High housing costs hurt flooded-out residents
Even after losing his Tunkhannock Twp. home in last year's flooding, Lewis Sherman thought he was one of the lucky ones.
He had insurance. Because of the size of his lot and where it was, he couldn't rebuild on the same location. That was just as well for him, his wife Maryanne and two teenage children, who started looking for a new home.
When they saw the home prices, they started to rethink their luck.
The Marcellus Shale rush and influx of gas workers and executives has driven up rents and home prices in much of the Endless Mountains and Northern Tier region. Towanda appears to be the epicenter, with two-bedroom apartments renting for in excess of $2,000 per month. While pressure on housing prices has reduced somewhat with the decrease in drilling activity, prices linger far above their pre-Marcellus levels, pricing out many renters and would-be home buyers. Some have moved in with relatives, doubled or tripled up households to pay the rent. The Sherman family is stuck in a Federal Emergency Management Administration trailer. They looked at homes, but even with the insurance settlement, they couldn't make the finances work. A well-appointed ranch home near Factoryville, they noted, would have suited them, but the asking price of $222,000 was too steep.
"The owner told us that but for Marcellus Shale, she would have gotten $137,000 for it," Sherman said. The home was purchased by a gas executive, he learned.
They thought building would be more economical. But the cost of land has increased as well. Two wooded acres in Falls, he said, were listed for $47,000. He now finds himself embroiled in a dispute with the contractor.
With no lease for mineral rights generating royalties and no well-paying gas industry-connected job, Mr. Sherman is one of an often forgotten group not participating in the economic boom precipitated by Marcellus Shale. A group often hurt by it.
"The gas companies and gas workers brought all these people and all this money in," Sherman said. "Prices go up because they can afford it. But your regular person can't."
Jeannette Line of Falls sits at her kitchen table at the FEMA Highfield trailer park looking over the most recent apartment availability sheets provided by a FEMA worker showed apartments with posted rents at $800 and $1,000 per month in the Tunkhannock area.
FEMA rental assistance, $679 per month, may have covered rent before Marcellus shale, but not today.
She lost her Falls home on Susquehanna Beach Road and everything in it to the flood. While she was insured, the construction is taking longer than she expected. Population at the park is dropping and FEMA officials are encouraging people to settle into a permanent arrangement.
"I know it (rent) will be too much," Line said. "I'd have to rent and furnish it. I can't do it."
Options such as the Golden Eagle Hotel in Towanda are few. The spacious two-bedroom units lease for $407 per month. The building was gutted and renovated in 2007 at a cost of $1.2 million by Trehab, a Montrose-based community service agency serving six counties in the Endless Mountains area. Low-income housing was in demand then. Now Trehab units are well over subscribed, said executive director Dennis Phelps.
Some attempts to address the needs of the displaced people have been stymied by regulation. Grace Connection, a social ministry of a group of Towanda churches, began seeing increased requests from families forced out of their homes by skyrocketing rents. Typically, Grace Connection helped people by offering emergency housing at local hotels. But hotel space, too, has been scarce. The church planned to open "Grace House," a multi-unit building that would provide transitional housing, but the project was stymied by regulations that would have required sprinklers.
Jira Albers, pastor of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Towanda and president of Grace Connection doesn't see housing costs softening.
"Landlords are hesitant to come down with their rents," he said. "Dollar signs popped up and they saw an opportunity."
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