by Molly Cochran, James Hynes, Allison Robertson and Elizabeth Timberlake-Newell
Housing in Happy Valley is not just one tale but many just beneath the surface of a pretty college town. While new neighborhoods have expanded the developed footprint of the State College area, affordable housing and student luxury housing vie for space in the increasingly metropolitan area.This brief summary of housing belies the economic truths of the region. While some can afford those big new homes, many cannot. According to the U.S. 2010 census, 51.5 percent of the residents of State College live below the poverty level, with an average income of $20,815. But the median family income statistic sited by Money Magazine is $61,057 while the median family income cited by the census for Pennsylvanians is $50,398.
Yet the housing market prices don’t seem to follow the median family income. The median value of a house in State College, according to the 2010 U.S. census, was $237,900 between the years 2006-2010, while the average house value across the state from those same years was only $159,300, despite that there is only about a 10k difference in family incomes.
Some of the most affordable housing in the State College area has been the manufactured homes communities.
But as of next year, two of them are set to close, one of which sits on land that might be converted to student luxury rental properties.
But where will they go?
On July 30, 1752 North Atherton Street Associates purchased the Penn State Mobile Home Park and promptly announced that the residents have until July 2013 to leave the site.
The group has offered assistance in the form of a relocation coordinator, but no financial assistance or any other kind of aid.
Development & Community Relations Coordinator Susanna Paul of Housing Transitions, Inc., a nonprofit organization that offers a variety of housing services in Centre County, said she was appreciative of that year’s notice and assistance for the residents. Some residents, however, say the aid is a small consolation.
Stacy Shuey has been living in Penn State Mobile Home Park for three years in December. Before she moved here, she had an apartment, but moved to the park in order to save the pets her landlord didn’t permit and to build up credit for a first-time buyers’ loan to get a house.
Once the park announced its closure, Shuey tried to get a new place, but the lease fell through and she lost the security deposit. She is not only worried about herself, but her pets as well. All the shelters are full with waiting lists, Shuey said.“This has been a nightmare, an absolute nightmare,” she said.
Shuey and her husband have had huge financial difficulties, she said. They had to refinance a year ago and are now locked into a five year loan.
In order to earn some extra money, Shuey tried to find a renter for her home, but instead she took in her stepfather after he was forced to leave his apartment because of a forged signature on the lease.
Shuey is on social security, her husband works at Walmart and her stepfather works at the McDonald’s downtown. Their hours fluctuate, as does the cash flow, Shuey said.
Shuey and her family are aiming for January move out, but really worry about the competition from students. They are not prepared for winter, Shuey said, because planned to move in the fall. If Shuey finds somewhere else to live, having to pay rent and electric for a new place after winterizing her trailer is going to be really hard. She said she doesn’t think she can do it.
“We don’t know where to turn,” she said, adding that the owners of the park have not offered any compensation or very much help.
“I don’t know why they’d never offer compensation here,” Shuey said, especially with how many families and seniors live in the park. “That’s the one thing I don’t understand.”
The park did offer assistance, Shuey said, to help with housing transitions and the elderly finding senior living, but nothing for financial assistance.
The only help Shuey has received was from the head of her daughter’s preschool, whose prayer group offered financial help for security deposit on the apartment that fell through.
Shuey said she finds it odd that everyone is talking about this problem, but no one is doing anything to help raise funds for those in need, even though the parks’ closure has been mentioned in papers. She said she would even appreciate suggestions on where to go and affordable housing options in the area.
“I’m pulling my hair out,” she said, after doing online search after online search and receiving no responses from calls and emails to realtors.
The only feasible options Shuey has found are in Erie, Pa., which is far away from the jobs her husband and stepdad have and the rest of her family in State College.
“Trying to stay in the State College area is really hard,” said Shuey.
Shuey grew up in Hilltop Mobile Home Park. Her grandmother, who recently died, used to live there until she was put in a nursing home.
“I’m glad that she never had to see what happened,” Shuey said. Luckily, Shuey was able to sell the other trailer last year. But she’s tied to both places.
