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Complicated by drilling boom, a chronic housing shortage in Greene County gets new attention

WAYNESBURG — It began in 2005 as an ad hoc collection of trailer hookups tucked away in a backyard in Jefferson Township. Now an RV campground, it flourishes by luring prospective campers with all the amenities: shower facilities, coin-operated laundry, a community room and flexible rates for daily, weekly, monthly and long-term stays.

But the campground, which has an entry on the state’s official tourism website, doesn’t cater to vacationers but instead serves a transient wave of natural gas drillers, pipeliners and other short-term natural gas workers drawn by the gas boom in the Marcellus Shale.

And as the campground has provided a home — for however long — for weary workers, it has filled the coffers of an unlikely owner: the Jefferson Township Volunteer Fire Department.

“We never dreamed it would sustain us, but it has,” said Joe Petek, a volunteer-firefighter-turned-campground-manager who oversees the Firehouse RV Park from his nearby home. Now, he said, “It’s what makes the payments” on an expanded fleet of fire trucks, a renovated stainless-steel kitchen, new protective equipment and a cavernous banquet hall.

For the fire department, the campground has served as a creative way to help plug the gaping financial hole that the cancellation of its sparsely attended bingo nights — long a revenue stream for firehouses nationwide — left a couple years ago.

But in Greene County, where a long-recognized housing shortage has been exacerbated by the influx of natural gas workers, the proliferation of campgrounds run by private citizens and groups has come to embody a decades-long struggle for development.

Nowhere to stay

In September, the county’s first-ever comprehensive study on housing was handed to the commissioners office: Nearly a third of the county’s housing stock is more than 75 years old, with just 8 percent built since 2000.

The numbers are comparable to those across Pennsylvania, which has some of the oldest houses in the country, according to the U.S. Census.

But Greene County missed much of the residential and commercial development that breathed economic life into neighboring Washington and Allegheny counties. With a lack of adequate water and sewer infrastructure, developers have been hesitant to invest, particularly in the rural areas that make up 90 percent of the county south of Pittsburgh.

Then came the natural gas boom, with the drilling of unconventional wells — those that involve hydraulic fracturing to unlock trapped shale gas — beginning in 2006 and peaking in 2011 with 120 unconventional wells drilled, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Counting the workers associated with the gas industry is difficult because many move with the rigs. However, using industry statistics on the number of workers need for each well, the housing report calculated the boom has brought as many as 2,188 new workers into Greene County.

Extrapolating from a U.S. Census figure that 39 percent of workers in all industries are county residents, the report estimated 1,334 gas workers have likely sought some type of housing accommodation — sometimes in company-provided mobile units near the sites called “man camps,” but often in local hotels, rental units and RV parks.

Hotels haven’t kept up with demand. Greene County has just seven hotels with 380 rooms. In nearby Washington County, 12 hotels totaling 1,036 rooms have been added in the past five years alone. Another four hotels with 434 rooms are under construction.

With few hotel rooms available in Greene, that has placed the burden almost squarely on the rental market. And that has brought a rent spike for tenants and a windfall for local owners, like the Jefferson Fire Department.

On a frigid day last week, Mr. Petek’s yard of about 50 hook-ups was about half-filled.

Judy Burns, a 51-yard-old refinery worker from Arkansas, emerged from a camper after an early-afternoon nap. One week prior, she had been enjoying the warm breezes of southern Texas when her fiancee, also a gas worker, got the customarily short-notice phone call: He needed to be in Greene County in a few days to work on a compressor station.

Ms. Burns and her fiancee each freelance for a variety of companies, she said, that could call at any time and ask them to be in another state. Last year, she spent just two weeks at her permanent home, working four months in California and another four months in southern Mississippi.

She suspects her next destination is Montana, but she couldn’t tell you when.

“This phone keeps ringing,” she said with a laugh, adding, “There’s not a lot of women who do it.”

In related news, Longmont council moves forward on affordable housing, water rates.

A rental spike

Changes in the Greene County housing market are much more a function of the natural gas boom than in Washington County, where a more diversified economy has been better able to handle a similar flood of out-of-state workers, said Bryce Maretzki, director of policy and strategic planning at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

Greene and Washington counties are “two totally different housing markets and economic base,” Mr. Maretzki said. “Greene is feeling the impact much more acutely, and, in Washington, it is much more diffuse.”

During the three-year period from 2010 to 2012, median rent in Greene County increased 15 percent from the three-year period of 2007 to 2009 — a spike bigger than any other county in the state, according to the Census.

The fair market rent price — a benchmark established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine the fair amount of rental assistance for low-income tenants — has shot up 31 percent since 2006 for a two-bedroom unit.

