.

Counties that host drilling and some municipalities that receive money from the state's drilling impact fee are eligible to apply to the fund, known as the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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