By Jordan Fisch
Overlooking Martin Luther King Boulevard sits the Little Lehigh public housing complex with 76 units. Built in the 1970s, it has been marked for renovation with the hopes of increasing the unit size to 96. However, the costs will not come cheaply for the city with the current price for redevelopment coming in at $18.4 million.
Historically, the Allentown Housing Authority has never been properly funded according to Dan Ferrell, the executive director of the Allentown Housing Authority. “From a historical and chronological standpoint, an underfunded program creates significant problems in maintaining a presentable asset to the public,” he said. “The funding is necessary to maintain the asset to put on the new roof, new boiler system, and a new carpet.”
These problems highlight how large the housing disparity really is. “The lack of affordable housing supply is the challenge families have in making their housing obligations and how disparity in housing negatively impacts them,” says Ferrell. When public housing is often mentioned, there are unfortunate stigmas that are attached to the program: Broken windows, bad plumbing and elevators, sewer openings left uncovered, and trash piling up outside. There are currently 968 public properties in Allentown housing a total of 1,637 residents–not a large number yet the problems seem steep.
Beyond the physical problems that plague this housing sector, there are many unfortunate economic factors that have played into these difficulties. “Housing is a continuum, and there are affordable housing markets, homeownership, and condominiums. However, since the bubble in 2008, housing construction has been below historical norms, and not as many apartment buildings have been built, which created a lot of downward pressure in the market,” said Ferrell. The system has suffered from both a lack of funds and outside factors that has caused the current state of public housing. Adding to these factors has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw people losing their income and struggling to pay rent. According to data from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 1 in 5 adult renters were behind on rent in January 2021. And while the number has dipped a bit since then, there were still more than 10 million people behind on rent in fall 2021. “The only positive of the pandemic has been that it has brought attention to the fact that the lack of affordable housing supply,” says Farrell. This problem is not new, especially in the Lehigh Valley. A 2019 Morning Call article found that 17 percent of people struggle with housing problems ranging from high costs to poor facilities.
However, there are some ways that can hopefully provide some help to this issue. The obvious solution would be to give more funding to the AHA, but more funds does not solve other logistical problems of where the units are located. “Instead of having a variety of housing in around the whole Allentown area, the affordable housing has been limited to a singular area,” says Farrell. “This can help with maintaining the buildings as now we no longer have to keep going to multiple locations.”
There are non-profits working on addressing the lack of affordable housing in the city. For example, Community Action Center of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV) has programs that can help those struggling with housing. “We have several programs in place that help with both renovating homes and providing rental assistance,” says Chuck Wiess, who works as the associate executive director of housing with CACLV. “The Facade program grants money, redoes the facades and brings up apartments in need of renovation. The overall goal is to increase economic development in the Valley.” The organization also helps out with a rent program sponsored by Citi Bank with the hopes of building more low income homes.
Another program that helps with rental assistance is Section 8 vouchers. “Most of those that receive vouchers are concentrated in areas that are denser and older,” says Farrell. To put this simply, vouchers are a relatively straightforward way to supplement poor families’ ability to pay for housing and have proven to be effective at reducing housing instability. Beyond that, there are some programs in pace to help those qualify for Section 8. “There are different apartment buildings where people can transition out of the Sixth Street shelter into a section eight voucher department,” says Wiess. “They are education bond-based section eight vouchers and you have to be going to school or in college to get into the apartments.The hope is to encourage people to move into Section 8 housing when they expand.” Even with these programs in place, they are reliant on having enough apartments units available. “The bottom line is you have to create units,” said Farrell. “The only way to create units is by funding construction, or you create units by making the subsidies more attractive to property owners. You need to build a thousand units a year for the next ten years or build 100 units for the next few years.”
There is another way public housing can be helped and that involves a change in the zoning laws. While zoning can be complicated, there is a simpler way to look at how they affect housing. “Zoning laws create the areas that can build for certain types of housing, whether apartments or single-family homes,” Farrell explains. “Your density is what creates your affordability. The more apartments you can put on an acre of ground, the more affordable they can be.” While that may seem like the simple solution, contractors and landowners are going to want incentives to incentivize them to build more affordable housing. “Zoning is something that people could do with their taxes and the tax credits can inspire investors to go into public housing,” said Wiess. “A change in the zoning legislation can encourage the private sector to get into not only section eight, but public housing as a whole.”
While there are many points of issue with the current public housing structure, every obstacle has a possible solution. By funding the Allentown Housing Authority, taking a look at legislation, and supporting the nonprofits looking to help those struggling with housing in the Lehigh Valley, there are ways we can change public housing for the benefit of everyone involved.