RIDGWAY – The PHARE fund appears to be gaining its footing as Marcellus Shale regions are seeing yearly allocations for local distribution.
In 2012, the base allocation for PHARE [Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement] was $2.5 million; for 2013 and beyond, the allocation has doubled.
The six-county region under the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission (Cameron, Clearfield, Elk, Jefferson, McKean and Potter Counties) have seen nearly half a million dollars in allocations in the past two years.
In Elk County, $100,000 in PHARE funds were reserved for the Ridgmont Senior Cottages project in 2013. Clearfield County in 2013 was awarded $125,000 for blight prevention and housing rehab.
"We had a problem for at least two decades really where we had a lot of older neighborhoods with rundown houses and blight issues," said Clearfield County Commissioner Mark McCracken. "It was always a tall order to find the money to address these issues and this has really been instrumental in helping Clearfield County."
PHARE was created from Act 105 in 2010 but did not have a funding stream.
"It was signed and it really was a vehicle to help address housing needs across all of Pennsylvania but there was no funding stream associated with that piece of legislation when it was done," said Bryce Maretzki, director for policy and strategic planning at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency [PHFA] in Harrisburg. "There were a couple of provisions in that Act requiring at least 30 percent of funds for households below 50 percent of the median area income. It really can address a wide range of housing from pre-development and acquisition of sites to engineering and architectural work, site prep, and bricks and sticks of doing the housing, rental assistance, and so forth.
"It's broad enough as a vehicle to do many things related to housing."
But without a funding source, the Act did nothing.
In 2012 under Governor Tom Corbett, Act 13 was passed and with it came the assessment of fees on wells and production to address "impacts" from drilling.
"Once there was money in the fund, we're required to post a plan through public comment and then adopt the plan which becomes our guiding tool," Maretzki said. "For a couple of years there was no money but in 2012 Governor Corbett took office and formed the Marcellus Shale Task Force that looked at a whole range of needs and impacts across the state in terms of water, roads, bridges, infrastructure and housing, and even social services and parks. One of the recommendations that came out of that was that there was a critical need in many of these communities for housing.
"Early on, even under the [former Governor Ed] Rendell administration, there were stories of wildcat drillers coming in from the southern states, living in hotels for two weeks or more at a time, then going home. They were taking up these hotels for months at a time in the early phase of the Marcellus Shale boom. You also had energy companies, the 'land men' out there tying up hundreds of thousands of acres of land for drilling, and that was sort of around 2007 to 2010 or 2011, all across the state."
Kenneth Straub, executive director of Northern Tier Community Action Corporation said Wednesday that these trends doomed many low-income renters across the state.
"They were displaced because the drilling companies were pushing up the rental fees," Straub said. "Many residents were put out on the street."
Maretzki and Straub agreed that some rental fees were increasing as much as fourfold.
"It really did create an incredible tension and bubble of need," Maretzki said. "There was a provision put into Act 13 that provided PHARE, Act 105 of 2010, that empty piggy bank, with a revenue stream to help address housing needs of immediacy in those Marcellus Shale regions.
"There has been about $406 million put into Act 13 and about 60 percent of that money has gone back to the counties and local municipalities while the other 40 percent went to various state agencies before being rolled out for infrastructure and a variety of other needs."
At least 50 percent of the PHARE funds are passed out to "rural" counties.
"It's ultimately your money and we want to get back to you what was derived from the wells drilled in your areas," said Melissa Raffensperger, government affairs officer for PHFA.
Of 78 projects throughout the effected regions, 59 of those projects were funded.
This led to the creation of 484 new rental units, 490 rehabilitated and repaired homes, 518 households with rental assistance, 272 homes for future development, and 42 new single family homes.
Starting in 2014, the PHRA proposes to provide eligible applicants (counties) with an estimate of the likely PHARE/Marcellus Shale allocation based on information provided by PUC. This estimate will be calculated on the "base" allocation received by PHFA and the number of operational gas wells in the county. The purpose of providing these figures will be to assist counties and their partners in developing a more strategic approach for the use of the PHARE funds.