Thinking about the homeless

Latest post in a series on Affordable Housing

Confronting the homeless situation is almost a universal campaign topic among our candidates, so these stories are thought provoking.

selections from Stephen Althouse, “New position proposed to address homelessness in Allentown.” WFMZ, April 8, 2021.

A new position devoted to addressing homelessness in Allentown was proposed Wednesday night by city council.

Council forwarded legislation that would create a “homeless service coordinator” position responsible for “providing coordination and support for the initiatives of the Allentown Commissioner on Homelessness,” according to the bill.

The hire would be tasked with educating the public and local government officials on issues regarding people without homes. They would also develop and implement related strategies and services, as well as coordinate the efforts of agencies already serving homeless people, such as the local government and not-for-profit and faith-based providers.

The homeless service coordinator would also be expected to increase the number of landlords willing to rent to homeless individuals, acquire federal and state funding to expand rental assistance to help people who are facing eviction, and expand affordable housing options.

Ultimately, the work of the position should result in “reducing the number of people and families that experience homelessness, so that homelessness in Allentown is rare, brief and non-reoccurring.”

selections from Paul Muschick, “Tiny homes for Allentown homeless worth a try. Here’s why.” Morning Call, March 25, 2021.

The idea of building tiny homes for Allentown’s homeless has merit and I hope city officials will consider it.

It’s not a perfect solution to addressing the problem of homelessness, as critics have pointed out. But there is no perfect solution. The problem has nagged society for centuries.

Tiny home communities are one of the latest concepts. They exist in some places, mostly out West.

Are they working? That’s depends on who you ask. But the lack of universal consensus shouldn’t kill the idea here. Allentown shouldn’t be afraid to try something different.

There are more pros than cons, and that’s why they should be considered.

Some of the pros are obvious.

A tiny home — even one that some Morning Call readers have described as nothing more than a glorified shed — at least puts a roof over a head. It doesn’t have a toilet or kitchen, but has heat and air conditioning. And a door that locks.

People would be more comfortable, and safer, than sleeping in the woods in a tent or in an abandoned building or doorway.

Other pros are not as obvious and should not be overlooked.

The tiny homes plan pitched for Allentown — Hope Village of Allentown — would be maintained and operated by nonprofit Operation Address The Homeless.

Plans call for the village to receive mail, meaning people who live there would have an address to use on applications for benefits and jobs. That’s a huge barrier for the homeless.

The agency would help residents get identification, another barrier.

Residents would be required to open a bank account and save money. They would have to participate in six to 12 hours of programming a week on topics such as cooking; computer and trade skills; fitness; parenting; GED classes; family counseling; mental health; and drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

Residents would have to work, either on- or off-site. They would have to pay rent of $25 to $50 a month, depending on their income. But the rent would be refunded back to them to be used to help pay for permanent housing. The length of stay for each resident would vary.

All of those services would help get residents in a position of stability where they could live on their own, without such intensive support.

The biggest con to the plan is finding a location.

Where do you put a village of 25 tiny homes and its communal facilities? And how do you convince people living nearby to accept it?

Another con of a tiny homes community for the homeless is that it segregates them, as pointed out by opponents of the plan in a recent op-ed in The Morning Call.

I also wonder how many people would want to live in a tiny homes community. There’s a reason that some homeless people prefer to live in the woods. They want their independence.

Living somewhere with rules — such as a 9 p.m. curfew unless you’re working, and requirements to work and have a bank account — likely wouldn’t be popular with some. Nor would paying rent, even if that rent is returned to them.

Then there is the cost. It’s big.

Operation Address The Homeless is seeking nearly $500,000 in public funding, plus an additional $200,000 if Allentown and Lehigh County can’t donate property. That’s a big sticking point for a city with financial struggles.

But it could be looked at as investment because, if it works, a tiny homes community could mean lowering other costs related to serving the homeless.

Taller buildings a key to affordable housing says developer

Latest post in a series on Affordable Housing

The comments here favoring approval of taller buildings by developer Dennis Benner add to what we have reported earlier on the Affordable Housing Task Force and the March 23 Community Development meeting. Gadfly will report later on a meeting with City Planning about the Southside core last night in which building height was a key issue — majority response from the public favoring limiting the height.

selections from “With 1 in 3 households ‘cost burdened,’ Lehigh Valley cities try to tackle the affordable housing crisis.” Morning Call, April 1, 2021.

As Bethlehem Steel took off in the mid-1900s, so did affordable housing, with thousands of modest twin homes and the occasional brick single popping up throughout the city to accommodate the plant’s employees.

There was once more than enough affordable housing for Bethlehem’s working class, but in recent years, not so much. Even as more apartment buildings are developed throughout the Lehigh Valley, many of those units are out of reach for low- to middle-income workers.

A new affordable housing task force in Bethlehem is hoping to change the trend by offering incentives to developers who incorporate affordable housing into their plans. The task force plans to make recommendations to City Council in the next couple of months on how to accomplish that goal.

Renters make up nearly 1 in 3 households in the Lehigh Valley, yet 57% of new rental units cost $1,000 or more per month, according to the latest statistics from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. Additionally, 1 in 3 area households are cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing every month.

More specifically, 51% of renters and 24% of homeowners in the Lehigh Valley are cost burdened, according to the statistics.

Since 2014, projects encompassing 887 apartment units have gone through Bethlehem’s approval process, but none is considered affordable housing, city officials said. Some of those units have yet to be constructed.

“We can’t deny there is a crisis in Bethlehem, in the state and in the country,” said Bethlehem City Councilmember Grace Crampsie Smith, who started the task force.

Crampsie Smith, who works as a counselor for Easton Area School District, noticed more of her students over the last five years becoming homeless and transient. That’s when she began reading about the lack of affordable housing for middle-class workers in America and decided to see what the city could do for its residents.

Bethlehem’s task force started meeting in November. The group includes 10 members, with representatives from the city, Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley and two local developers.

Local developer Dennis Benner, who sits on the Bethlehem Affordable Housing Task Force, said rising costs have presented a particular challenge to him.

Benner is working on Skyline West, a $15 million, 50-unit luxury apartment complex at 143 W. Broad St. No affordable units are planned for the development.

One way to incorporate affordable housing would be to allow for taller buildings with more units so that it’s economically feasible, Benner said. He owns multiple properties in Bethlehem’s South Side, but grapples with how to develop them because he said the city’s Historic Commission, an advisory board, routinely recommends against approving taller buildings.

“Government has to come to grips with density. That’s not just in Bethlehem, that’s everywhere,” Benner said. “Government wants everyone else to fix the problem, but they don’t want to face the reality of what’s needed to be able to do that.”

