Lebanon County is in dire need of housing. New study paints a stark picture

It's no big secret that Lebanon County is in need of housing, but a recently published housing needs assessment, commissioned by the Lebanon County Coalition to End Homelessness and put together by Bowen National Research, paints a stark picture.

Between 2010 and 2022, households increased by 8% in Lebanon County, and are expected to increase another 1%, an additional 580 households, by 2027, according to the study.

That growth is expected mostly with the 35-44 and Baby Boomer generation age groups, while younger generations and those in age groups between 45-64 are expected to leave the county.

Patrick Bowen presented the Housing Needs Assessment to county commissioners during their Wednesday, Sept. 20 workshop meeting.
Patrick Bowen presented the Housing Needs Assessment to county commissioners during their Wednesday, Sept. 20 workshop meeting.

Much of that household growth will likely be higher-income earners.

Migration in Lebanon County is largely influenced by surrounding counties, with Lancaster contributing the largest net-increase at 617, between 2015 and 2019.

Some 24,245 people commute into Lebanon County for work, roughly half of all of those employed within in Lebanon County, and 44.4% of those commuters earn more than $40,000 annually, with nearly one half of them between the ages 30 and 54 years old.

Of those commuters, 6,582 travel from greater than 50 miles away.

Less than 1% availability in all types of housing

In a March survey of 3,274 multi-family rental units, a mix of market-rate and various kinds of tax credit and government subsidized housing, 99.6% of those units were occupied. Only market-rate housing had any sort of vacancy at all, 13 units total, with a 99.2% occupancy rate.

Over 5,000 households are waitlisted for government-subsidized housing for up to 60 months. Tax-credit projects hold a waitlist of around 1,600 households for up to 36 months.

According to the study, a healthy market would typically have occupancy rates between 94% and 96%.

Other rentals, such as houses, duplexes and mobile home, which make up 77.2% of of the rental housing stock in the county, aren't much different.

From March through early April of this year, researchers found only 81 units, or just 0.6% of the county's 12,503 non-conventional rentals, were available.

The price range on those available units averaged $888 for a studio to $1,593 for four bedrooms. Two- and three-bedroom units had an average price of $1,150.

The for-sale housing market in Lebanon County is as tight as the rental market, the study shows.

With an overall inventory of 40,169 owner-occupied units, 131, or an average vacancy rate of 0.3%, were available on the day the study was conducted. Well below the normal range of 2% to 3%

Of those 131 available homes, 91 of them were listed at $300,000 or above.

In order for a developer to profit on new construction without additional funding or assistance, a typical single-family home would need to be priced around $400,000, according to the study.

The study projects that Lebanon County has a five year overall housing gap of 6,503 units, 2,620 rentals and 3,883 for sale, with need for a variety of affordability in both markets. In the rental market, the need is heavily distributed in units priced $1,065 a month and below, while the for sale market is in need of homes in the $227,201-$340,800 range and above.

The full 461-page study is available online at communityhealthcouncil.com/data/housing-needs-assessment.

The quality and cost of existing housing is also an issue.

Other findings:

  • 3.6%, just over 2,000 occupied units in Lebanon County are substandard, either overcrowded (more than 1.01 persons per room), or lacking complete indoor kitchens or bathroom plumbing.

  • 1,253 residences, both rental and owned, are considered overcrowded, while 784 are considered substandard.

  • 26,772 units, 66.2% of renter-occupied and 43.3% of owner-occupied residences, in the county were built pre-1970.

  • Approximately 14,506 residents in the county are considered cost burdened, paying at least 30% of their income towards housing. One-fifth of all renters are considered extremely cost burdened, paying at least 50% of their income towards housing.

  • Among the top 25 occupations, very few are able to afford a rental or home on their median or lower quartile annual wage on a single income.

  • In order to afford a two bedroom rental at the fair market rate of $989, a household would have to earn an annual wage of $39,560, and 18 of the top 25 occupations cannot afford that under the lower quartile of earners − and 15 of that 25 cannot afford a typical rental at median income levels.

What Lebanon needs is a housing champion

A public presentation of the Housing Needs Assessment was given at the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Sept. 21.
A public presentation of the Housing Needs Assessment was given at the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Sept. 21.

A presentation was given to various groups throughout the county by Patrick Bowen, president of Bowen National Research, alongside Nicole Maurer Gray of the Community Health Council, including the county commissioners during their Wednesday workshop meeting and the general public, which included concerned citizens, business leaders, developers and politicians such as Rep. John Schlegel and county commissioner candidate Michael Schroeder on Thursday at the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce.

During those presentations, Bowen provided the results from surveys of local leaders, employers and residents about their views on housing in their community.

He also presented several possible solutions to the problem, which included legislation what would incentivize development, marketing the county as a good place to build housing, and incorporating community discussions on how to address the issue.

Bowen said a key part of finding a solution is the need for a housing champion, someone who would spearhead the development throughout the county.

"To me, that's where this all starts," Bowen said during the commissioner's workshop." Somebody has to be the person or the group that spearheads this. So whether this is a government-created taskforce, or this is a stakeholder-driven housing commision, whether you hire someone, county, city, whatever, bring somebody in that's a housing expert. It starts with that, but you don't have a formal group that is actually advising you all..."

Commissioner Bob Phillips said that while it was no surprise that Lebanon County was facing an issue with affordable housing, he was surprised as to just how much rents have increased just in the last five years.

For commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, a balance needs to be found between development and farmland preservation, a high priority for the commissioners.

"Housing is very critical, but there are so many other factors that are into it. We have to find that balance," Litz said.

Phillips said the new comprehensive plan will likely be vital because it will tackle the question of what exactly Lebanon County will be moving ahead.

Commissioner Michael Kuhn, who was most surprised by the amount of people commuting into the county for work, said that the housing needs assessment was a great tool to quantify where the county was and what its challenges are.

During the presentation at the Chamber of Commerce, attendees asked a wide range of questions from the tools and methodologies done while conducting the study, the feasibility of producing cheaper housing, and the issue of individual municipalities pushing against rezoning for affordable housing.

Young adults still living with parents?

Evan Armstrong, 24, asked whether the data presented accounted for the contingent of younger people in the county who were living with their family still because they were unable to find or afford a place within the county.

While the data doesn't specifically account for the number of people living with family who would otherwise move out, Bowen said it would be a fair thing to asses.

In terms of price to build, Bowen also said that the cost to developers is similar to that of surrounding states, with Lebanon County having certain advantages like low taxes, lower land cost, and and fair zoning.

"If anybody thinks that the local government is going to solve this, you're wrong. If you think a developer is going to do it, you're wrong. It has to be some kind of collaborative effort," Bowen said.

Daniel Larlham Jr. is a reporter for the Lebanon Daily News. Reach him at DLarlham@LDNews.com or on X @djlarlham.

This article originally appeared on Lebanon Daily News: Lebanon County, Pa. is in dire need of housing: study