Numbers can lie, and the Mayor can speak

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside,
1st Terrace, Affordable Housing)

Gadfly:

If “data-driven” means making decisions based on fact rather than assumptions or favoritism, I’m all for it. But I think we all know that statistics data can be shaped to prove almost anything, so that approach can be dangerous as well.

The ABCs should not be mere puppets, but for the Mayor to be silent on important issues is also inappropriate. He is, after all, an elected representative of the people, and silence communicates agreement. (Too often, he has used his platform to speak out in favor of developers, even when proposed development clearly violated the city’s own ordinances.)

Peter Crownfield

Two Councilpersons respond to the Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside,
1st Terrace, Affordable Housing)

Contact for the Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development is Seth Moglen: moglen@lehigh.edu. This group is open to all, not just 1st Terrace area residents. The more membership, the greater the power. And the issue here is not limited to one neighborhood.

So Gadfly has covered in detail the forceful first appearance of what he thinks we can now call the “Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development” at City Council Tuesday night. A group that he feels can accomplish much good.

But there were two meaningful responses by Council members that we should note as well.

First, Councilwoman Van Wirt.

In reference to the 1st Terrace issues that the residents spoke about, PVW wants data and seemed to get into a slight bit of tangle with the City rep over getting it. Nothing serious. But I don’t think the rep got the importance of what PVW was asking.

PVW has described herself as data-driven. She’s a doctor. A “fixin’ doctor,” a term Gadfly’s kids used to differentiate their father’s degree.

Data-driven — Gadfly likes that.

PVW wanted “firm data,”  a “firm study” to show “actual need” for housing around Lehigh. She wanted “something to refer to.”

(Ha! Gadfly would “fix” that ending preposition to “something to which she could refer.” See, kids, your dad is a “fixin’ doctor” too!)

Gadfly likes that. Glad we have a person like that on Council.

Second, Councilman Reynolds.

JWR thanked the Mayor for weighing in strongly on the 1st Terrace proposal, but his more general point was the power that Mayor has in such situations, implying, Gadfly thinks (he almost literally talked directly to the Mayor at one point), that the Mayor/Administration should wield that power more often.

“One of the lessons going forward here is the power the Administration has to weigh in on these projects publicly and privately. . . . when Administrations take positions on any of these things, it is extraordinarily rare for these Authorities, these Commissions, these Boards to necessarily say no, no, no, we disagree with what the professionals say, we disagree with what the full-time people say, we disagree with what the elected officials say about this. . . . and I want to say thank you to the Mayor for weighing in on this, but at the same time it’s also a model. We can pass all the ordinances we want. But the strongest thing that we have is that we have an Administration that will stand up and say we like this project, we understand some people disagree, we understand some people don’t like elements of it. . . . I just think that going forward . . . as we talk about other development projects throughout the City, all of our voices are important, but the most important one is siting there [the Mayor], and I have confidence, I have faith, and I just want to say thank you.

Gadfly thanked the Mayor too. He didn’t trust the Zoning Commission to have any more “No” than the Planning Commission in this 1st Terrace proposal that seemed so obviously wrong. Gadfly liked that the Mayor saw it his way.

But how would he feel in the opposite case.

Which, Gadfly feels, has happened in the not-so-distant past.

JWR seems to literally argue for a strong Mayor (Administration). But does that tilt the ABCs toward puppet rather than independent status?

Gadfly needs to chew on this some more. You are welcome to help.

More night sweats

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

Gadflies usually sleep soundly.

But after reviewing the BPA Polk Street Garage proforma, this Gadfly had a night-sweat dream about parking issues.

And now, last night, after hearing the sad stories from the “Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development,” Gadfly had another perspiry dream.

Stephen Antalics appeared in a long old-fashioned nightshirt (with a Slovenian breast patch), looking like the Alistair Sim Scrooge from the classic Christmas Carol movie.

Stephen hoarsely whispered that Gadfly should rush to the Rotunda to witness City Council fighting to the death like mongoose and snakes over revising the friendly developer/landlord definition of “family” in the Zoning Code:

1302.43 Family. One or more individuals who are “related” to each other by blood, marriage or adoption (including persons receiving formal foster care) or up to 5 unrelated individuals who maintain a common household with common cooking facilities and certain rooms in common, and who live within one dwelling unit.

The epic battle that would determine the final fate of the Southside had finally been joined.

The Southside future was on the line.