Affordable Housing, part 3: Looking Beyond Construction

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.

ref: Affordable Housing, part 1: What does housing affordability look like in Bethlehem?
ref: Affordable Housing, part 2: Building New Housing

continued . . .

LOOKING BEYOND CONSTRUCTION

While construction of new housing will certainly be a component of any city’s planning, let’s avoid the trap of thinking about construction as our primary affordable housing tool. Construction with subsidy can add a greater supply of units around the median price, which would certainly be welcome in the city. But inclusionary zoning or other attempts to incentivize major private developers to add affordable units are not going to solve our problem. Should they continue? Sure, as long as they aren’t occupying all of our time and preventing us from exploring other possibilities. But we need a broad range of simultaneous, coordinated strategies if we’re going to even begin to address the challenges facing our city.

What are some other ways we can support affordable housing in our community? I’ll throw a few ideas out there, but I’d be interested in hearing other folks’ thoughts. Some are based on best practices, and others are just off the top of my head—feel free to tell me why they won’t work! A few of these things are already going on at some level but, with additional emphasis, could potentially make a greater impact.

  1. Support incentives for small-scale landlords to fix up their properties but then maintain affordable prices. Low-interest loans, tax relief, grants—any time you give a property-owner an incentive, you can mandate that they maintain affordable rents for years.
  2. Work with responsible local developers/landlords to rehab vacant, blighted, or simply run-down homes into affordable housing—many are already doing it, and renting at less than Fair Market Rent. I know several local folks who have invested in a property or two, fixed them up themselves with help from a few specialized contractors, and then rented them out at prices that are more affordable than any new construction could possibly be. There are barriers to doing this—capital for initial investments, technical knowledge to ensure that rehabs are up to code—that city and non-profit programs could address.
  3. Train new developers/rehabbers with a Jumpstart Germantown-style program. Admittedly, this program took a massive investment from a private donor to get started, but could we think about a similar style program here? Recruit folks from the community to learn how to do small-scale rehab and development, pair them with experienced developers to learn the basics, and offer financing through a local Community Development Financial Institution to get them on their feet, as long as they commit to making their units affordable. We could increase our supply of small-scale rehabbers or developers that enter the market with knowledge of the community, training in responsible practices, and a direct connection to our city government. Not only could this help us create more affordable housing, but it could even the playing field a bit, so that a few major developers aren’t the only ones dictating the terms of development in our community.
  4. Convince affordable housing developers to do more renovation and management of rentals. Most of the affordable housing developers who have operated in Bethlehem over the last few decades have focused on owner-occupied housing. Managing rental housing is a large and often unpleasant task, so many organizations with limited capacity prefer to build, sell, and move on, despite the extremely high cost of construction. What if organizations pooled resources to create a stand-alone non-profit property management firm that could serve affordable rentals throughout the city, as well as the income-qualification processes of affordable units in private developments? If we had a long-term management solution for rental housing, perhaps housing development organizations like CACLV, Valley Housing Development, Housing Opportunity Movement, Alliance for Building Communities, HDC Mid-Atlantic, Habitat for Humanity, and any others that I’m missing, would think more seriously about rehabbing and providing affordable rentals in existing multi-family structures or single-family homes.
  5. Loosen regulations for group homes, cooperative housing, SROs, rooming houses, and work with responsible developer/landlords to offer a broader variety of options to renters. More people in the US are living alone than ever before, and our housing stock in the Lehigh Valley was constructed with families in mind. There is a need for increased diversity of housing types to serve individuals who may prefer to live in a group situation, rent a room, or form a cooperative. Due to ingrained prejudices, we as a society tend to have a negative reaction to the concept of renting a room or to a boarding house, but we don’t seem to have that type of reaction when we see a group of four recent college graduates who met on Craigslist sharing a house—which is exactly what renting a room looks like. We need to recognize that individuals of all backgrounds can benefit from a diversity of housing options, going beyond single-family homes and apartments.
  6. Do not let properties sit vacant. The Bethlehem Blight Study highlighted a tool that many communities have used to get vacant residential and commercial properties back into circulation—fining property owners who let their properties sit vacant without a long-term plan. Property owners receive monthly fines until they inform the city of their intentions, and then they have a specific time frame in which to take action before fines begin to accumulate once again. We have a lot of mixed-use properties in our downtowns that have upstairs apartments sitting vacant—if the city could incentivize owners to rent these out as affordable units through loans or grants to help get them into renting shape, we could obtain more housing much more quickly than through new development.

How do we make these things work? Fortunately, our cities receive a decent amount of funding that can be invested in the development of programs like these, although it would likely require shifting some dollars away from construction of new housing. An affordable housing trust fund would be a great way to add some needed cash to that pile—by charging major developers a per-unit fee for any non-affordable housing developed throughout the city, we could increase the city’s ability to subsidize existing programs and support the creation of new ones. Loan programs can keep funds in circulation, fines can generate income, and a non-profit property management firm could potentially sustain itself by taking on some private contracts. However, I think we have some great potential partners in our community that could lend a hand.

Two of the biggest elephants in our community are the local hospital networks. Throughout the country, hospitals are realizing the important connections between social determinants of health, of which housing is a huge one, and the frequency and severity of medical conditions and illnesses of all kinds. Hospitals across the country are supporting affordable housing construction and housing services for their patients – let’s make sure that our major health networks are at the table and directly involved in the discussion.

In survey after survey, affordable housing emerges as a major issue for our community. We need a wide-reaching social movement in the Valley to bring residents together to talk about how housing issues impact their lives, to envision solutions, and to put pressure on the institutions that have the power to make change on a broad scale. The City won’t be able to do it alone, but by doing the groundwork, our city government can offer a well-thought-out path forward.

As Bethlehem’s City Council moves forward with a discussion of affordable housing, I ask that they do so publicly with participation from the entities that build affordable housing, small-scale private developers, and, most importantly, individuals who are struggling with housing costs. Focusing solely on the opinions and ideas of a handful of private developers—and doing so behind closed doors—is not going to solve a community crisis. In fact, I suggest that we marginalize the voices of the handful of private developers who have dominated the scene for the last decade. Up until now, they have shown no interest in affordable housing. Why should we expect them to lead the way? Let’s broaden the conversation to look beyond new construction and think about all of the different components of an effective strategy. The more voices involved in the conversation, the better our result is going to be.

