Mike Zielinski

Mike Zielinski

A house is not a home if you’re living in a shed or a cardboard box.

Berks, we have a problem.

Moderately priced homes in the $150,000-$300,000 range in our county are as scarce as ice hockey teams at the equator.

While too much housing growth can gobble up valuable farmland and make a county so congested that the air feels as thick as warm cream, not enough housing growth can stagnate or decline a population.

A community to stay off life support needs new business and a fresh population influx to strengthen the tax base and stimulate the economy. Companies and institutions aren’t going to flock to Berks County if their employees have to live in tents.

We’ll get into the why of this mess momentarily, but in the interim here’s a clarion call for a sudden boom of townhouses to give our people shelter from the storm.

High-density developments can house a large number of people in a fairly small amount of space, leaving plenty of picturesque open meadows to chase butterflies.

Since there are oodles of empty commercial space in our county, they are ideal sites for housing in areas that already are developed and have the requisite infrastructure.

So just what what led us to this critical juncture of praying for townhouses to suddenly sprout like spring dandelions?

When the 2008 financial crisis sucker-punched all of us, housing construction in Berks vanished like the morning dew. When the economy eventually came back, it didn’t lead to a resurgence of moderately-priced home building here.

Most of the new housing in Berks is at the high end of a market, which is cool if your pockets are deeper than the Grand Canyon. But Berks is not a mecca for regiments of millionaires. Palm Springs we’re not.

What’s more irritating than latex is that Lancaster and Lebanon have more robust housing markets than us. So why is the grass greener on the other side of our county line?

Developers blame the high cost of doing business in terms of property taxes and expenses related to improving properties. County planners are looking into what role local zoning rules are playing in this.

Granted, zoning rules are essential. Unless they squeeze development like a fine print-infested straight jacket. Local officials need to see what changes are needed to spur housing development.

Of course, with a whopping 72 municipalities in Berks, finding a consistent path through that jungle of red tape may be harder to navigate than a corn maze.

But find a way through suffocating property taxes and barbed-wire zoning we must, and do it with Mach 5 speed, or face a greater risk of getting our tail pinched than a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Mike Zielinski, a resident of Berks County, is a columnist, novelist, playwright and screenwriter.

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