The term "housing shortage" has been used with regularity by city officials, much of it blamed on the Marcellus Shale boom needs and expansion of the Williamsport Regional Medical Center and Lycoming College and Pennsylvania College of Technology taking up taxable properties.
But is there actually a reduction in the number of places for people to live in the city?
Ask Joseph Gerardi, the city codes administrator, whether the city is experiencing a housing shortage, such as the Northern Tier communities have seen, and he cringes.
"I don't believe there is a housing shortage," Gerardi said.
Inside his basement office at City Hall, Gerardi can document any house or apartment that is available and those that have been demolished.
"I believe that many people, especially those working in lower-paying jobs, can't afford to rent or buy a home," he said. "I believe it's more of a financial crisis for many people."
"Before 2008, when the gas industry came here, if you wanted to find a rental property of any type of good price it could be done."
Since 2008, when the natural gas industry started to establish a foothold, the city began in earnest to evaluate what it needed to do to accommodate the growing workforce and re-energize the tax base, Gerardi said.
Today, 82 single-family dwellings are for sale, he said. Thirty-two multi-family residences exist on the market and about 130 to 150 vacant properties provide opportunity for private development, he added.
Asked how he knew whether the numbers are accurate, Gerardi smiled. Part of his job, other than overseeing codes enforcement personnel, is to gather the information from the number of permits he keeps in a record system.
Nevertheless, during the four years he's been at the job, demolition has picked up.
Since 2008, 25 single-family dwellings have been torn down, according to Gerardi's records. Five of the properties were razed by Lycoming College to make room for additional parking space and a green area.
Also between 2008 and today, the city had one commercial property, Park Pizza, 1701 Memorial Ave., that was demolished because of a fire. That business is rebuilt and serving customers and bringing in taxes, according to Gerardi.
Also during the period, three commercial buildings were demolished for expansion of the Williamsport Municipal Sanitary Authority Central wastewater treatment plant. A building was razed by St. Anthony's Center, a charity at 125 E. Willow St., which is to become a retail store, Gerardi said.
Other demolitions occurring during that period (2008-present) include five commercial buildings for Pennsylvania College of Technology expansion projects, one dwelling taken down to make space for Seewald Laboratories on Reach Road, 40 residential structures demolished by Susquehanna Health and three properties hit by fire, two of which are in Newberry and have been rebuilt and made to be liveable, Gerardi said. About 85 more houses were taken down by Susquehanna Health between 2004 and 2008 after the expansion of the institutional zone, Gerardi said.
"What's sad is the homes were taken out, but several homes were erected in that time," he said. He cited, examples such as, "Nichols Place, built for 45 elderly tenants; West End Terrace, which has single-family dwellings with about 25 to 30 units and eight homes at the former Lose Elementary School park area and a few duplexes built on Foresman Street.
Gerardi also addressed 117 buildings that were on the blighted list.
Of those, 77 buildings have been removed from the list, 15 were demolished and 62 brought back into compliance, he said.
About 40 properties remain blighted, but seven are under permit, he added.
Hotel development and private developers also are trying to accommodate needs of gas workers and others needing housing, Gerardi said.
"We have 133 new rooms readily available and 97 rooms that are under construction," Gerardi said.
In terms of apartment construction, the city has 61 single-family properties, duplexes or apartments available, and 32 new apartment units under construction. A unit, he said, can be a building with multiple apartments.
As for new-home construction, developers have built 27 new homes in the city, Gerardi said.
Asked about the expansion of the medical center and the loss of the homes and neighborhood, Gerardi said it is true, but added the Susquehanna Health continues to pay taxes on those properties.
As for the lower-wage earners, it is taking longer for those getting rental assistance to find a decent, affordable and safe place in which to live, according to a woman familiar with the problem.
"The one thing we've noticed is in previous years it would generally take somebody maybe a month to find a home, but we've seen an increase in the amount of time," said MerriLynn Severson, acting executive director of the Lycoming County Housing Authority. "We've had to extend the amount of time that they look for a home."
The authority has 513 families who received rental assistance in what's known as the Section 8 program, she said. These are in houses not tied to a dwelling unit owned by the authority, she said.
"We have taken a look at the time it takes people to actually find a decent, safe and affordable housing unit," she said, reviewing figures between 2007 and 2011. "I can tell you I noticed a peak in 2008 and 2009."
Severson said she won't comment whether that coincided with the natural gas boom.
But Gerardi doesn't have to be as cautious with his words because he's out there every day and sees the change.
"If you are going to live and work in Williamsport, you have to have a good job and trade," Gerardi said. "The days of $400-per-month rents are over."