**While writing this piece, I came across a fantastic episode of a podcast on housing and development issues that I highly recommend you listen to, if you have any interest in affordable housing and development trends across the US: http://upzoned.strongtowns.org/e/does-increasing-housing-actually-make-the-housing-crisis-worse/ While it starts out referencing a very specific article and topic (whether or not induced demand is a factor in rising housing costs, i.e.. building new housing attracts folks from elsewhere that could drive up housing prices in a community), most of the episode addresses many of the issues that we as a community are facing and offers some interesting thoughts on a path forward.

Last in the series.

Affordable Housing, part 2: Building New Housing

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.

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

continued . . .

BUILDING NEW HOUSING

Building affordable housing is often the first thing we think of, and new development was the primary focus of the March 23rd meeting. Construction of new housing undoubtedly has a place in our city’s priorities, but the complexities of promoting development as an affordable housing strategy are worth discussing. Bethlehem has only had 2,000 new units of housing built in the last 20 years—The Reinvestment Fund’s analysis of the Bethlehem’s housing market indicated that a defining characteristic is “The absence of virtually any new construction activity in Bethlehem,” in part because of limited land that is available and appropriate for housing construction. They also highlighted the relative affordability (compared to other cities) of Bethlehem’s older housing stock, citing a median sales price across the City of $155,385, although that has increased a bit since the start of the pandemic, as the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission has indicated.

So, should we be focused on building new housing? When it comes to building new “affordable” homes for homeowners, the cost of construction is so high that new homes tend to sell for more than the median price for the city as a whole—even those built with subsidies. As part of the CACLV-proposed City Lights development in south Bethlehem, we were anticipating subsidized, affordable, workforce housing selling for $160k+–and the project still fell apart due to financial challenges. In her podcast, urban planner Abby Kinney puts it succinctly, “No new housing is going to be affordable without subsidy.” Is there demand for new housing in Bethlehem? Sure, and that means we should probably build where it’s reasonable to do so. Although the traditional logic of markets suggests that increasing supply should reduce demand and result in a lower equilibrium price, this doesn’t seem to work out with housing, for a number of reasons. One important thing to consider is induced demand: if we build more housing, that doesn’t mean only Bethlehem residents will have access to it. We may attract folks from elsewhere who previously weren’t interested in living in our city. Building housing may help to keep prices from increasing rapidly due to scarcity (as we’ve seen during the pandemic), but just building new housing is not an affordable housing strategy. And building affordable housing with subsidies is ongoing and doable but is not likely to be an option on a broad scale—in addition to the range of individuals for which this housing is actually affordable being limited.

Given the relative scarcity of vacant land in the city, development often means knocking down existing properties to build. Of course, this is a better choice when properties are obsolete or uninhabitable —but it can mean knocking down something more affordable to put up something that will be more expensive. Should we be investing money in the development of new, single family homes for purchase? Maybe some, but I think that there may be other ways to have a more significant impact.

Let’s talk now about development of multi-family housing. We’ve seen a lot of proposals for apartment buildings in our downtowns. While these projects may have merit from an economic development perspective or as a way to support downtowns, as affordable housing projects, there are a few questions we need to consider:

  • Are they destroying existing affordable housing to build?
  • What level of affordability is being used to set new rental prices? The fairly universal standard, set by the federal government, is Fair Market Rent, which is $891 for a 1 BR, $1,139 for a 2 BR, and $1,474 for a 3 BR unit in the Lehigh Valley. Unless they are subsidized substantially, private developers who choose to incorporate affordable units into their projects in exchange for density bonuses (existing city incentives that gives advantages to developers who are willing to include affordable units in their projects) will charge the maximum that is allowed under “affordable” rules, and they may still lose money on those units.
  • How do those rents compare to existing rents in the city? They are all higher than the median rents, which come in at $835, $1,102, and $1,300. Median rents are even lower in our downtowns, coming in around $1,000 in the Southside business district and about $1,150 in the Northside downtown for a 3-bedroom unit. We showed that approximately 50% of renters already can’t afford their homes at current rental prices. New “affordable” apartment rentals will be priced higher than the top 50% of rental properties in the city. There may be a good reason to build these units, but as an affordable housing strategy, they are not likely to make much of a dent.

Put simply, we cannot build our way out of this. We are talking about almost 10,000 households in Bethlehem that are struggling with housing costs. These folks currently live in homes and are part of communities. They send their children to their neighborhood school, know their neighbors, and in many cases have invested years and money into their current living situation. While some may be glad to move into a new home, many would likely find it easier and more desirable to stay put. Let’s make sure that our strategies include ways to support the thousands of families that are happy in their homes but could just use some help paying the bills.

Inclusionary zoning is another idea that has been floated in the city, which would require developers to dedicate a certain percentage of any project to affordable housing. Putting the legality of the approach aside, if we are going to implement an inclusionary zoning policy that actually makes units affordable to members of our community, then we need to think about what that threshold is, and develop our own, city-specific measures of affordability. Fair Market Rent is calculated regionally and does not reflect the housing market in the city of Bethlehem. That, and/or just charge developers a per-unit fee that goes into an affordable housing trust fund to support rehab of existing properties.

second in a series, to be continued . . .

Questions on affordable housing for Anna

Latest post in a series on Affordable Housing

Although she’s lived in Bethlehem for almost 20 years, Carol Burns’ new career as a freelance marketer is giving her an opportunity to “discover” her hometown. She volunteers for several arts-related organizations, and her newest adventure is dipping her toe into local politics and community organizations.

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

Anna:

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?

Carol

———-

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 🙂

Anna

Part 2 of Anna’s essay on affordable housing coming next.

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

by

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 . . .

Learn your ABCs and your ADUs

Latest post in a series on Affordable Housing

“I just have lost my faith in capitalism as a way to get affordable housing built.”
Councilwoman Van Wirt

Accessory Dwelling Units

What Gadfly really liked about the March 23 Community Development Committee meeting on affordable housing was the energy on both sides of the table.

In the last post or two, we’ve heard the spirited input by the City.

Now here’s Councilwoman Van Wirt jumping in on what she called RDUs and what Councilwoman Crampsie Smith called ADUs — Accessory Dwelling Units.

PVW’s actually nudging the City toward a quick pilot program, like right now.

Councilwoman Van Wirt: “I would actually urge your committee to come up with a pilot program. Let’s just try something out of the gate. Let’s just change a zoning code to allow RDUs in a targeted area, serviced by public transit, maybe a 10-block area. . . . I don’t see why we wouldn’t try it. Let’s see what happens. . . . This crisis is right now upon us, and if we can come up with some tools that actually work now, I think that’s a good idea.”

Councilwoman Crampsie Smith’s on board and will provide more info:

Gadfly, who’s looking to downsize and looking for an affordable apartment or other mode of living quarter, remembers his reading in Jeff Speck a summer or two ago and casting his eye on a Granny garage next door:

According to Speck, one town offers zero-interest loans up to $20,000 to build ADUs.

