Chester County Challenge: Creating More “Missing Middle” Housing

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With the highest median housing cost in Pennsylvania, County officials are advocating for alternative lower-cost housing models

WEST CHESTER, PA — With housing prices increasing faster than incomes in Chester County, county leaders are looking for ways to create more homes affordable to middle-income and smaller families.

Chester County’s population has quadrupled over the last 90 years to 534,000 residents currently, and growth is expected to continue. As a result of the county’s appeal and tremendous growth, it has the highest median housing value in Pennsylvania at $375,000. With the county’s median household income of about $100,000 per year, many people in the county’s workforce cannot afford to live in the county.

The county has an ample supply of single family detached homes, and the County funds development of affordable housing for lower-income families and seniors. The big gap falls in the middle.

“Chester County’s existing housing stock does not currently meet the evolving needs caused by growth and changes in our demographics,” said Chester County Commissioners’ Chair Marian Moskowitz at a recent housing forum, hosted by the Chester County Planning Commission and Department of Community Development. “Our residents need homes that are affordably-priced and that fit into the community. The number of one- and two-person households is increasing, which leads to more demand for smaller homes that are affordable for people living alone or on a fixed income.”

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Chester County has anticipated the issue, and its Comprehensive Plan, Landscapes3, addresses these changing needs.

“As home prices continue to rise, more Chester County families are burdened by the amount of their paycheck that it takes to pay the rent or mortgage,” commented Commissioner Josh Maxwell at the forum. “Municipalities in every part of the county will need to address housing challenges and ensure vibrant, safe, inclusive, and healthy neighborhoods. We are especially focused on one component – ‘Missing Middle’ housing – which can help municipalities address these important challenges.”

Libby Horwitz, the Chester County Planning Commission’s Housing and Economic Planner, said filling the “Missing Middle” housing gap will require housing types such as duplexes, twins, cottage court/courtyards, and conversions of commercial and industrial properties into residential apartments, among other options. These properties will look like other housing types in the neighborhood but have more units within those structures.

“What we’re talking about is housing diversity and choices – we’re not talking about not building apartments or single-family homes, which are integral parts of our housing supply, we’re just talking about increasing housing options so people can continue to live in Chester County as their needs and incomes might change,” Horwitz explained.

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Chester County is borrowing ideas from Montgomery County that our neighboring county has deployed to deal with the issue. Sarah Peck of Progressive New Homes pointed to three examples, including the Danley twin homes in Lower Merion Township, the Arbor Mews and Arbor Heights Townhomes in Norristown. “We can be affordably priced and meet a growing market need,” Peck said.

Nannette Whitset of South Media Neighbors United provided her firsthand experience working alongside Peck and rallying her community to allow zoning for the Media Walk development in Nether Providence Township, Delaware County. “You have to trust the developer and believe in the project and just stay the course,” Whitset added.

Chester County Commissioner Michelle Kichline noted, “Housing options that can meet the needs of all household sizes and income levels are essential, and it is up to all parties – public and private – to work together to achieve this.  In Chester County we have the plan and the partnerships in place to make it happen.”

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A forthcoming report from the Chester County Planning Commission will make recommendations to expand housing options that will meet the needs of the “Missing Middle.” They include zoning for these kinds of housing, encouraging infill development, and providing County resources to encourage this kind of construction. At the same time County officials say they must balance resident concerns about density, loss of green space and potential traffic congestion against the need for this kind of housing by Chester County families.

A recording of the 2021 Housing Forum is available at: https://youtu.be/mocInFgsCZY.

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