Lancaster In One Room—A Deliberative Forum on Housing in Lancaster County

On Saturday, August 19, Hourglass hosted a deliberative forum on housing in partnership with the Franklin & Marshall College Center for Politics & Public Affairs. The forum brought together 48 randomly selected residents who are representative of Lancaster County to deliberate solutions to Lancaster County’s housing challenges and to offer informed public input on housing policy.

What is a Deliberative Forum?

Deliberative forums are useful tools in the public engagement process. Views expressed in town hall meetings and other channels of communication are often not an accurate representation of the general public. Opinion polls and surveys, while representative of the entire public, capture views that are often uninformed, particularly on issues that are complex and that require some level of technical understanding. Policy recommendations developed through deliberative forums are both representative of the public and well-informed.

Why Housing?

It’s no secret that Lancaster County, like most of the nation, is facing housing challenges. Lancaster has one of the lowest housing vacancy rates of any metropolitan area in the country, at only 4.6%. We struggle with affordable housing and 41% of our renters are housing-cost burdened (meaning they spend more than 30% of their household income on housing). And then there is the matter of how and where we grow. From 2015-2019 the average density of new developments in our Urban Growth Areas (parts of the county where we want to channel growth) was only 4.6 dwelling units/acre, rather than the 7.5 goal outlined in our county’s comprehensive plan—consuming more land than necessary and threatening our farmland and natural lands. Read more about Lancaster’s housing landscape in our forum briefing documents.

What Did the Participants Say?

  • In considering the general state of housing in Lancaster County, participants immediately mentioned the need for more affordable housing. They also voiced concerns about growth in the county, including its impact on traffic and the identity of Lancaster County, and expressed the desire for managed growth.
  • On balance, participants preferred decisions about housing development be made at the municipal level rather than countywide, and they expressed support for streamlined regulations, for infill development and adaptive reuse, and for mixed-use, multifamily buildings in Urban Growth Areas as ways to increase housing supply.
  • Participants described affordable housing as an urgent problem in Lancaster County and recognized a need to educate the public about affordable housing and those who are in need of it. With respect to strategies for addressing this issue, many participants favored increased government subsidies (though others opposed this approach) and there was widespread agreement on the use of tax and other incentives for developers.
  • In their final determinations, affordable housing was, by far, the top priority mentioned by participants, followed by “safe, accessible, and fair” housing and the development of housing near jobs, schools, etc. There was less agreement on the strategies and policies participants favored for increasing housing in Lancaster County. The two most commonly mentioned strategies/policies were infill development/adaptive reuse and mixed-use, multifamily buildings in urban growth areas. Participants identified a wide range of potential benchmarks including reducing the number of people who are housing cost-burdened, increasing vacancy rates, and increasing the number of affordable housing units.
  • Pre- and post-forum surveys revealed a change in most attitudes about housing and housing policies as well as in the perceptions of political division in Lancaster County and the need for dialogue with those with whom we disagree.


Our partners:

This forum would not have been possible without the commitment of the participants, funders, experts, facilitators, notetakers, and organizers.

Funders: This forum was generously funded by a Lancaster County Community Foundation Bridge Builders grant, the High Foundation, and the Steinman Foundation.

Experts: Our experts included

  • Michaela Allwine, Director of Housing and Community Development, Lancaster County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities
  • Mike Berk, Executive Vice President, Lancaster County Association of Realtors
  • Mary Frey, Principal Planner, Lancaster County Planning
  • Claude Hicks, Senior Vice President of Real Estate Development at HDC MidAtlantic
  • Ben Lesher, President & Founder of Parcel B Development Company
  • Jeb Musser, Vice President of Land Protection at Lancaster Farmland Trust and member of Lancaster County Planning Commission
  • Anna Ramos, Executive Director, Lancaster County Workforce Development Board
  • Douglas Smith, Bureau Chief of Community Planning & Design at City of Lancaster

Facilitators: Facilitators were trained in partnership with Advoz

Watch our October 2023 First Friday Forum presentation on the Housing Deliberative Forum Results