Seattle offers a guide. Look at the pictures of completed work!

Gadfly loves the excitement of these early planning stages.

Creating something. Onward!

More context on affordable housing

Latest post in a series on Affordable Housing

“If you’ve been in South Bethlehem for 5 seconds, you know it’s not
affordable housing over here.”
Rachel Leon, candidate for City Council

Gadfly working through the March 23 Community Development Committee meeting on affordable housing.

There’s a lot of inside baseball here today, but we should be trying to get as much of a grip as we can on this important issue that seems to be getting legs.

So here’s Alicia Karner, Director of Community and Economic Development, laying out some aspects of the “problem” of affordable housing.

 

And here’s Darlene Heller, Director of Planning, surveying the tools we have to address the problem of affordable housing.

So what does an apartment cost?

Latest post in a series on Affordable Housing

“Incomes are not matching up to the unit prices.”
Tina Roseberry

ref: Crampsie Smith Affordable Housing Task Force advances
ref: Affordable Housing has momentum
ref: Get ready for some nasty numbers

We’re continuing to slow-walk through the statistics relevant to the much welcomed affordable housing initiative headed by Councilwoman Crampsie Smith presented by the city at the Tuesday March 23 Community Development Committee meeting.

How much does an apartment cost in our town?

And how much money do you need to make to afford one?

Good answers to such good questions.

Listen to the City’s Tina Roseberry again.

 

 

For instance, to rent a newly constructed 2BR apartment, you need to make $1,750/month to not be cost-burdened, that is, you need to make, say, $76,000/yr., and approximately 2/3’s of our residents do not make that much.

———-

Read and weep.

selections from Tom Shortell, “COVID-19 caused Lehigh Valley housing prices to skyrocket. Planners worry what this will mean for low- and middle-income families.” Morning Call, March 23, 2021.

The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission raised a red flag over surging housing costs in a report released Tuesday, warning that one-in-three households are paying a larger-than-recommended share of their income to keep a roof over their heads.

The Lehigh Valley has been in a housing crunch for years as the population grew and developers pumped high-end apartments into the market. But these luxury-style abodes cost more than what many families can afford, leaving many residents short on options. The coronavirus pandemic’s arrival stretched those trends to new extremes, the report found.

Between 2015 and 2019, the median home sale in the Lehigh Valley slowly increased from $175,000 to $200,000. But over the last year, the pandemic led residents of New York City and its expensive suburbs to move to the cheaper Lehigh Valley, causing median home sales here to balloon in one year by the same $25,000. While there’s been a surge in proposed single-family housing developments, it’s not enough to meet the demand in the Lehigh Valley, planners said. The high costs are straining low- and middle-income families’ finances.

More than 60% of home owners in some neighborhoods in Center City Allentown and Easton’s West Ward are considered cost-burdened, according to the study.

Nearly 80% of Lehigh Valley residents work in industries where jobs are at risk because of the pandemic, according to the report.

Affordable Housing has momentum

Latest post in a series on Affordable Housing

“We’re going to come up with a solid tool box . . . to incentivize
housing that is affordable.”

Councilwoman Crampsie Smith

ref: A Plea for Affordable housing (1)
ref: Good news from Councilwomen Crampsie Smith and Negron
ref: Crampsie Smith Affordable Housing Task Force advances

Gadfly remembers things.

He has a mind in which things stick.

He can never forget the 70 seconds at the absolute end of the May 2019 Nitschmann Middle School meeting on Martin Tower in which an elderly guy (Ha! but probably younger than the Gadfly) made a plea for affordable housing to thunderous applause.

Finishing his thoughts about that night, about that elderly guy’s frail plea, Gadfly wrote then:

“Let’s keep that muffled elderly voice and the vigorous chorus of audience support in mind as we think about what the City can do to remedy the lack of affordable housing. There is a problem, and “we” know in our guts something has to be done about it.”

Gadfly thought of that plea two years ago while at the Community Development Committee meeting last night with “Affordable Housing” smack dab on the agenda.

Thank you, Jesus!

It was one of the most uplifting meetings Gadfly has attended.

Councilwoman Crampsie Smith has taken the lead on this issue and formed an Affordable Housing Task Force that obviously has the full support of (and already considerable thought and work by) key City administrators as well as her fellow Council members.

Gadfly could feel momentum, could feel determination to make something happen.

The talk wasn’t characterized by empty rhetoric, by pious aspiration but by facts, strategies, tactics.

Gadfly sensed that everybody meant business.

He will spend another post or two on this interesting and informational meeting, but first let’s listen to Councilwoman Crampsie Smith talk about the work:

  • The problem is worse for the renters.
  • In Bethlehem . . . we are not seeing development of units that are affordable for the work force, for the middle class.
  • In 2010 we had 20,000 rentals that charged over $1000/month for rent, in 2019 we now have 45,000 rentals that charge over $1000/month.
  • In Bethlehem because of the pandemic we are looking at 27% of the work force at risk of job loss or have lost their jobs.
  • We formed the Affordable Housing and Inclusionary Task Force to try to come up with remedies, to try to figure out ways, how can we do housing in Bethlehem that is affordable.
  • It doesn’t mean housing that is at the poverty level of income.
  • It is for those who are in the work force, those who are in the middle class and the lower middle class.
  • All sides in the Task Force presented their challenges.
  • We certainly had our differences surrounding the mechanics of affordable housing.
  • But we all agreed that a tool box is what needs to be developed.
  • We don’t need more high-end luxury rentals.
  • But I think the community needs to be aware that with the incentives some of them may be less appealing.
  • Bethlehem is a gem in so many ways . . . diverse and progressive and has good values . . . a community built on the backs of men and women who wanted more than to have a stable home and neighborhood in which to raise a family.
  • Many of those neighborhoods were built as workforce housing for those who worked on the canals and in the steel mills etc.
  • And we owe it to our predecessors as well as our current residents to insure that we are truly inclusive and that we offer mixed income level housing for all.
  • We want the City to be seen as welcoming to all and as such provide housing that will not make renters and homeowners cost-burdened.
  • We need to develop a continuum of programs and services to address housing.
  • At the one end . . . shelter for homeless folks . . . priority . . . happen soon . . . and affordable for the working class.
  • We’re going to come up with a solid tool box . . . to incentivize housing that is affordable.

to be continued . . .

Meeting on affordable housing March 23

Latest post in a series on Affordable Housing

Tuesday, March 23, 2021
6:00 PM – Town Hall

Community Development Committee Meeting
Subject:  Affordable Housing

Gadfly is pleased to call especial attention to this meeting on this subject that was announced at City Council Tuesday night.

