Students lend expertise to help address affordable housing in Harrisburg

house shaped key in door

Nine Penn State Harrisburg students in the School of Public Affairs presented their ideas on affordable housing to the Harrisburg City Council twice this spring and participated in a wide-ranging affordable housing panel discussion in the city.

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Affordable housing is a hot topic among Harrisburg city officials, as developers often prefer to build new homes for high-end buyers.

“With renewed interest in revitalization of the city, we have to make sure we keep it affordable for poor and middle-income families,” Harrisburg City Councilman Ben Allatt said. “We have to look at ideas.”

Supplying some of those ideas and recommendations were nine students in Jane Beckett-Camarata's master's level capstone course in public administration at Penn State Harrisburg. They presented their research to the council twice this spring and participated in a wide-ranging affordable housing panel discussion in the city.

“Collaborations between government and universities can benefit both,” Beckett-Camarata, associate teaching professor of public administration at Penn State Harrisburg, said.

“For our capstone project every semester, I look at important policy current issues that affect the larger society,” she said.

The students first reviewed and analyzed a housing study the city completed a few years ago. Then they chose two cities similar in size and make-up to study – Albany, New York and Annapolis, Maryland. They are both capital cities in the northeast with similar housing issues.

“It's meaningful for students to take a real-life policy issue that cities are grappling with, and learn the complexity of it,” Beckett-Camarata said. “The study allows them to take all they've learned in their courses and apply that knowledge to an issue that affects everyone.”

Student Shawn Peck already works in public administration in a juvenile justice program designed to reduce recidivism. He hopes to eventually get his doctorate and become a professor.

Peck said his group emphasized “inclusionary zoning” when they talked to the council. Such zoning would require developers to set aside a certain percentage of their homes for low income buyers. Alternatively, they could choose to put money into a trust fund for providing affordable housing.

Student Peterson Prime said that the students also recommended applying to the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York's Affordable Housing Program, providing training to underemployed residents, reducing permit fees and developing educational materials to enlighten or counteract landlords who refuse tenants receiving housing subsidies.

“The main thing I learned is that when trying to address a complex issue, no one entity could deal with that issue by itself in an effective way,” Prime said. “It would probably require the participation of actors at the municipal, city, state and even federal levels...and the public. Since buy-in is needed, the goal is to find a policy that all these actors could agree with... Oftentimes, an incremental step is the best that could be done under the circumstances.”

Peck believes that public/private partnerships are the best way to proceed.

“It's not unsolvable,” he said.

Student Liba Blumberger said working collaboratively reduces “some of the information gaps that exist between academia and policy.”

“I got a chance to apply my graduate level learning in a practical way, in order to aid the city of Harrisburg,” she said.

Beckett-Camarata said she would like to continue a collaboration with the city.  Allatt said city council would welcome it.

“I think their ideas will bear some weight,” Allatt said. “It was a great project in terms of idea generation...It was a great process and I look forward to doing it again.”

There are plenty of topics Penn State Harrisburg could help with, he said.

“I would like to continue on this path,” he said. “It enhances their studies in a practical, real-life way, and they can help the city they live in and love.”