The questionable future of Lancaster’s suburban garden apartment complexes

By Robert Field, Publisher and Builder/Developer

Shortly after rentals commenced on what was to be a 192 unit ‘luxury’ apartment complex under construction in Williamsport, PA some 45 years ago, I drove through the nearby upscale suburban community from which was derived the complex’s name: “Grampian Hills Apartments.” The attractive community and stately houses were similar to School Lane Hills in Lancaster Township.

What struck me was the number of “For Sale” signs in front of one in every three houses, or so it seemed. The reason: Seniors in their late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s , many who commuted to Florida every winter, had been eager to find a small, problem free, living arrangement. Perhaps half of the new Grampian Hills apartments were rented by these ‘empty nesters’ and, in large part, they continue to be a major source of tenants to this day.

That is because Williamsport has not experienced the development of so many forms of alternative housing, as have Lancaster, York, Reading and Harrisburg.

Think of Willow Valley. Two-thirds of its thousand inhabitants likely would have been living in conventional garden apartments if this were the 1980’s or 1990’s.

Over the past couple of decades thousands of other condominium units have been built in the Lancaster region each for a specific segments of the housing market: Senior Communities, Student housing, Senior housing, Assisted Living, recently downtown condominiums, plus newly built conventional rental apartments that are more spacious, better appointed, and often have garages, that are marketed to prospects with incomes in the top 10% income bracket nationally.

We have talked about the dangers of permitting so much retail commercial development to take place as to endanger the viability of Park City. If the shopping mall starts to have significant vacancies, it will go into a spiral of decline. Rather than being a huge tax windfall for the City of Lancaster, it will become a liability.

As additional specialized forms of housing come on market, we may experience an acceleration of the rate of vacancies n the traditional apartment complexes built decades ago in the Lancaster suburbs. If so, they almost certainly will be dependent upon a clientele of far more modest means than in the past.

This change in the garden apartment market would present a great opportunity to improve housing conditions for those of more modest incomes and the disadvantaged. It depends in part on the free market system, although stable or even lower rental rates may lead to a decline in the quality of operations and especially neglect of maintenance of the properties.

However,appropriate government programs, such as Section 8, designed to assist otherwise qualified applicants of limited incomes to afford suburban apartment living, can make use of these older but still desirable apartment complexes and go far to alleviate the current shortage of affordable housing.

For more on this subject, please visit:

“Lancaster residential rental vacancy rate in 2013 is the highest point since 2005”

Lancaster does not lack for adequate housing now or in the future, just leadership at all levels