He has heard the chant “We need affordable housing” constantly over the past three years of his tenure.

Councilwoman Crampsie Smith seems to have taken hold of this issue, and things are starting to move, though Councilman Reynolds counseled at the meeting that the issue is complicated.

Gadfly thinks we should make sure to attend and to take every opportunity we can to make sure Council knows this is a priority.

Establishing community-centered principles for responsible Southside development

Latest in a series of posts on new development

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

Gadfly:

The February 22nd Historic Conservation Commission meeting was a win for proponents of responsible development, but I worry that the phrase is most frequently used in discussions of what we would NOT like to see occur in our neighborhoods. The process by which development projects are proposed, reviewed, and approved in our city—which is not unique to our community but represents standard operating procedure for most cities like ours—does not make much space for proactive discussions of community-centered development. No one wants to say “no” all the time, so let’s talk about what responsible Southside development could look like. There are great examples of creative projects that got each of these principles right and that can guide us as we envision the future of our community.

Establishing Community-Centered Principles for Responsible
Southside Development
Anna Smith

The City of Bethlehem has seen a remarkable number of development projects proposed for its downtowns over the last several years, from mixed-use retail, restaurants, and housing to office space and luxury apartments. Some projects have been in the works for decades, carefully strategized with every detail scrutinized by developers and their partners, while others seem to have been thrown together at the last minute by novice teams of folks new to the Lehigh Valley. Regardless of how they come together, each project undergoes a similar evaluation process that includes review by City officials, the City’s Planning Commission, and often an historic and architectural review or an appeal to the Zoning Hearing Board. Every board or commission has a narrow scope to consider, and although some occasionally overstep their boundaries, no group is charged with actively working to ensure that each project is a productive addition to a long-term vision for a viable community. Residents and small-business owners often attend these meetings to express their views, but the technical aspects under consideration can be intimidating to folks unfamiliar with the City’s ordinances, and many committee members are professionals with a background in development themselves who are capable of quickly checking the appropriate boxes regarding stormwater, architectural design, and sidewalk grading. Throughout these review processes, many of the components of projects that are most important to those who live or work nearby receive only minor consideration.

Let’s take a moment to think about what our approval processes would look like if they truly centered impact on the quality of life residents and small businesses in our community. What if we had a resident- and small business-centered framework to evaluate each development proposal that comes in front of our City government? After all, our residents and small businesses are the foundation of our community, and our City government exists primarily to serve the interests of these constituents. We are the voters and taxpayers; we are the ones who live, work, and play in the neighborhoods and downtowns, and our interests should play an important role in thinking through the costs and benefits of any new development project proposed for our community. And those interests extend beyond the technical aspects of projects outlined in the City’s ordinances. What would that framework look like? Here’s my first try at a list of principles for responsible development on the Southside with some examples of recent-ish projects that I think have successfully embodied each approach. What would you add or change?

  1. Support projects that incorporate locally-owned businesses into their plans, and that lead to a net increase in small businesses. Examples: Riverport Market, Flatiron Flats
  2. Prioritize development of vacant industrial properties over demolition of historic properties. Examples: The Factory, 510 Flats
  3. Encourage new development that does not exceed the size of surrounding properties and blends with historic architecture in order to create a cohesive sense of place and encourage walkability. Examples: Polk Street building
  4. Support projects that incorporate diverse residential and commercial offerings that are accessible and affordable to South Bethlehem’s population. Examples: proposed Palace Row redevelopment
  5. Support adaptive reuse of historic buildings. Examples: Brinker Lofts, Flatiron Flats, Grace Mansion (in progress), Goodman building (proposed), Wilbur Mansion project (in progress)
  6. Support projects that incorporate green space and/or the development of public spaces into their design. Examples: Brinker Lofts opening onto the Greenway
  7. Support projects that are developed in response to community needs identified by residents and stakeholders, and that engage residents and stakeholders in idea development and the design process
  8. Support projects that prioritize sustainable development practices and take proactive approaches to addressing challenges presented by our changing climate. Examples: The Flatiron Building
  9. Avoid projects that cause displacement of long-time residents, low-income residents, and locally-owned businesses
  10. Do not use projects that are nearly universally considered planning and design failures as precedent for elements of new development (e.g., Urban Renewal projects like Rooney building, Litzenberger House, Lehigh’s Brodhead House, Rite Aid shopping center.

to be continued . . .

Crampsie Smith Affordable Housing Task Force advances

Latest post in a series on Affordable Housing

Back in November Gadfly gave a shout out to Councilwoman Crampsie Smith, who announced that she was forming an Affordable Housing Task Force.

“Affordable Housing” — housing for the middle class, not low income subsidized housing — was a chant Gadfly heard from the very beginning of his tenure.

And here the Councilwoman was taking a concrete step to directly deal with this persistent issue.

At City Council last night the Councilwoman gave an impressive status report on her efforts.

The Task Force has already met 5 times.

Think about that!

Their purpose is to “raise the awareness of all the different entities on the fact that there is a housing crisis in America” and, of course, in our town.

A crisis that our spate of new high-end, luxury condos can’t assuage (wow! great SAT word I don’t often get a chance to use).

The Task Force aims “to come up with a series of best practices of how we can address the lack of housing that is affordable for the middle class, the working class,” that Crampsie Smith will then bring as recommendations to Council.

Gadfly particularly calls attention to the fact that prominent Bethlehem developers — Messrs. Perucci and Benner — are on the Task Force.

Now we’re talkin’!

So we again applaud the Councilwoman and eagerly look forward to the fruits of the Task Force.

Listen in (3 mins.):

Good news from Councilwomen Crampsie Smith and Negron

Latest in a series of posts on City Government

 

Two great developments announced at the November 17 City Council meeting:

Councilwoman Crampsie Smith (2 mins.)

  • The Councilwoman is focused on homelessness and the housing crisis and has been meeting with people throughout the state, Alan Jennings, and Alicia Karner and announced the first meeting of the Bethlehem Affordable Housing Task Force (members include people from non-profits, financial institutions, city government, developers, etc.) to address the issue of lack of affordable housing and rental properties within the City with a goal of bringing ideas “to the table” by April. Fantastic!

Councilwoman Negron (2 mins.)

  • The Councilwoman has facilitated a meeting with the Mayor and Chief Kott with Pinebrook Family Services that has been doing work with the Allentown Police Department — with the goal of perhaps working together relative to the new plan by the Police and the Health Bureau to link a social worker to Police activities. Fantastic!

Your tax dollars at work!

