Affordable Housing, part 1: What does housing affordability look like in Bethlehem?

Latest post in a series on Affordable Housing

Anna Smith is a Southside resident, full-time parent, and community activist with a background in community development and education.

Affordable Housing


Anna Smith

Affordable housing is perhaps the most important issue facing the Lehigh Valley and is one that everyone seems to agree is a problem. There’s no easy solution, and I’m certainly not going to offer one, but as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about this topic (personally and professionally), I have a few thoughts to share as the discussion moves forward. The March 23rd Community Development Committee meeting addressed some of the data and potential solutions, but I think that there’s an opportunity for a much broader conversation that brings folks from across the city together to think about the issue and what we’d like to see done about it. There is a lot of literature on affordable housing out there, and the administration has discussed some of the approaches that other (mostly large) cities have used in attempts to build more of it. However, what “affordable housing” means in any given community or neighborhood—or housing market—can vary significantly. We need strategies that take into consideration best practices but, most importantly, that consider the realities of the local market conditions, housing stock, land availability, and economic landscape.

I’ve broken down this initial analysis into three sections—an overview of what housing affordability looks like in Bethlehem, a discussion of the merits and drawbacks of focusing on new construction as a solution, and some brainstorming on approaches to increasing affordability of our housing stock beyond new construction. Thanks in advance for sticking it out until the end!

What does housing affordability look like in Bethlehem?

Note: All numbers in this article are from the US Census American Community Survey 2015-2019 5-Year Estimates, the Bethlehem Blight Study and MVA, and HUD.

 We need to take a look at some numbers. To avoid our eyes glazing over at the sight of percentages and housing jargon, let’s try to think of these numbers in terms of our friends, neighbors, coworkers, family members, and maybe ourselves. These are not abstract statistics; these are people you know and spend time with—these are the families next door, the person who checks you out at your corner store, your child’s teacher, the elderly couple you see walking in the park—folks who work in every sector and live in every neighborhood in our city. As the numbers below show, housing affordability is an issue that affects a significant percentage of population, and before we think about how to address it, we need to understand the scope and magnitude of the challenge.

In Bethlehem, housing affordability is primarily an issue for renters. 48% of renters in Bethlehem are cost-burdened (that is, they spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs). This is equivalent to 6,844 households throughout our city. Naturally, the highest numbers of cost-burdened renters are found in the neighborhoods that have the highest percentage of renters in the city, which are mostly Southside neighborhoods, where 70% of households rent. Other areas with significant populations of cost-burdened renters include northeast Bethlehem, West Bethlehem, and the Kaywin area. 21% of renter households in our city are severely cost-burdened (that is, they spend more than 50% of their income on housing)—this adds up to 2,963 households throughout our city.

Lack of affordability is also an issue for homeowners, but on a smaller scale. 20% of homeowners in the city are cost-burdened, most of whom live in north Bethlehem, where rates of homeownership are higher. This amounts to 2,944 households. About 6%, or 881 homeowner households, are severely cost-burdened.

So, what’s the big picture? Well, if we add up our numbers, we see that 9,788 households—and let’s round up to 10,000 for ease of discussion and recognition that the pandemic may have increased numbers a bit—are paying more for housing than the federal government deems appropriate. 10,000 households, just in the city of Bethlehem, are paying more than 30% of their income in housing costs, regardless of whether they rent or buy. If we just want to focus on those who are facing the greatest challenges to affording housing, we are talking about 3,844 households that pay more than half of their income toward housing. These are families that regularly choose between food for their children, doctor visits, paying the rent, and paying the electric bill. These are families in every single one of our neighborhoods. These are folks living on Social Security and disability income who cannot work to bring in additional income but cannot find a place to live that they can afford that meets their needs. These are families who want to keep their children in their same school and provide stability, so they stay put and do the impossible to pay the rent. These are families and individuals that experience toxic stress due to the constant burden of making impossible decisions and the threat of eviction, and who are more vulnerable to landlords who don’t make repairs or abuse their power. So, what can we do as a community to support these families, these individuals—our neighbors, friends, classmates, and family members—whose struggles with housing affordability lead to health problems, hunger, transiency among school-age children, and countless other consequences of an exclusionary market?

We know that there is no panacea when it comes to affordable housing, and permanent change will only come from the federal government in the form of subsidies, minimum wage hikes, and other policy changes. On the local level, our best solution requires the simultaneous, coordinated implementation of a broad range of strategies tailored to meet the specific needs of each neighborhood. Let’s look at some ideas.

first in a series . . .

2 thoughts on “Affordable Housing, part 1: What does housing affordability look like in Bethlehem?

  1. Thanks for this, and for putting a face on the issue. Question: When you calculate “housing costs” is that the rent or mortgage payment only, or all costs associated, like utilities too?

    And although you did note the figures might be higher post-Covid – which they most definitely will be – I think it’s important to acknowledge the eviction moratorium and how its after-effects could further impact this situation. For example how many landlords will increase their prices even more, to make up for their losses this past year? And how many will terminate their tenants at the end of their current lease (especially if they’ve had problems paying).

    Finally, do you have any sense of the migration into Bethlehem by non-residents who are attracted by lower prices than they are used to?

  2. Hi Carol, Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

    The data that the Census uses for “housing costs” includes average utilities (water, sewer, electricity, gas) and fuel (oil, kerosene, wood, coal, etc.) for renters if it is paid by the renter in addition to rent (the survey is designed this way to standardize numbers when rental price may or may not include the above). For homeowners, the calculation includes all mortgage payments with interest, fees, taxes, homeowners insurance, and utilities (excluding telephone and cable).

    I absolutely agree about the potential consequences of the eviction moratorium. While our local counties are receiving a significant amount of rental assistance funds through the latest stimulus bill, I am sure that plenty of tenants and/or their landlords will not be able to access the funds for a wide variety of reasons (paperwork, communication issues, fear/mistrust of government, etc.). One of the challenges I regularly saw while working with folks in the community on housing issues was the prevalence of month-to-month leases, which allow landlords to evict a tenant quite quickly pretty much any time that they want. I am concerned about the end of the eviction moratorium, but I also wonder how many folks are being “evicted” without going through the formal court process right now. I’m not working on the ground on this issue to know how frequently this is occurring, but based on my past experience, the majority of families begin looking for housing elsewhere before eviction papers are even filed if their landlord indicates that they want them out (with legal standing or not). I’ve seen quite a lot of movement in my neighborhood throughout the pandemic, and I suspect it was not all voluntary. I imagine it will be a lot worse once the moratorium is lifted.

    You ask a great question about migration to Bethlehem. The latest Census data (from 2019) indicates that 82% of Bethlehem residents lived in the same house from one year to the next, while about 9% moved to Bethlehem from somewhere else within the same county. 5% moved from another county in PA (could be moving between Lehigh and Northampton counties) and 3% moved from out of state (a significant portion of which are Lehigh’s freshman class). Less than 1% moved to Bethlehem from abroad. These numbers do not vary significantly from other cities in the area, and Bethlehem has actually seen a decrease of 25% over the last five years in folks moving in from out of state each year. Many of the surrounding suburban townships have seen significant increases in folks moving in from out of state over the last five years, but I suspect that is driven by new construction in places like Nazareth, etc. So, the short answer that I’m seeing from the data would be that there isn’t a significant influx of people moving from other states nor from elsewhere in the region, and in fact, the rates of pretty much all migration to Bethlehem have decreased since 2014. This is an interesting question and I’m curious to hear if the data backs up any anecdotal trends.

    Thanks for reading 🙂

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