With everyone leaving, Shuey said, “It’s really eerie around here now. It’s getting really sad.”
Residents of Penn State Mobile Homes have thus far had little support from the greater State College community. That is, until local residents Carolyn Turgeon and Jill Gleason wrote a letter to the Centre Daily Times describing the plight of their friend Barbara Burris and asking others to rally to the assistance of “some of the most vulnerable among us.”
Turgeon herself said that if it were not for that the closure of Penn State mobile homes affects her friend, she would not have known about it. But she also noted that this is not happening in some distant community, but close to home.
“But this isn’t just anywhere, it’s here,” said Turgeon. “And it’s people here that are doing it. Specific people that are here, making this deal [referring to the fact that the owners of 1752 North Atherton Associates are locals]. [They are] Valuing profit over people’s lives.”
Turgeon is still concerned that few residents will rise to the occasion to help the soon-to-be displaced because of their perceptions of the manufactured home parks.
“I have heard people refer to the trailer park on Atherton, calling it an eyesore,” said Turgeon.
Across town, the residents of Hilltop mobile home park were told via letter in September that they must vacate the site by February 23, a mere five and a half months. Some have been fortunate and found housing or a means of moving their homes, but others struggle to find a place to live.
On a chilly Sunday in November, Don “Tubby” and Charlotte Chamberlin work on fixing the porch of their mobile home to ready it for sale.
“State College is getting want they want,” Tubby said. “Next they’ll be telling you what color to paint your house.”
Unfortunately, this will be the second time they have to move. Tubby and Charlotte bought their first mobile home in Woodsdale after they were married in 1972. Twenty years later, when the land was sold, the Chamberlins came to Hilltop Mobile Home Park.
In State College, Tubby has worked renting out heavy equipment for Hanson’s for 43 years. This year he will be forced into retirement.
Charlotte used to work at the Pattee Library in mail receiving, but she retired 12 years ago after working there for 31 years.
Over the years, since the two had no children, they’ve let students live with them in their home for no cost and commute to campus, said Tubby. They understand that living in State College isn’t cheap, Tubby continued.
Luckily, though, unlike some residents, Tubby and Charlotte have a place to go. The couple bought two acres of land in Seven Mountains Campground and will be moving there in February.
“We’re moving a little sooner than we want to,” Tubby said.
Other than fixing the porch, the couple has to get a new septic tank before they can move.
Juliet Clouser, another resident of Hilltop, has not been so lucky as to find another home. Compounding the frustration for Clouser is that she just recently moved to Hilltop.
Clouser worked in real-estate until she developed a herniated disc and then after a surgery, had to have part of her leg amputated. Once she was able to work again, Clouser could only find a job that paid lower than her old job, she said.
At the end of June, Clouser and her family couldn’t afford to live in her home anymore, so she put her house in Port Matilda on the market to move to Hilltop. She said she planned to stay here so she and her husband could pay off her medical bills and save up a little money.
When she first moved in, she told the park owner of her troubles, Clouser said. But, she discovered later, while she was in the process of buying a trailer in the park, the park owner was negotiating a sale price for the park.
Though Clouser said she asked the park owner for help, she “got nothing from them.”
Clouser plans to live with her oldest daughter and son-in-law, but that’s only if the purchase of their home is finalized. Clouser said she won’t know that until mid-November, and until then, things are up in the air.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Clouser.
Joyce Shuey has lived in Hilltop Mobile Home Park for ten years with her husband. She moved into the park because when she got a job at Penn State, commuting from the park was easier for her.
Shuey said she didn’t plan to retire just yet, but the closure of the park has pushed her into retirement.
“It’s not easy working and trying to move, and being forced to find a place real fast,” Shuey said. “It was just like, ‘Find it now, you don’t have a choice.’ It’s stressful.”
Shuey will be leaving at the end of the month, moving to Ridge Crest Community, on the other side of Howard.
“I was thinking I’d get lucky and this one will stay,” said Shuey.
Shuey is one of the few members of the community that are left in the park.
“You get to know the neighbors, and they all left. It’s like starting over again,” she said.
