Apartment projects lag in Westmoreland County

Sign up for one of our email newsletters.Updated 40 minutes ago While Pittsburgh experiences an apartment-building boom, Westmoreland County lags in the availability and construction of rental units to suit younger residents' tastes and budgets. Just...

Apartment projects lag in Westmoreland County

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Updated 40 minutes ago

While Pittsburgh experiences an apartment-building boom, Westmoreland County lags in the availability and construction of rental units to suit younger residents' tastes and budgets.

Just four Westmoreland apartment projects received construction permits in the past five years, and only one was for market-rate units — the rest were being built as low-income housing or for senior citizens, according to data from Pittsburgh-based construction-industry analyst Jeff Burd.

The five projects Burd cited included a total of 350 apartment units. But only 118 in the Marquis Place Apartments in Murrysville, built starting in 2013, were available to rent without income or age restrictions.

“Westmoreland housing starts have fallen off since (the) mid-2000s,” Burd said in an email. “The numbers aren't that surprising. Really haven't been apartment projects in any area except Allegheny and its immediate surroundings. Those in Butler have been strictly in Cranberry; in Washington just along the Southpointe/Meadowlands corridor — but none in Peters.”

Because of the large number being built in Pittsburgh, about half the apartments in the metropolitan region are now contained within Allegheny County, Burd said.

McKeesport native Trevor Dzurenda was looking for someplace close to his marketing and sales business in Monroeville that was new and had amenities close to his last place in San Francisco. In Westmoreland, that pretty much left him with Marquis Place in Murrysville, he said.

“I looked around in the Monroeville area and I tried to look in Greensburg a little, but everything was on the older side,” said Dzurenda, 37. “Here, everything's brand-new, and there's good access to everywhere.”

The Marquis Place website touts its easy access to Pittsburgh jobs and shopping in Murrysville and Monroeville, along with Murrysville's parks and the Franklin Regional School District. The apartments, which range from $1,050 to $1,800 a month, were completely occupied as of mid-February.

The next-largest Westmoreland project to get its construction permit, in November 2015, was a 116-unit assisted-living center still under construction in Penn Township, said Mike Stack, the township's chief building inspector and zoning officer.

Brian Lawrence, assistant deputy director and HOME program coordinator for the Westmoreland County Department of Planning and Development, said the county needs to attract more mid-range apartment development if it wants to draw younger residents.

“There are some decent high-end units, a ton of really crummy units at the bottom and not a lot in the middle,” Lawrence said.

The county's population is older than average, while stagnant wages and harder-to-get home loans are driving younger people to rent longer and move more often. To help attract more young residents, Lawrence said, the county needs to entice them with more rentals. His office tries to encourage municipalities to zone for more high-density residential development or mixed-use — apartments over first-floor offices or retail.

But University of Pittsburgh economist Christopher Briem questioned whether an “if you build it, they will come” approach would work.

“If there were demand for certain types of real estate, the market would produce it,” Briem said. “I don't think Westmoreland County is lacking for space for development.”

Apartment growth centered on Allegheny County largely because that's where job growth has been in education and financial services, he said, while Burd noted growth in Cranberry and Southpointe represented “edge cities” — concentrations of jobs and developments at the edges of the metro area fed by major transportation corridors.

Briem said that with up-and-coming job centers in Westmoreland, such as the redevelopment of the former Volkswagen plant outside New Stanton, some areas could see similar growth.

The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimated that a little over 10 percent of the county's housing is in buildings with three or more units; the rest are single-family homes, townhouses, duplexes or mobile homes. Between 2010 and 2015, that translated to about 17,330 apartments countywide.

The same data estimated that Allegheny County had about 126,780 units, or 21.5 percent, in buildings of three or more units.

The Westmoreland County Housing Plan, published in late 2013, said nearly 60 percent of apartments were concentrated in just four municipalities: Jeannette, Hempfield, Greensburg and New Kensington. The plan noted the low rental vacancy rate as evidence that there was room for more construction.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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