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City looking for ways to expand housing stock

Allocating $3 million to a revolving loan fund could help create housing that attracts young professionals and small families, Altoona City Council was told this week.

Such a municipal investment — possibly funded with some of the federal American Rescue Plan money the city recently received — could be part of a housing strategy that could help generate economic development so that this area can thrive, Altoona Blair County Development Corp. CEO Steve McKnight said.

Altoona is lacking in housing that appeals to the young professionals who ABCD has been trying to attract to the area, officials have said.

Most of Altoona’s housing stock is old, predating World War II, said Councilman Bruce Kelley. Moreover, Altoona is largely built out, so there’s not much available land for projects.

And where there is land, there tends to be a lack of infrastructure, including water and sewer lines and streets, Kelley said.

Furthermore, blighted properties that would be ripe for redevelopment tend to be widely distributed, making it hard to find suitable project tracts, noted Councilman Dave Butterbaugh, citing former Planning Director Larry Carter.

The ARP money could help overcome the lack of infrastructure, officials said.

The efficient use of land that accommodates the kind of townhomes and apartments that appeal to young professionals could help overcome the lack of large empty tracts, McKnight said.

Negotiations with residents of areas where there is spot blight — perhaps offers to rehouse them in new places — could create larger areas for redevelopment, McKnight said.

The city could also find developable land by taking advantage of flood plain areas in which development is normally discouraged with specialized construction that avoids human occupancy at lower levels, Kelley said.

Harrisburg has done that, with garages only on the first floor, he said.

To develop needed housing requires private developers willing “to step up” and governments willing to provide supplementary help — “to encourage people to come to the table,” McKnight said.

The municipal help could be site or building acquisition, perhaps through the city’s new land bank; remediation of environmental problems; demolition; or seed money in the form of a loan, McKnight said.

When such loan funds are revolving, the money can be used again and again, helping to perpetuate the successes.

Good projects have happened in recent years.

Those include the Altoona Brace and Limb building and the Standard Supply building, the renovation of the Elizabeth Apartments; and Legacy Apartments in Lakemont, McKnight said.

In development or planning are The Mill, and the Durbin Townhome project, he said.

Success may require the city to be “bold,” Kelley said.

Sometimes, one of the main obstacles is psychological — wondering whether the market for selling or renting a proposed project is there, McKnight said.

Speculative construction in Blair County has been rare, but it could become more common if it becomes apparent that there will be buyers and renters willing to pay when projects are complete, McKnight said.

There has been enough success so far that projects done hardly seem “speculative,” said Mayor Matt Pacifico.

“Right,” McKnight said. “There may not be a buyer in hand, but there may be 12 standing there.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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