When Shuey described the atmosphere of the park, she said, “They’re not angry, they’re afraid.”
Many residents don’t know where to go, or they have little options with paychecks too low to afford the expensive apartments in the area, Shuey added.
The residents of Hilltop have begun to organize. They now have a Facebook page called “Save Hilltop” and an anonymous resident of Hilltop told Voices that she has been communicating with Resident Owned Communities USA (ROC USA). ROC USA helps manufactured homes communities form resident corporations and then purchase the community site.
The resident then noted that making Hilltop Mobile Home Park a community-owned site may be the only easy option for residents with poor credit or who live on fixed incomes.
“I’m upset that they’ve said they need to work on the problem with not having enough places for affordable housing, and this is the time to do that,” said the resident. “They [College Township officials] could say no to the rezone.”
College Township Council meets December 6, and will take up the matter of rezoning Hilltop Mobile Home Park on that date. If Hilltop is rezoned, then residents say that Trinitas Ventures, which has a contract with the mobile home park owners, will complete the purchase of the land. The owners of Hilltop refused to comment or verify, as did Trinitas.
Trinitas specializes in what it calls “high quality commercial real estate” of student housing and mixed-use communities. The student housing that Trinitas has built, which includes The Collegiate Kentucky and The Village at Muller Park, could be called luxury student housing communities.
See Residents of Hilltop Mobile Home Park and Penn State Mobile Homes face relocation for more on the plight of manufactured homes community residents.
Luxury and couch-surfing
Luxury housing will be an option for students during the fall 2013-spring 2014 school year. Luxury housing will consist of The Retreat, The Heights and The Villas.
The Retreat, owned by Landmark Properties of Athens, Ga, is being built on twenty-two acres of open space between Whitehall Road in College Township and Waupelani Drive overlooking the Westerly Parkway shopping center in the Borough of State College. Ninety-five of the 129 units will be in College Township. A small strip, including the main entrance on Waupelani, will be in the borough.
The complex uses a cottage-style plan with separate, single-floor units, each of which will house four to five undergraduate students. The Retreat at State College’s website promises “the very best amenities in the nation,” with a gym, swimming pool, community sidewalks and private on-premise policing.
Since it straddles two municipalities, plans for the developments must conform to two sets of zoning codes. The lot in College Township was zoned for R-1 residential (multifamily housing), and the Retreat is technically considered a multifamily development. However, Landmark secured a Planned Residential Development (PRD) exemption which permits it a higher dwelling density than the R-1 standard.
According to staff at The Retreat office, many renters have already signed leases for fall 2013. Courtney Wilson, leasing and marketing manager for The Retreat, said it will attract students who have been living in downtown apartments. Wilson added she thinks that it will be a hit with Penn State students because of all the amenities.
“We feel everyone loves our cottage concept with our over-the top-amenities, free parking, unlimited green space, short commute to campus and luxurious Retreat lifestyle,” said Wilson.
But a luxury student housing community is not without drawbacks for the surrounding borough and township. Some residents fear property values for the surrounding homes will decline due to the proximity of student housing.
According to State College Borough Council President Donald Hahn, while the property taxes may be assessed slightly higher on the apartments than on single family homes, “the attractiveness of non-student homes for the borough tax base rests in the earned income tax potential.”
As well, he cited lifestyle conflicts between undergraduate students and permanent residents as a source of tension and possible property value decline.
“I am very concerned about potential [property value] declines,” said Hahn. “The issue will be the extent of the lifestyle conflicts arising from the Retreat and how State College Borough, College Township, the property managers and their neighbors handle such conflicts.
“Both sets of lifestyles [students and residents] have validity. However, when they are placed into close proximity with each other, they tend to conflict.”
But Hahn also noted that The Retreat’s intended rental population of undergraduates does not even take into account the portion of the student population that most needs it, the graduate students, or any other local population in need of more access to housing.
