A Forever Home in the Highlands

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by Lorie Waters

When my husband and I moved back to State College in 2014, we figured it would just be for a couple of years while he established his post-grad school career.  Nine years and two kids later, we’re still here and have been so grateful for the life and home we have established in the Highlands. 

Our forever home in the Highlands

Our gratitude extends in large part to the State College Community Land Trust, which enabled us to purchase our first home close to downtown, close to campus, and now, as our daughters have gotten older, within walking distance to their elementary school.  On only my husband’s single income while I chose to stay home with our daughters, we could never have purchased a home in the Borough without the support of SCCLT.  Now, the life we have created has been heavily influenced by our land trust home and its location in the Borough.  It enables us to be a one-car family while my husband walks to campus every day; allows us to walk to the library, restaurants, friends’ houses, and nearby parks; and ensures that we have predictable and affordable housing expenses, while also enabling us to pay off student debt and plan for other financial needs.  Everything from our daily routine to our long-term goals has been positively shaped by our affordable homeownership in the Highlands.

Family photo from our recent travel adventures across Austria and Germany.

Fast forward eight years and my chapter as a stay-at-home parent came to an end in May 2022 when SCCLT was looking to hire for a new position of Real Estate & Stewardship Coordinator.  The timing was ideal as we looked ahead to our youngest starting kindergarten in the fall.  With an interest in housing and a strong belief in the importance of affordable housing opportunities in our otherwise expensive housing market, I was thrilled to begin working with SCCLT and have a chance to help other families and individuals meet their own unique housing goals with an organization that has been so important to our family.  I now get to see even more of—and be a part of—the positive impact that this organization has on our community every day.  

As an affordable housing organization and Community Land Trust, SCCLT employs a shared equity model of homeownership.  With this model, an income-qualified first-time homebuyer purchases the home, and the Land Trust retains ownership of the land.  This reduces the purchase price on the home by around 30%, meaning that a $200,000 house purchased by SCCLT is sold to a buyer for closer to $140,000. Before selling, SCCLT rehabs the home for code compliance and makes minor cosmetic updates.  More recently, through our collaborative Energy+ Initiative, we are also focusing on energy efficient upgrades with insulation, air-sealing, and HVAC. At resale the home is sold to another income-eligible buyer at a set price, ensuring that these Borough homes remain affordable and owner-occupied in perpetuity.  There are currently 53 homes in the program across seven Borough neighborhoods, including 14 homes in the Highlands.  SCCLT has served 78 households over the past 26 years and helped hundreds more by directing them to local resources, budget counseling, and other housing opportunities.  Something of particular importance to SCCLT is the continuation of support to our homeowners even after purchase.  All homeowners complete 5 years of post-purchase budget counseling, and we share seasonal maintenance reminders, financial resources, and, more recently, information about the Inflation Reduction Act tax credits and rebates—all with the goal of equipping our homeowners and empowering them to care for their homes. 

A moment for hugs as we split off for the daily walk to work and school

It has been an exciting time to be working with SCCLT over this past year, particularly with the extensive rehab project currently underway at our 1505-07 University Drive duplex.  Building upon the knowledge gained with our Zero-Energy-Ready GreenBuild project up the street, we have been working with local contractor Envinity, Inc. and the West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund on a Passive House Retrofit of this 1970s duplex—the first multi-family Passive House Retrofit in Pennsylvania and only the second in the United States.  Our goal with this project has been to show the intersection and importance of energy efficiency with affordable housing, particularly for residents who are frequently energy burdened.  According to the Department of Energy, this means spending an average of 8.6% of gross household income on energy costs for low-income households (compared to only 3% for non-low-income households).  For a 4-person household earning $51,500 per year, or 50% of the Area Median Income, this could mean spending $370/month on energy bills.  Comparatively, the Passive House retrofit will reduce electric bills to around $20/month, due to vast improvements with insulation, air sealing and triple-pane windows, a highly efficient HVAC system, and solar panels on each unit.  We hope this project can serve as a prototype for future projects both in our program and in the greater community, as our aging local housing stock (particularly in the Borough) demands updates and improvements to guarantee climate resiliency.  

With input from various community members, SCCLT recently completed a 5-year Strategic Plan.  Our goals continue to shine a light on the importance of affordable, owner-occupied, and sustainable housing in the Borough of State College, and our mission is to continue to create and steward NEW housing opportunities for low- and middle-income first-time home buyers.  Gratefully, we continue to expand our program thanks to many donors, volunteers, and Highlands neighbors like Polly and Jim Dunn, who plan to sell their rental home to the Land Trust later this summer.  Thank you, Jim and Polly, for supporting our program—supporting your neighbors—and ensuring that our wonderful Borough neighborhoods will continue to thrive, both today and into the future.  

Lorie and Joel Waters are native State Collegians and Penn State grads and are enjoying raising their two daughters, ages 9 and 6, close to family and the various perks of life in a college town.  When not working with SCCLT or volunteering at her daughters’ school, you can find Lorie attempting to improve her gardening skills or solving the latest NYT Crossword.  Joel is the Education Abroad Coordinator for the Eberly College of Science at Penn State, and in his free time enjoys tasting the latest craft brews from Antifragile Brewing Co. and planning our next travel adventures.