From more townhouses to single-family houses and furnished apartments, building developers and contractors, landlords and city leaders are laying out the foundation for a busy year ahead for residential construction projects.
The question is, will these properties be priced so high they only attract gas company workers or professionally salaried individuals?
"We need to see developers create a mixture of rental options and homes that can become owner-occupied and see formerly blighted properties restored to give people more housing choice," said City Councilman Jonathan Williamson, chairman of the city housing needs committee.
John J. Albarano II, president of Albarano Construction Inc., left, and Kuljeet “KJ” Singh, president of KNS Management LLC, stand in front of their newest project, an apartment building going up on East Canal Street.
The group, consisting of Williamson and Councilwomen Liz Miele and Bonnie Katz, met recently with Mayor Gabriel J. Campana and his department heads to review housing projects on the table or in the construction phase.
"We have a couple of hundred housing units - all by private developers - some of them online in short order and some staged to be built over the next two years," Williamson said. "It has been a long time since we've seen that kind of potential for development, and it is a nice mix of rental and owner-occupied with various price ranges from tax-subsidized to townhouses," he said.
However, when asked about the conundrum of skyrocketing rentals favoring higher paid workers who have pushed out tenants unable afford such hikes, Williamson acknowledged there is a real struggle faced by those who can't afford landlords "profiteering" and that developers offering more choices hopefully will be the balance that is needed to correct that disturbing trend.
As a landlord who oversees three apartments, Miele said she understands the need to build, rehabilitate and provide provisions to new residents who should be made to feel welcome, but she also has a spot in her heart for those who have lived in the city for years and are getting forced out because of rents beyond their capacity to bear.
"It would be a clear mistake to ignore the needs of the city's citizens in favor of the new gas drilling population," she said, "because many of these people have been here for generations."
For Katz, whether they be apartments, townhouses or restored homes - that is what is necessary to counter the housing shortage - and she welcomed all of the projects on the drawing board. But she also said the city never should impede the ability of landlords to retain good tenants who pay on time.
"It's really a catch-22 situation," she said. "There are those who can't afford the high rent, but then landlords should not be told who they should rent to."
City resident David Abernathy, who belongs to the Williamsport Landlords' Association and oversees about eight properties that rent for $350- to $900-a month, said the days of the $400-a-month housing are over.
"Don't demonize landlords because costs have crept up for them, too," he said. "We have to maintain the properties, replace appliances, buy salt for sidewalks and pay for bills when tenants skip out, as well as the increases in real estate taxes passed on by school districts and the city."
Abernathy said he easily could choose to lease his properties for much more per month but doesn't because he would rather establish relationships with the tenants and longer leases.
Abernathy confirmed that some landlords are taking advantage of the business climate, but he doesn't nor does he associate with those who do.
"The long-term issue is the cost of housing," Abernathy said. "It's just not affordable for the average salaries people make in Lycoming County."
Kuljeet "KJ" Singh, a developer of apartments and hotels, is constructing a three-story, 12-unit apartment complex at East Canal Street. The 490-square-foot apartments will have modern amenities and some will be furnished, he said.
Singh, who built the Fairfield Inn and Suites Marriott on Maynard Street, and owns KNS Management LLC, 926 Washington Blvd., wanted the apartments to be for working-class families and individuals but has declined to say what the apartments will rent for per month.
Singh is constructing the apartments, called Lafayette Gardens, for a $500,000 construction cost. That doesn't include costs for the land acquisition, development, architectural aspects, and water, sewer and electric utilities, he said.
"That's before the first hole is dug," Singh said.
Asked what inspired him to build the apartments, he said, "I was in a housing task force meeting two months ago with Mayor Campana and saw a need and opportunity to build.
"It doesn't matter if you are doing a studio suite or building a house, the developer is looking to at least break even or make a profit," he said.
For a property with that kind of construction cost, the apartments must rent for $800 to $900 per month, Singh said.
But Singh said the construction hires local workers who will be on the job site for four to six months.
"I am going to try to make money, but I am also contributing back to the city through insurance, permit fees, taxes and mortgage," he said.
Singh was encouraged to invest now because of low interest rates and the city's residential local economic tax abatement program. The tax abatement enables developers to invest money into new construction without having to pay city or Williamsport Area School District taxes.
"It (the residential LERTA) helps the developer get started without the up-front costs of the taxes involved and is 100-percent tax abatement for the first year followed by 20-percent reductions in these taxes over five years," said John Grado, city engineer and director of community and economic development.
"I am encouraging development of new or restored properties so there is more owner-occupied residences from which to choose," Campana said. "I don't want to see people who can't pay their rents pushed out onto the street but, at the same time, I want to see working-class families and individuals move here and not build subsidized housing. We're looking at renters and owners of properties who pay for leases and mortgages that are (in the) $600- to $1,000-a-month range."