“Previous to the development, the area was utilized as open space with some informal recreational use,” said Hahn. “That was preferable to the proposed use. However, I understand that the owner preferred something more profitable. Nevertheless, a better use of this space may have been as graduate-student, workforce, or affordable senior housing, which already appears to be successful in the Waupelani Drive area.”
According to staff at The Retreat, the integration of residential homes and the new luxury communities isn’t a concern.
“One of the great things about The Retreat is that it is truly a community,” said Wilson.
The Heights is another new luxury community that is under construction on Blue Course Drive. All four bedroom units have already sold out for the 2013-2014 school year. The Heights will be very similar to The Retreat in that it features many amenities with rent.
Emily Reinhart, a junior majoring in energy business finance, is moving to The Heights in fall 2013.
“For senior year I wanted to live somewhere quieter,” said Reinhart. “Living with my own bedroom room and bathroom and in a house setting would be a good transition between apartment living and living on my own after graduation.”
Although she is excited about moving off-campus into a more “real world,” type atmosphere, Reinhart still has some concerns. She said she is a little nervous about how easily she will get downtown for the night life.
The integration of students and permanent residents is what The Heights hopes to accomplish. Students would live in their very own community with amenities such as a pool, back patios, club house, gym and spa, and at the same time, be nearby to residential neighborhoods.
Although this all sounds promising will this really help integrate the community with the students? Reinhart thinks it could but probably not.
“I think that there will still be separation between students and people that live here full time,” she said.
According to some students, what attracted them to The Heights is a chance to live relatively close to campus, but with the feeling of living in their own community. The many amenities, newer furniture and buildings, and guaranteed own rooms appears to have sold to students who are unhappy with the current off-campus living space stock. Reinhart said she thinks students are ready for this.
“Students are ready to get out of dorm living, old and dirty places,” said Reinhart. “And the students that move out there will be ready to keep it nice.”
Despite that some students are ready to move out of those aging apartment buildings and dorms, many college students cannot afford these luxury apartments. Some cannot even afford a place to live.
“The one thing people are always raising is that students are living it up in these apartments downtown,” said Dr. Mark Brennan, Penn State associate professor of leadership and community development. “I’ve had many students over the years that were homeless. They lived on other people’s couches, bouncing around. They are a really important part of this discussion.”
Brennan emphasized that the housing troubles of the borough cannot be easily reduced to a competition between students and residents. He noted that while some have said “the rich students took all the places to live,” the student population is not a uniformly wealthy group. Instead, it is a macrocosm of society, and there are many students who work full time jobs and still struggle to make ends meet.
Please see Interview with State College Borough council president Don Hahn and Luxury Student Living for more information.
Fast forward: what will become of State College?
The loss of these two manufactured homes communities is not a new occurrence in State College, but part of a trend. In the previous decade, other manufactured home communities have downsized or been closed, contributing to the dwindling of affordable housing stock within the borough and its surrounding townships.
Some residents fear that they will be priced out of their own hometown.
Carolyn Turgeon, who moved to State College with her family as a teen, said she cannot afford to live in State College, and will most likely live in Philipsburg when she chooses to purchase or rent her own home.
“Barb will be living in Bellefonte or Centre Hall, which is too bad because she was born and raised here,” said Turgeon about her friend Barb Burris. “Natives being priced out of their own homes is a shame. “
Prof. Brennan said he knows people who grew up in State College but do not live there because of the cost of living.
Brennan also noted the higher level of house construction activity towards Bellefonte, Pine Grove Mills and Port Matilda. This conversion of State College from a town into an increasingly metropolitan area is indicative of suburban sprawl, he said.
“I wonder if there is a limit to how far it can be built out,” Brennan pondered. “[Suburban sprawl] Increases commute times. All the things we like would disappear.”
As the overall cost of housing rises with market value, he noted, the character of the area changes. In the case of State College, that surging affluence could be at the cost of community strengths.
“It just keeps going, and all the sudden it is just an ultra-exclusive place with zero diversity,” said Brennan. “We can very quickly lose a lot of the character and culture and the things that are good about this place.”
For more on this story, please visit voicescentralpa.org. Full texts of three of the pieces that make up this story will be made available.