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Pa.'s Gas Boom Worsens Low-Cost Housing Shortage


A boom in natural gas drilling is shaping the economy in much of the eastern United States. Some people have become millionaires because they own gas-rich land in the Marcellus Formation layer of shale that spreads across many states. Some locals are finding jobs in the industry, and some people have been priced out of their homes by an influx of drillers with money to spend. Emily Reddy from member station WPSU takes us to a Pennsylvania county that has opened its first-ever homeless shelter.


EMILY REDDY, BYLINE: It's dinnertime at the Jemison Valley Brethren in Christ Church in Tioga County. The church sits alone along a two-lane highway in rural northern Pennsylvania. Off the main room, cots have been set up in the Sunday school classrooms. But right now, everyone's in the dining room.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, we have mashed potatoes, gravy, meat loaf, green beans, cranberries and a ton of cookies.

REDDY: The women from the church press visitors to fill their plates. But this isn't your typical Sunday church supper. It's a meal for the homeless, and this church is a makeshift shelter. After he eats, Doug Harris does dishes in the kitchen.

DOUG HARRIS: Well, I have slept in my car on a few cold nights before the shelter. And I'm glad the shelters are here for, you know, for me, because it's just kind of hard to sleep in a car.

REDDY: Harris had to quit working because of his diabetes. He's been on a waiting list for low-income housing for six months.

ABBY THORBORG: In the past, you know, you could have gotten in in a couple of months.

REDDY: Abby Thorborg is the one who placed Harris in the shelter. She's also the one who came up with the idea to have churches house and feed the homeless. Six other churches are also taking part. Thorborg is a Tioga County housing specialist. She says when drilling grew, so did homelessness.

THORBORG: Once they started coming in, I started seeing more people and more families, and, you know, I've lost my housing. What can I do? And I'm not in no way shape or form blaming it on the gas industry, because I always say, any industry coming in. We had a housing shortage before. Now it's even worse.

REDDY: Marcellus shale drilling is so new, there's not a lot of research on its impact on housing. Two professors at Lycoming College are trying to put numbers to it. Bonita Kolb and Jonathan Williamson talked with politicians, community planners, developers, renters and social service agencies. Kolb says what they found is that the housing shortage is a domino effect.

BONITA KOLB: People who can't find really nice housing move into okay housing. People in okay housing move into rundown housing, and people who are living in rundown housing, they fall off the ladder.

REDDY: With all the new workers in town, the laws of supply and demand are in full effect. Houses that rented for six or $800 a month just a few years ago can now rent for as much as $3,000. Drillers are piling into houses, living in RVs and renting out whole hotels for months at a time.

Back at the church, Doug Harris will head off to his cot in the basement soon. He's hoping he won't have to rely on the churches for much longer.

HARRIS: I did all my paperwork already, and hopefully I'm in line before long to get housing.

REDDY: The researchers say the only real solution to the housing shortage in northern Pennsylvania is time. It could take several years to build enough new housing. Meanwhile, Abby Thorborg is working on plans for a permanent homeless shelter. She's already received a donation from the people working at the nearby Shell drilling rig. For NPR News, I'm Emily Reddy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.