Don’t expect the number of new homes to surge next year in Berks County, but you can count on most of those that do get started to be apartments or townhouses, local planners say.
Meanwhile, housing for students and chickens was hot in Berks in 2016.
Crews started 520 new homes in Berks last year. At the peak in 2001, crews started almost 2,800 houses in Berks, but the number fell sharply and has leveled off to an average of about 500 new homes since 2010.
The number of new homes in a community is an important way to measure economic health.
New construction provides jobs for builders, tradespeople and financers. And new homeowners buy lots of stuff at local stores, from appliances to furniture to electronics, to fill them up.
Berks planner Michelle Franklin said home starts were steady in 2016, but nothing like the boom years.
“For whatever reason, they haven’t come back up here in Berks,” Franklin said.
It’s different south and east. Grouped with its six surrounding counties, Berks had the lowest rate of residential building permits in 2016, except for Schuylkill.
EMPTYING OF WESTERN PA.
In Chester County, workers raised 1,426 new housing units last year.
“We’re a pretty hot real estate market right now,” said Jake Michael, Chester County’s senior demographer.
He sees Berks on a line between growing and slowing economies, one reason being that the millennial generation is moving out.
“There’s an emptying out of western Pennsylvania, west of Reading,” he said.
Lehigh County, with fewer people than Berks, had 734 permits for new residential construction in 2016, said Amanda L. Raudenbush, Lehigh’s director of community planning.
IMPACT OF HIGH TAXES
Shannon Rossman, Berks County planning director, suggested three reasons that her office is counting fewer housing starts – stagnant population growth, plenty of single-family houses built in the 2000s boom and a city, Reading, with plenty of existing housing stock ready to be refurbished by home seekers.
Berks Commissioner Chairman Christian Leinbach noted in an email that Berks property taxes are higher than all surrounding counties.
“I believe there is a direct correlation between low housing starts and unusually high school property taxes,” Leinbach wrote.
Besides fewer new homes being built, there’s a trend in Berks away from traditional single-family homes on quarter- or half-acre lots and toward multifamily buildings.
In 2007, workers started 900 single-family detached houses and 35 apartments in Berks. In 2016, they started 274 single-family houses and 99 apartments.
Rossman said Berks needs more higher-end apartments and townhouses for people in the professional class. Lehigh and Montgomery counties are seeing those sorts of new housing, she said.
“Households are getting away from larger yards and outside maintenance,” Franklin said. In Berks, new starts are “probably going to stick to apartments, townhouses and maybe semis,” she added.
Lately, housing starts have not been concentrated in certain areas, unlike 10 years ago, when hot spots in Spring and Exeter townships had a lot of single-family homes being built, Franklin said.
Planners expect a need for convenient homes designed for single professionals or retired couples in suburban areas such as West Reading and Wyomissing.
In Reading, developer Alan Shuman wrote in an email that his Big Mill apartment project, completed last year at Eighth and Oley streets, was completely rented in less than six weeks. Downtown, he rented the first 49 units in the Lincoln Tower at Fifth and Washington in four weeks.
“We definitely see a need for new/renovated apartment stock in the city,” he wrote.
HOUSING FOR COLLEGE STUDENTS
Private developers are building student housing near Kutztown University, Penn State Berks and Albright College, Franklin said. She said she expects Alvernia University will need more housing when its football team starts.
Nonhousing construction projects include bird barns and warehouses big and small.
“There was a surge in poultry barns at the end of last year,” Franklin said.
Beside vast logistics centers in northern Berks, smaller warehouses also have risen in places such as Muhlenberg and Bethel townships and Hamburg.
NEW HOMES, OLD PERMITS
Berks townships approved many housing plans in the early 2000s that stalled in the recession, Rossman said. Now, new houses are being built in those developments.
For example, in Lower Heidelberg Township, Grande Construction has been building high-price houses near the Wilson West Middle School on plans first approved in the early 2000s.
Crews also are building houses in lots scattered in developments in Amity and Muhlenberg townships, Franklin said.