“Thank you,” Mr. Antalics, “for always keeping us on track.”

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Heard on Jeopardy last night: “What Bethlehem resident wants the definition of family as five unrelated persons changed in order to stifle the negative effect of student housing on the Southside?”

Just kidding.

But everybody who follows the Gadfly knows the answer to that question.

Stephen Antalics.

Gadfly #1.

And he is not kidding.

This man has wit and whimsy, for sure, but at Council he is all business.

He’s a Southside warrior.

At Council Tuesday night Stephen challenged the “silence of the lambs” once more.

Classic gadflyism. A model for us all. Listen.

For once, Stephen’s words did not go unanswered.

The 11 o’clock news could well have led off with a fiery segment on the fired-up Congressman Callahan to which I have strongly urged you to listen.

That’s where the sensationalistic headlines would be.

But the precious jewel of the meeting was the easily overlooked — wedged as it was between Callahan fusillades — barely three minutes of Councilwoman Negron in response to Stephen.

Councilwoman Negron’s soft demeanor bespeaks her sincerity and belies her strength.

“Like [Mr. Antalics], the Southside issue is dear to my heart,” she said, recounting the consequence of listening to residents about affordable housing at a meeting of the Southside Vision Housing Committee:

  • “I couldn’t even sleep last night because I was so upset, especially because I heard the urgency in which they were speaking.”
  • “I am not going to go anywhere till something is done, or that will be my end on City Council because there is no purpose if that cannot be changed.”
  • “I just want to assure you [Mr. Antalics] that just because we are not talking about it every night as you have, and you have the right, and I’m glad you have, we are working on it.”
  • “The only reason I was glad to read the[South Bethlehem Historical Society] letter was to realize that I am not crazy or that I am just whining about something dearest to my heart.”
  • “So housing is getting to be a big distress on the Southside, and we are looking to make some changes in the near future.”
  • “Thank you for always keeping us on track.”

Beautiful.

Gadfly has sensed some momentum on the housing issue since that SBHS letter, some tide-turning, though, of course, there are such prior currents as that generated by Southside Vision that he was not aware of.

“We are working on it.” “We are looking to make some changes.”

Action.

“I am not going to go anywhere till something is done.”

Resolve.

Passage of the “Antalics Amendment” is playing on Gadfly’s mind-screen.

And — he knows it’s early — but Gadfly’s mind has been drifting ahead to the mayoral race.

A strong program to improve affordable housing will need the executive’s power.

And will take longer than Mayor Donchez’s term.

There were probable candidates for mayor in the room Tuesday night, and more watching on television. Gadfly thinks this is a cause the next mayor must take up.

Not too early for people to be thinkin’!

Thank you, Mr. Antalics, for always keeping us on track.

Thank you, Councilwoman Negron, for saying thanks.

Temptation

(Latest post in a series on Affordable Housing)

Gadfly is facing the downsizing dilemma.

Gadfly is facing the downsizing doldrums.

Gadfly is facing the downsizing decision.

He has recently told you that his neighborhood is changing, that student rentals are increasing.

He has a five-bedroom house, wonderful for raising a brood of “Irish sextuplets” (6 boys in 9 years).

A developer would not have to spend a penny in rehabbing.

Kim Carrell-Smith recently pointed out in another post that we should read again that houses in the First Terrace section on the Southside sold for the “extraordinary sum” of an average of $240,000 each: “housing prices are going nuts”!

Gadfly paid $13,500 for his house a thousand years ago.

He could now make a fortune.

A house on his hum-drum, routine, middle-class, nothing-special block sold for just shy of $200,000.

Seriously.

The temptation is to sell and hang the “out to lunch” sign on Gadfly.

Feathering his own nest (so to speak).

Apres moi, le deluge!

Gadfly needs an intervention.

“Someone needs to explain to us why 5”

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

At the last City Council meeting the indefatigable Gadfly #1 — Stephen Antalics — did his “thing” (as we used to say) on the definition of “family” again, the definition that permits developers to load 5 students into a house.

Gadfly sardonically remarked that Stephen is like the Flying Dutchman — the legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever — on this issue.

El primo Gadfly raised this issue at least as early as 2012, and this Gadfly has heard him raise it at least a half-dozen times in his Council attendances in the last 18 months.

“After extensive research into the matter,” said the Ur-Gadfly, “Bethlehem may be the only college community in the state allowing five unrelated students to be classified as a family.”

Which is why we are so appealing to developers.

“The key to good community is the single family.”

No denying that.

“Someone needs to explain to us why 5.”

No denying that.

“It becomes incumbent upon you on Council to get an answer for us.”

Lay it on, Stephen.

“What’s happening is contrary to the welfare of the Southside.”

No denying that.

“Can you help us to get an answer?”

Aiii, here’s the rub.

Now the solution to affordable housing etc. on the Southside may be more complicated than Stephen says.

Gadfly refers you to the recent post by the wise Anna Smith, a post that should be read again for sure.

That’s not the point on which Gadfly would like to focus here (forcing himself, Tony, to avoid ending with a preposition!).

The point on which Gadfly would like to focus is communication — two-way communication.

There seems to be no mechanism to receive answers to questions.

Gadfly has posed some questions in regard to the Polk Street Garage that will not be answered.

There seems to be no mechanism to receive answers to questions.

Stephen’s “Someone needs to explain to us why 5” will hang in the air endlessly.

Gadfly feels a modest proposal coming on.

Porch thoughts

(Latest post in the series on City Government and affordable housing)

It is a stunningly beautiful day on the porch in Gadfly’s backyard.

Preternaturally quiet.

Next-door neighbors gone for the week. Student renters gone for the weekend.

Just Gadfly. And the birds. And the butterflies. And an occasional lantern fly.

So quiet he can hear the wasps (is that what they are?) drinking from the birdbath.

Great thinking time.

Two thoughts came to mind:

1) A memory of Seth Moglen enunciating a call to action from the newly formed Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development in front of the Mayor and City Council a few weeks ago that included a kind of threat: we aren’t going away, we are paying attention, we will vote.

2) At this very moment the Bethlehem City Democratic Committee is hosting their annual picnic in Bethlehem Township (have they sucked all the noise out of town? is that why it is so quiet?).

Those two thoughts led to two others:

3) Nobody’s vulnerable to an election defeat in the near future.

4) Where are the Bethlehem Republicans when we need them?

These 4 thoughts arc’d in Gadfly’s mind, leading to a sobering conclusion.

Nothing might get done about the “existential threat” Seth dramatically articulated because the threat about voting the Mayor and Council out of office was empty.

The Mayor cannot run again, and, in any event, the next mayoral election is basically two years away. An eternity. The Mayor isn’t worried.

There is a Council election in November, but it is a meaningless mid-term, turnout will be low, and — worst of all — there is no opposition for the primary winners at this time. Does any Council member fear defeat?

So Gadfly started thinking about what a shame it is in this instance that we don’t have an opposing party in town that might take up now before the November general election the “cause” that the BRRD and others have generated and spur the active leadership in regard to affordable housing and neighborhood property-value security that comes when your office is on the line.

Will the Mayor and Council — partying right now in the wilds of Memorial Park — be complacent?

Who will step up?

Is it still possible for an Independent to challenge in the general election and shake things up a bit?

Sharing your reading: turning renters into owners

(Latest in a series of posts about affordable housing)
(also 5th in a series about sharing your reading)

Jeff Speck: “Turn renters into owners.”
(Walkable City Rules, 2018)

(The Gadfly blog is turning into the “Journal for the Advancement of Affordable Housing”! Hey, have you — no matter where you live in the City — gotten on the mailing list of the Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development at moglen@lehigh.edu? If you haven’t, wouldya?)

There are 15 homes in Gadfly’s extended block.

A decade ago there was just one rental. Now there are 6. Rentals now are 40% of Gadfly’s immediate neighborhood.

2 of the 6 rentals are student housing — the landlords enjoying the benefits of the infamous “5 students = a family” rule.

Things are going downhill: peeling paint, trash clutter, unmowed grass, unshoveled snow removal, competitive parking, trees lost, missing teeth on railing’d porches, deteriorating facades, etc., etc. You name it.

One very good neighbor has rented for 10 years. What’s up with that?

$1400/mo. x 12/mo. a year x 10yrs = $168,000.

The landlord has not raised the rent in that time. These good people pay regularly, not always the case in rental management. So he wants to keep them. But he has done little in upkeep on the property and won’t until they move and he is forced to for new tenants.

Why rent so long? And seemingly so irrationally economically.

You would think if they could pay (substantial) rent steadily for 10 years, they could make mortgage payments.

Their specific situation is a bit more complicated — general issues of credit and possible need for quick moves — but one main reason, they say, is the down-payment hump.

Speck: “Babylon, N.Y., . . . reached out to all local renters with a down-payment assistance program.”

Just tryin’ to stir the idea-pot . . .

If you aren’t reading, you may not be thinking. What are you reading these days? How about sharing with us? Gadfly invites you to share a few clips of your reading  — with or without comment — or a few thoughts from your reading pertinent to the Gadfly project of the good conversation about Bethlehem that builds community.

Sharing your reading: Granny flats

(Latest in a series of posts about affordable housing)
(also 4th in a series about sharing your reading)

Jeff Speck: “Pass an Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinance . . . and create a City program encouraging their construction.”
(Walkable City Rules, 2018)

So you see what Gadfly is doing here, right? Trying to educate himself.

Bethlehem has an acknowledged problem with lack of affordable housing.

(Remember, he’s liking the term “attainable housing” too.)

We could hop over to the sidebar, click the “candidates for election” link, and find several of the candidates affirming attention to affordable housing as a campaign platform position.

Easy to say in campaign mode.

And, of course, in that setting, nobody talked about how to do anything to further affordable housing.

The Mayor’s response to the South Bethlehem Historical Society letter named a housing program example but hardly indicated any wide-ranging program to address affordable housing.

So Gadfly’s trying to educate himself.

Speck says, “there is a way to almost invisibly increase density, affordability, and diversity in single-family neighborhoods.”

That is:

the Accessible Dwelling Unit (ADU): the Backyard Apartment, the Garage Apartment, the Mother-in-law Apartment, the Granny Flat.

Now just with inclusionary zoning, we may already have codes for ADU’s. Gadfly doesn’t know. And just like with inclusionary zoning, Speck may be glossing over big negatives,

But this idea as a partial solution to the lack of affordable housing was new to Gadfly and sounded kinda interesting.

ADU’s have a small footprint: 500 – 800 sq. ft. They work well in neighborhoods with rear alleys. They increase property values. They (Gadfly’s antennae go up) “make aging in place possible,” as seniors rent them out or live in them and collect rent for the main house.

One town offers zero-interest loans up to $20,000 to build them.

Seattle offers a guide. Look at the pictures!

There are 11 houses on Gadfly’s block. The yards are 60ft. long. Only two “use” the yards. A couple are jungles. Is my neighborhood ripe for Granny flats?

Take this eyesore of a single-car garage, for example, that hasn’t housed a car in the 50yrs Gadfly has lived next to it.

Ripe for a Granny flat?

Just tryin’ to stir the pot . . .

What are you reading these days? How about sharing with us? Gadfly invites you to share a few clips of your reading  — with or without comment — or a few thoughts from your reading pertinent to the Gadfly project of the good conversation about Bethlehem that builds community.

Sharing your reading: inclusionary zoning

(Latest in a series of posts about affordable housing)
(also 3rd in a series about sharing your reading)

Jeff Speck, “Pass a mandatory Inclusionary Zoning ordinance”
(Walkable City Rules, 2018)

Gadfly had never heard the term “inclusionary zoning” before reading Speck. Maybe we already have it. He doesn’t know. But the term felt new and got him thinking about this subject of affordable housing that we have been following lately.

(Speck, by the way, gifted Gadfly another new term worth incorporating into your wordbank: “attainable housing.” For Gadfly, it adds a layer of meaning to “affordable.” Try it on.)

Gadfly probably doesn’t have to tell you that he can be a drama king. If you need a reminder, go to his “A Plea for Affordable Housing,” the post that started this thread back in June.

At least take 70 seconds and listen again to the guy who somberly ended the parade of resident speakers at the Nitschmann meeting on the Martin Tower demolition.

Gadfly will never forget that quiet, unassuming guy and his moving simplicity. Pleas for help like this — and the South Bethlehem Historical Society letter — are like those sticky wall balls thrown at Gadfly’s mind.

Here’s Gadfly in full drama mode:

Let’s keep that muffled elderly voice and the vigorous chorus of audience support in mind as we think about what the City can do to remedy the lack of affordable housing.

There is a problem, and “we” know in our guts something has to be done about it.

Martin Tower, 548 apartments proposed (or is it 528? or 598? The mind boggles). The Boyd Theater, 120. Skyline West, 50.

How many of these housing units will be affordable, attainable?

Enter “inclusionary zoning.”

Speck:

What are you reading these days? How about sharing with us? Gadfly invites you to share a few clips of your reading  — with or without comment — or a few thoughts from your reading pertinent to the Gadfly project of the good conversation about Bethlehem that builds community.

Taxpayer’s money triggers responsibility

(Latest post in a series about Neighborhoods)

Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development, and deputy director of community development.

Gadfly,

Each of these [Boyd Theater, Starter’s, Banana Factory] is a worthwhile project, but as I was constantly reminded by Members of Council and others during my 16 years managing all grants received by the City of Bethlehem, it’s still taxpayers’ money that’s being doled out to private entities. In the case of RCAP, bonds are floated that need to be repaid by Pennsylvania taxpayers, so the gift of grants also triggers a responsibility to repay. In the case of housing at the Boyd Theater location I absolutely agree that “affordable” units should be in the mix especially since public $$ are subsidizing it. A blend of rental ranges must be a priority.

Dana

State funds further Northside and Southside development projects

(Latest post in a series about Neighborhoods)

Gadfly has been snarky about certain aspects of development lately — like on the Southside and around Lehigh University — but this development news feels like very good news — financial support for apartments in the Northside downtown, a public market on the Southside, and expanding the Banana Factory.

Gadfly is facing the downsizing decision, and the idea of an apartment in center city has its appeal. The question is will he be able to afford one there. Or are we talking totally “luxury” apartments out of reach? Let’s hear it for housing affordable in his middle range bracket. And huzza for finally some activity on a key downtown section. Do we know anything about developer Jefferson — has he done work in the City before?

Gadfly hasn’t heard any details about the public market yet, but his first impulse is to think that’s a good use for that space and a good idea for the City.

And we’ve reported extensively here (see the Banana Factory thread on the sidebar) on the ArtsQuest project as it moved through City committees. There was some disagreement about demolishing a house on the property, but ArtsQuest seems to have worked with committee suggestions well, and their plans seemed to have met with generally high approval. See pictures and plans on previous posts on the Banana Factory thread.

Nicole Radzievich, “Storied Bethlehem projects just got a $2 million jump start.” Morning Call, August 2, 2019.

Bethlehem has landed $2 million in state grants to jump start a trio of key economic development projects: The redevelopment of the shuttered Boyd Theatre, a new public market at Lehigh Riverport and the expansion of the Banana Factory, according to state Sen. Lisa Boscola.

Boyd Theater:

Project details: The long-shuttered Boyd Theatre, once a beloved 98-year-old vaudeville and movie house in Center City Bethlehem, will be demolished to make way for a $22 million apartment and retail project under a proposal owner Charles Jefferson plans to submit to the city. The 120-apartment project would bring residents to a sleepy block just around the corner from historic Main Street, injecting more vibrancy into a downtown that grew up around the city’s original Moravian settlement. The first-floor retail would augment a stretch known as Restaurant Row.

Public Market at Lehigh Riverport:

Project details: A $3 million public market, building on the success of others like the one that Easton debuted in 2016, would replace the former Starters Riverport, where the Lehigh Valley’s largest restaurant once operated. The space would be home to 30 vendors and businesses.

ArtsQuest Community Cultural Center (Banana Factory)

Details: ArtsQuest, the nonprofit behind Musikfest, is planning an expansion to the Banana Factory, an arts and education center it launched in 1999 in south Bethlehem. The 80,000-square-foot expansion will include an arts-based preschool program, more classes for people of all ages, a black box theater and more.

Gadfly is interested to hear if followers see any pitfalls surrounding these developments.

Clarifying the development process

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

You know what you need to do:
Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development: Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu)
Mayor Donchez: rdonchez@bethlehem-pa.gov
City Council: c/o cityclerk@bethlehem-pa.gov
Morning Call letter to editor: https://www.mcall.com/opinion/readers-react/mc-letter-to-the-editor-ngux-htmlstory.html

Today is recycle day.

Gadfly would take you back to two of his “modest proposal” posts (for the full thread of modest proposals, see under Topics on the sidebar).

Both have to do with Gadfly’s hunger for information.

In “The more the merrier,” Gadfly modestly proposed “that the half-dozen or so ‘independent’ Authorities be requested to attend at least two City Council meetings per year, once in the first six months and once in the second, to report on current activities and future plans and to receive comments and questions from both Council members and the general public.”

And, building on that idea, in “An even merrier more,” Gadfly modestly proposed “that each [City] department head come to a meeting twice a year, once in the first half and once in the second, and briefly tell ‘us’ what’s happening in that department. . . . Our Council meetings are ‘live’ and on video now. We could announce a schedule of such guest appearances – ‘coming attractions’ — and promote them in a modest way. People with interest in certain areas could be alerted to attend or tune in or catch up later.”

Gadfly was thinking about these two proposals — aimed at greater exchange of information — aimed at greater transparency, visibility, accountability — in regard to what he called the “teachable moment” when the Mayor responded to the letter from the South Bethlehem Historical Society.

The Mayor said, ” I also hope you understand that there is a process that each developer has to go through. . . . There are various City departments, boards, authorities[,]*** and commissions that assist with development,” etc., etc.

“I also hope you understand” — well, not necessarily.

Lou James and the board of the South Bethlehem Historical Society have been around for a long time. Maybe they need no tutorial.

But Gadfly thinks most of “us” do need one.

To Gadfly — who sees himself as your average citizen — the development process is pretty much shrouded in mystery.

Here’s what Gadfly means by a “teachable moment” in this case.

This would have been a good opportunity to lay out and walk us through the generic development process in detail.

Gadfly has so many questions.

Where does a project start — with a developer or with the City? Are there conversations, arguments, negotiations over aesthetic as well as technical matters? What give-and-take goes on? What kind of projects are sought, what turned away? Who are the key people at the key junctures in the process? What sticky points arise, and how do they get reconciled? How much control does the City have? Where does “history” get on the table? That kind of thing.

A presentation about the steps or phases in a generic development process would be illuminating and would be sure to stimulate questions leading to a better understanding of how we get what we get.

Gadfly can see this as a valuable example of a department presentation at a City Council meeting he modestly proposes above.

*** Prof Gadfly — Conan the Grammarian to several decades of Lehigh students — is a proponent of the Oxford comma and just had to insert it here.

 

An easier way to contact

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

‘Tis very easy to email Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu) regarding the Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development (BRRD).

But Gadfly is also urging you to email the Mayor and City Council with Kim’s “We all need you to support viable neighborhoods on the Southside, NOW.”

Contact info is on the Gadfly sidebar.

Mayor is easy: rdonchez@bethlehem-pa.gov

But sending to all those Council members? A little less easy.

Suggestion.

Send one email to City Clerk Robert Vidoni: cityclerk@bethlehem-pa.gov

And ask that it be forwarded to all Council members.

One step.

Now that’s easy.

No excuses.