Due to the influx of workers in the natural gas industry, the rents for housing in the Bradford County area have doubled, tripled or gone up even higher, according to two realtors and the head of a local agency that helps homeless people.

They were among seven heads of local agencies and others who testified at a hearing held Thursday in Wysox Township by the Pennsylvania Senate Urban Affairs & Housing Committee.

"The influx of gas workers who are willing to pay rents far exceeding the fair market rent for this area (of Pennsylvania) has caused rents for decent housing to more than triple," testified Douglass Johnston, chief executive officer of Futures Community Support Services, which has its headquarters in Towanda. "Rents have increased to the point where even moderate income families cannot afford housing."

The hearing, which was attended by more than 80 people, was held to investigate the impact that the natural gas industry is having on housing in north-central Pennsylvania.

Those attending and participating in the hearing included Rep. Tina Pickett, Rep. Matt Baker, Rep. Sandra Major, Rep. Garth Everett, and Sen. Gene Yaw.

Almost all the senators on the Urban Affairs & Housing Committee were not present at the hearing, due to other commitments, including a hearing on education in Harrisburg, said Adam Pankake, a staff member of the committee.

However, the committee had invited the local state representatives to participate in the hearing, and they attended and asked questions of those presenting testimony.

Towanda Borough Council member Shannon Clark, who is a realtor with Century 21 Jackson Real Estate, told the state legislators at the hearing that the rental market has changed "dramatically" in the Bradford County area, as a result of exploration for gas in the Marcellus Shale.

The increased demand for housing over the past year "has tripled the average rental price" locally, she said.

"For example, a three bedroom home in 2008 would typically have a monthly rent of $600," she said. "Today, the landlord will receive $1,500 to $2,000 per month for the same property. The influx of gas workers needing rental properties has driven these prices up."

"The gas workers are willing to pay more in rent than we ever realized before," testified Robin Fiester, a real estate broker who specializes in selling property in Bradford, Sullivan and Lycoming counties.

The houses that would typically rent for $600 per month in Bradford and Lycoming counties are now renting for $1,000 to $1,200 per month, said Fiester, who is president of Robin Real Estate, which has offices in Eagles Mere and Muncy,

Apartments in Bradford and Lycoming counties "that typically rent for $375 per month are now renting for $800 per month," she said.

Renters who don't pay their rent on time are now more likely to get evicted, she said.

"Landlords are not renewing their leases" because they can receive more rental money from gas companies, Fiester said.

There has been a widespread practice where the gas companies pay the rent directly to the landlord, although some workers in the gas industry are starting to pay their own rent, Clark said.

Compounding the lack of affordable housing is the fact that developers in the area have been reluctant to build new housing because of early predictions that gas workers in the Marcellus Shale "would be in and out of the area within 5 to 7 years," Fiester testified.

"That scenario has changed" and the current predictions are that companies are going to be in this area for significantly longer periods of time, she said.

The expected, long-term local presence of Chesapeake Energy was one of the main messages at the hearing that was delivered by Matt Sheppard, the company's senior director of corporate development.

When asked by Everett how long Chesapeake expects to be in the Northern Tier, Sheppard replied: "We're in the very, very early stages of the Marcellus Shale development."

Sheppard said that Chesapeake would be in the area for a very long time.

When asked if Chesapeake was going to be in the area 15 years from now, Sheppard replied that 15 years would be a "conservative number."

"As additional investment is made (locally) and as we continue to grow as a company, we fully expect that demand for real estate for both housing and commercial use will continue to expand," he said.

Motels

Because local motels are booked to capacity for months in advance by gas companies, the local state-funded Homeless Assistance Program can't find rooms to place people in motels who need emergency housing, Johnston said.

"For the first time, we (the Homeless Assistance Program) have sent people away with no roof over their heads," Johnston said.

In Bradford County, due to problems finding affordable housing in Bradford County, increasing numbers of people are trying to find housing in the local publicly operated housing complexes for senior citizens and disabled people, said Bill Farley, executive director the local Area Agency on Aging. And more local people are trying to get into the Section 8 Rental Assistance Program, which assists low-income people, he said.

But the waiting lists for local public housing options are long, he said.

For example, there is an waiting list of three to 12 months to get housing in Bradford County's Public Housing Authority's seven buildings that house the elderly and disabled, he said.

The waiting list for Section 8 housing is now around three years, Johnston said.

"The potential exists that more of our frail and low-income population will join the ranks of the homeless in rural Pennsylvania," Farley said.

Farley suggested that a housing trust fund be set up, which would be funded by natural gas revenues, to assist in providing affordable housing locally.

Yaw said there is potential for owners of residential buildings to make a profit by converting them into housing that could be used by gas industry workers, which also would help alleviate the shortage of affordable housing.

The written testimony of those who spoke at the hearing is posted at Senator Gene Yaw's Web site, senatorgeneyaw.com.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or e-mail: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.