Westmoreland County has received $125,000 from the state's Marcellus Shale impact fees for a housing rehabilitation program.
"Our goal is to set up a loan program for eight to 10 homeowners for projects such as malfunctioning heating systems, roofing, rewiring, plumbing and drainage," said Terri Yurcisin, deputy director of the county's planning and development department.
The state money comes from new impact fees assessed on Marcellus Shale gas wells drilled in the state.
The state announced last week that $7.6 million will be distributed from the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund to 19 counties to help improve housing.
"We used to run a housing rehabilitation program," said Ms. Yurcisin, "but because of federal cutbacks, especially in [Community Development Block Grant] money, we had to eliminate it. So we thought we'd apply for this new housing money with the state Marcellus Shale funds."
Ms. Yurcisin said the county hopes to begin taking homeowner applications for the housing loans by March.
She said the county wants to find eligible applicants in the townships of Derry, Hempfield, Sewickley, South Huntingdon and Washington.
"Those are the townships with the most wells being drilled," she said, "and that's the goal of the state program, to improve housing in the areas affected by the Marcellus Shale drilling."
Westmoreland County Commissioner Charles Anderson welcomed the added money from the impact fees.
"Pennsylvania residents and municipalities are now seeing direct economic benefits that will continue as development of Marcellus Shale formation expands," he said. "This is a prime example of how the impact fees collected from drilling companies can improve the availability and quality of housing for residents in the impacted region and in our local communities."
This month, the state began distributing the first Marcellus Shale funds to counties and municipalities from the per-well impact fees.
An initial distribution of $204 million was allocated to Pennsylvania municipalities, counties and state agencies and funds.
Westmoreland County, which has about 135 gas wells, received $2 million of the impact fees, and has allocated $500,000 for the repair of roads and bridges, and money to update emergency radio dispatching equipment.
Municipalities receive funds based on how many wells they have. Derry Township, for example, which has the most wells in the county, received $458,000 this year from the gas well impact fees. Washington Township is expected to receive about $300,000.
Ms. Yurcisin said the county's goal with the housing money is to allocate one-third of the $125,000 to homeowners with low incomes -- less than 50 percent of the median income in the county.
Median household income for families of all sizes in the county is about $49,000. For a family of one, that 50 percent level would be $22,750; for a family of four, the median income in the county is $64,900, she said.
The housing money can be allocated to families making as much as 200 percent of the median household income in the county, she said.
"So, a lot of people will be able to take advantage of this fund," she said.
"We haven't set up the guidelines yet, but we probably will not loan out more than $20,000 to one homeowner," she said. "These will probably be low-interest or no-interest loans," she said.
"We're going to partner with the Westmoreland Housing Authority on this project," said Ms. Yurcisin. "They will evaluate applications by visiting the homes, and then when a homeowner is given a loan, the authority has its own crew to do the work, so we can save money there."
She said the amount of housing loan money in the second round of allocations in spring 2013 could be less than the initial distribution because the low price for natural gas means gas companies aren't producing as much gas, and new wells are not being drilled at the same rate as in the past couple of years.
Ms. Yurcisin said the planning department is going to conduct a housing survey in 2013 by talking to local real estate agents to determine the county's housing needs.
"Westmoreland County's housing stock is in the middle when compared to other counties in the state," she said. "We have a lot of older communities with some deteriorating housing that we need to keep up, but we also have a lot of newer housing plans, and we have a lot of rental housing, too.
"Once we do that survey, we'll know better how we can best use some of this housing money," she said.
Debra Duncan, freelance writer: