Fall Real Estate: Urban Appeal

Phil Wenger used to have a dream home — if you like lots of yard work.

Phil Wenger used to have a dream home — if you like lots of yard work.

Wenger’s home sat on a 3.5-acre spread in Manheim Township, Lancaster County. That meant lots of mowing and landscaping. It was too much for the busy Wenger, founder of Lancaster-based Isaac’s Restaurant & Deli, a midstate restaurant chain.

“My lifestyle has become more mobile,” he said. “I wanted to have less yard and just as much home.”

In late 2005, Wenger moved to a home in the 600 block of West Chestnut Street in Lancaster. He also began to get involved in Lancaster City Living, an organization that promotes homeownership in the city. That effort, and similar initiatives in York, are gaining steam as more people look for alternatives to renting or living in the suburbs.

“When you have a strong homeownership base, you have a stronger city,” said Michael Sprunger, executive director of Lancaster City Living.

Lancaster City Living began to take shape about two years ago when several community groups, including Tabor Community Services, the James Street Improvement District and the Lancaster Alliance, started looking at ways to boost homeownership in the city. Sprunger joined the organization in August 2006 as its first executive director. He seems the perfect fit, bubbling with enthusiasm every time he talks about Lancaster and his own home on East End Avenue.

Lancaster City Living is taking a multi-pronged approach to its mission. It branded the city’s neighborhoods to establish them as distinct communities (see “More options,” this page). A Web site, www.lancastercityliving.org, provides information about the city, homeownership and available properties. The group plans to open a retail space on East King Street in late summer to provide a one-stop shop of sorts for people interested in learning more about city living. A semiannual magazine is expected to debut in October.

Such a far-reaching effort is needed because finding a city home can be a challenge for a potential owner, Sprunger said. A new home in a suburban subdivision can be designed to meet all the buyer’s needs upfront, but it can take months to find an existing city home that fits the same bill.

“We want to close the gap between wanting to own a city home and owning one,” Sprunger said. “We’ll connect the dots for you.”

Lancaster City Living estimates that the proportion of city residential properties that are owner-occupied has risen from 62.4 percent to 62.6 percent over the past year. That might seem like a minute change, but it is significant because there are so many properties citywide, Sprunger said.

Wenger, who is co-chairman of Lancaster City Living’s steering committee, found that living in the city brought more benefits than just less yard work. He’s close to arts venues, such as the Fulton Opera House. He can walk to work.

“There’s a sense emerging that buying a city house is not a foolish investment,” he said.

Officials in York are also finding success in their efforts to boost homeownership. One of the most successful initiatives has been the York City Artist Homestead program. The program provides financial and other incentives to artists who buy houses in the city and turn them into living and studio/gallery space.

Five artists have relocated since the initiative’s inception in 2006, said Kevin Schreiber, the city’s marketing and economic-development coordinator. Artists from as far away as Washington state have inquired about the program.

“It’s bringing new, creative energy to the city,” Schreiber said.

Moving to downtown York has been a positive experience for Chris Johannesen, a painter and sculptor who moved to the central business district in late 2006. He especially likes being centrally located, an asset for the studio and gallery he hopes to open at his home in October.

“Everything has been really fantastic so far,” Johannesen said.

Potter Kim Heindel-Toner acknowledged that York was not on the top of her wish list when she decided to move from York Township. She settled on the city after she could not find a house elsewhere that met her needs.

It’s a decision that Heindel-

Toner has grown to love. Her house at 300 E. Market St. is big enough to accommodate her kilns and other equipment. She doesn’t have to drive everywhere, and she’s accessible to her clients.

“I’m very happy about how things have turned out,” she said.

Sprunger said he believes more people will move to cities as young professionals reject the suburban life and retirees look for smaller homes in places where they have easy access to activities. Perceptions that cities are unsafe and filthy places are going by the wayside, he said.

“People who think Lancaster is a dump don’t know what’s under their noses,” Sprunger said.

More options

Lancaster and York are among a number of midstate communities trying to lure homeowners. Efforts abound in the Capital Region, too.

Harrisburg’s Department of Building & Housing Development offers a plethora of programs designed to make city homeownership more accessible. More information about these programs can be found at www.cityofhbg.com. Click on the “Building & Housing” link.

The Carlisle Housing Opportunities Corp. rehabilitates old houses in the borough and sells them to first-time homebuyers. The program has transformed more than 50 homes over the past decade, helping everyone from Bosnian families to law students. The corporation’s Web site is www.carlislehoc.org.

—Christina Olenchek

Baltimore boosters

A successful urban-living campaign in Maryland is inspiring supporters of Lancaster city.

Lancaster City Living is modeling itself after the Live Baltimore Home Center, a decade-old effort to lure homebuyers and renters to the city. Over the years, the Maryland campaign has blossomed to include an extensive Web site, an information center and semiannual homebuying fairs.

It is difficult to gauge how many people have moved to Baltimore because of Live Baltimore, but the effort has attracted substantial interest, said Anna Custer, Live Baltimore’s executive director. There are 39,000 unique visits to the group’s Web site each month, and the organization sends out about 1,400 relocation kits each year.

To learn more, visit www.livebaltimore.com.

—Christina Olenchek

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