Shortage of low-cost housing remains one of the Valley’s biggest problems – The Morning Call
Without a doubt, the biggest issue that has challenged this community for the longest time is the lack of housing options, especially for low-income people. Here are some misery-inducing data:
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines “fair rent” in the area as around $1,200 for two bedrooms. Many apartments cost much more than this, but few cost much less. All the family planners and home economics teachers (that is, our parents) insist that we spend no more than 30% of our net income on housing. Most mortgage lenders would agree with that. Now, if you need a place, you can pay a lot more. Many apartments, like the ones JB Reilly and his City Center Investment Company have produced so impressively, rent for more than $1,600.
Unsurprisingly, at the very bottom of the economic ladder are those who are so poor that they have little chance of getting out of poverty: they may have been so unlucky that they are convinced they are losers. and not being able to function.
They can be cursed with drugs or alcohol; they may be mentally ill. Far too many are veterans. There are those who do couch-surfing, as they call it; like nomads, they roam the desert, their little children having no rhythm in their lives. Their surf includes sofas, floors, cars and a
occasional bed. There are those who have been driven from their homes by frustrated and desperate spouses or other loved ones who have gone mad. They have limited skills, if any, but those skills aren’t worth much in the private market.
All of them and many more are the ones I continue to characterize as those we “leave behind”. As a society, we want to be able to judge them, to look for ways to convince ourselves that their problems are their fault, that it is their fault. Don’t look under those rocks, folks, you might not like what you see. Maybe the free market just doesn’t quite work. Otherwise, we don’t want to concede that the rising tide really doesn’t lift all boats. It can’t be the “system’s” fault, can it?
Keep in mind that housing markets are very, very local. Think ZIP Code 18103. Cumberland Gardens, a federal housing “project,” is located there. Just like Lehigh Parkway. The Allentown market is very different from the Bethlehem market. The south side is very different from the north of Bethlehem. The cost of land will continue to rise because demand increases and supply eventually decreases.
Who expected the supply chain mess? Interest rates are rising as the Federal Reserve tries to zap inflation. The cost of building materials is increasing. New York and New Jersey’s affordable housing programs are referred to as “Pennsylvania”, with demand driving even more cost increases.
One thing is very clear: the housing market is dysfunctional. The private sector cannot make a profit building affordable housing for people with limited market value. By that I mean those whose income is less than about 80% of the median income (about $50,000 in the Lehigh Valley). The
the details would take more writing than most would bother to read, so trust me on this one. Over the past 30 years or so we’ve tried everything: building on cheap (i.e. contested) land, running a design competition for architects, scoring the interest rate for developers and more Again. We pinched the
edges of this problem, hoping that maybe the dragon could be slain with many, many small cuts.
Since the 1980s, the main federal tool to try to reduce the cost of rental housing development, combined with other sweeteners, can reduce the cost of development to make rent affordable
for a person whose income is less than 80% of the median income of the region. But if you earn 50% or less of the area median income (total household income under $35,000), forget it. Thus, a single mother earning $17 an hour would be challenged to find housing. If you’re one of the few hundred families receiving cash assistance, the rent for the apartment we just described should be close to zero, as a family of three would only get $403 per month. Shocking, isn’t it?
I’ve ranted, raved, reasoned, cursed and more over the past 40 years trying to solve this toughest problem of all, engaging all kinds of people and industries. We got, basically, nowhere. Instead, we had more run-down housing, more creepy neighborhoods, more poverty concentrated in our oldest
neighborhoods, no more flight of white people and their money to the suburbs where property values have risen for these people, no more fires uprooting the poorest of the poor, no more homelessness.
It is an extremely complicated problem. When people tell you that there are easy solutions to such complexity, try not to laugh.
So we have a crisis ourselves. Frankly, I prefer to use the term “disaster,” one that affects thousands of homes here in the Lehigh Valley. It’s so bad, it just feels like it can’t be fixed. But every problem has a solution; it is often the will to solve the problem that we lack; the cold shoulder becomes a cold heart. We abandon.
Don’t. If we get everyone together again, maybe we can find a way. We need a steady stream of funding, more useful land use plans (I don’t blame the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission), friendly employers, a review of all regulations to ensure that ‘they are still relevant and, yes, of federal and state involvement. Anything less has no chance of making a difference.
Alan Jennings is the former executive director of the Lehigh Valley Community Action Committee.
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