“It’s hard to find a place to rent, that’s for sure,” county commissioner Blair Zimmerman said. “There are definitely a lot of trailers. These people would pay anything, so a place that you would normally pay $500 for went to $1,000 or $1,200.”

It’s been rough on low-income tenants, who have increasingly faced evictions, said Karen Bennett, administrator of the Department of Human Services, which oversees the effort to transition the recently homeless into affordable housing.

What’s more, some landlords are now hesitant to take in low-income tenants.

“Landlords realized they could get more out of their rentals than renting to residents of the county,” said Zabryna Karnes, a housing outreach specialist for the county.

It can lead to complex and sometimes hostile negotiations between the county and landlords. Ms. Karnes, who herself was once homeless, has a list of 10 or so landlords who have agreed to charge within HUD’s fair market rent price and whom she regularly contacts to check availability for those identified as homeless.

She also organizes round-table meetings with landlords every few months to iron out issues.

At the meeting last month, she had good news: The county secured $50,000 for a pilot program that helps landlords renovate units — up to $7,500 per unit, or up to half the total cost of renovation — that do not currently meet local building codes and HUD standards. Once complete, eligible landlords must rent exclusively to individuals referred by the county for three years.

“[The landlords] are trying to find find ways to work with us and not go through the eviction process,” Ms. Karnes said.

But solving the endemic shortage always comes back to the brick-and-mortar shortage of rental housing, Ms. Bennett said.

“It’s not that we can’t find landlords who want them,” she said. “We don’t have the housing stock available for them to move somewhere.”

One house at a time

A week into retirement from BNY Mellon, Waynesburg native David Mirkovich saw a job opportunity. Greene County, in part to address housing concerns related to the drilling boom, had resurrected its fledgling redevelopment agency and it needed an executive director.

He had no staff and no “walking-around money” but with his 18 years of experience in the financial world, Mr. Mirkovich believed he could figure out a way to make it work.

“They said: ‘Go build houses,’ ” he recalled. “I had no people and no real money to go out an buy properties. I had to figure out what to do.”

He decided to spend his first year traveling to the county’s 26 municipalities and assembling data about the conditions of their housing. Blight is commonplace, given the age of the housing stock, and, in some cases, lax code enforcement.

Some township and borough officials seemed confused when he asked about their zoning ordinances. “You mean that big book in the back?” he said some asked him.

His shoe-leather research formed the basis of the first grant request Mr. Mirkovich had written in his life.

He applied to the same pot of money the county used for its landlord program, a program created by the state legislature in 2010 and funded two years later with “impact fees” collected under Act 13 from the drilling industry.

The Pennsylvania Housing and Affordability Rehabilitation Enhancement Act — the acronym PHARE is pronounced “fair” — mandated the doling out about $25 million statewide to support 104 housing projects or programs over the three-year period from 2012 to 2014. Greene County has received $2.6 million of that funding.

Mr. Mirkovich scored $600,000 in 2013 from the fund. After the county, as well as some townships, boroughs and private groups, chipped in money, he sat with $1.5 million.

From his initial research, he had a conservative count of 500 run-down houses and vacant lots countywide. Based on location and availability of utilities, he whittled those down to 100 and then selected 13 to be part of the program.

In November, the first house to be acquired and rehabbed was sold for $42,000 in the former coal patch of Bobtown. Using inmates from the nearby state correctional institution to help install drywall, plumbing and electrical wiring, he saved at least $18,000 in labor costs.

He can’t help lamenting how far the Greene County trails its neighbor to the north: Washington County’s redevelopment authority has a staff of 42 people, not including the executive director, and a budget of nearly $20 million.

Still, he works toward his long-term goal of having a functioning rehabilitation agency independent from the county, which continues to allot $58,000 for his salary and office expense.

On a recent December morning, a crew of inmates worked on a house in Pitt Gas, another former coal patch in Jefferson Township, just miles away from the Firehouse RV Park.

Mr. Mirkovich hopes to have the house ready to be sold by this fall.

“It’s a couple here, a couple there,” he said. “I’m starting to make some headway to have something to show for it, but it’s a house at a time.”

 

Daniel Moore: dmoore@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2743 or on Twitter @danielmoore1213.

6 comments

  1. Don’t blame oil and gas blame the land lords who are greedy and want to drive housing up.

  2. Ive swiped a company card for 300 for a room in Kennedy tx.
    Crazy price gouging

  3. In Washington PA I pay 1400 for a apartment that you can’t even get a lightbulb replaced in. They rip off the oil and gas workers.

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