By Liz Hersh

Affordable housing advocates celebrated back in April, when the Pennsylvania legislature created a state housing trust fund. The fund was intended to use about $35 million from the federal housing trust fund to help residents with limited income find homes they could afford, subsidizing private construction and rehabilitation of homes for the poor, disabled, and elderly.

Unfortunately, the anticipated federal dollars never appeared, and housing advocates failed to persuade President Obama to make the housing trust fund part of his jobs package. That leaves Pennsylvania's housing trust fund empty.

It's time to look for a dedicated funding source. A proposed impact fee for Marcellus Shale gas drilling could be the needed lifeline for struggling Pennsylvania families.

Since April, things have gone from bad to worse for low-income homeowners and renters. State and federal programs that have helped them avoid foreclosure for years have been canceled. Unemployment remains high. And the number of families resorting to homeless shelters has soared, as has the length of shelter stays.

Public housing is no longer an effective safety net in many places, because families aren't moving out to make room for new residents. In Scranton, for example, the housing authority has stopped accepting applications for rent subsidies and some public housing.

In the Marcellus Shale region, the situation is even more severe. An influx of workers has driven rental prices beyond the reach of lower-income workers.

Gov. Corbett remains committed to his pledge not to raise taxes, but state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and others have proposed an impact fee for natural-gas drilling. Unlike a general tax, it would be imposed per well and would not go to the state's general fund. According to Scarnati, "The fee is entirely dedicated to local and statewide impacts associated directly or indirectly with gas drilling."

The fee offers a golden opportunity for the state to bring its housing trust fund back to life. The fund is separate from the general fund and is administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, not the legislature. Even if a small portion of the fee were channeled to the trust fund, the agency could use the guaranteed income to issue bonds that would produce housing and jobs immediately.

True to its name, the fee would thereby have a huge impact on communities across the state. It would produce construction jobs and stimulate new economic activity. And it would provide affordable rental housing for low-income workers, seniors, and the disabled, keeping them out of shelters and nursing homes. Housing is the only investment that offers that kind of return.

Gas drilling has been a mixed blessing for Pennsylvania. But if we use a portion of an impact fee to make the housing trust fund a reality, it will be a true blessing for thousands of families looking for a place to call home.

Liz Hersh is executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.