Two thoughts regarding the issue raised by the Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside,
1st Terrace, Affordable Housing)

Peter Crownfield is officially retired but spends most of his time working with students in his role as internship coordinator for the Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley.

Great to have this group [Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development] speaking out!

One thing about off-campus student housing is that it tends to promote gentrification—despite its generally poor quality and high rents. This is exacerbated by new high-end rentals (such as the new SouthSide Commons) which also drive rents in the community.

One more factor: overpriced dormitory housing, which makes the off-campus housing more attractive. Colleges & universities could easily price their on-campus housing at a price that would pull many students back on campus.

Peter

Contact for the Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development is Seth Moglen: moglen@lehigh.edu. This group is open to all, not just 1st Terrace area residents. The more membership, the greater the power. And the issue here is not limited to one neighborhood.

Meet the “Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development”

(Latest posts on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside,
1st Terrace, Affordable Housing)

In a model display of public participation and activism, a group of residents associated with the 1st Terrace situation that Gadfly reported on earlier attended City Council last night, announcing the formation of  “Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development,” describing the deteriorating situation in their neighborhood from the increasing pressure of student housing and firmly pushing the Mayor and City Council to take action NOW before it is too late.

You can find audio of the full individual statements from these residents at the bottom of this post, but here just below Gadfly has arranged clips in the form of an interview to capture the powerfully cumulative effect of their presentations.

Describe your neighborhood. (Moglen)

Why are you living there? (Mendez)

What is your purpose in coming here to this meeting? (Moglen)

Isn’t off-campus housing for students needed because of Lehigh’s expansion? (Handler)

What’s it like to live next to students? (Handler)

Are you opposed to neighborhood students and development? (Handler)

Give us some historical perspective. (Evans)

What’s the developer like? (Stark)

What’s your experience with the developer? (Long)

How urgent is the problem and how committed are you to pushing for a solution? (Saunders)

What is it that you want? (Moglen)


Don’t miss the full presentations:

Anne Evans

Kristin Handler

Chris Long

Mrs. Mendez

Seth Moglen

Murdock Saunders

Gretchen Stark

What is “affordable housing”? Anna starts the conversation

(The latest in a series of posts on Neighborhoods and Affordable Housing and Southside)

Anna Smith is a life-long Southside resident and Director of the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem, a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life in south Bethlehem by fostering economic opportunity, promoting community development, and empowering residents to actively participate in the decision-making process regarding the future of our diverse community.

Peter:

Funny you should ask–I just wrote this up last week but hadn’t sent it in just yet . . . Here’s what I’ve got to start the conversation:

What is “affordable housing”?

Affordable housing, or “workforce housing,” is a big topic in the Lehigh Valley these days. We’re regularly told that the Lehigh Valley is experiencing an “affordable housing crisis,” but what does that mean? For many, a lack of affordable housing is interpreted as an increase in the number of people on the brink of homelessness, or another way of saying poverty. In order to effectively address the crisis, however, we need to agree on definitions—and by definition, affordability is much bigger issue than its connotations would lead us to believe.

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “affordable” housing means that a family is spending 30% or less of their income on housing. This number was determined arbitrarily but continues to be the general standard for affordability that is used by the federal government and those who receive their funding subsidies. If you live in public housing or receive a Section 8 voucher, you are typically asked to pay 30% of your income in rent.

When we talk about rental affordability for a particular region, such as the Lehigh Valley, we can use HUD’s calculation of “Fair Market Rent” to guide our understanding of what the government considers a “reasonable” amount for a landlord to charge a tenant, given local market conditions. Naturally, Fair Market Rent varies based on the size of the apartment or house in question and the federal government updates the threshold yearly.

So what does this all mean for the Lehigh Valley?

In our metropolitan area, Fair Market Rent for a three-bedroom house or apartment is currently $1,464. This amount increased by 8% in the past year—if only income was increasing at the same rate! But let’s break this down into more meaningful terms. How much money do I need to make to be able to afford that three-bedroom house? If we use the HUD standard, I need to earn $54,080 a year. I have an Ivy League Master’s Degree and I lead a non-profit organization, and I don’t make that much money. In order to afford that three-bedroom house in the Lehigh Valley, I need a second income.

Affordability concerns are not restricted to families living in poverty; as rental prices increase far more rapidly than incomes, more and more of our families become “cost-burdened”—in HUD lingo, these families pay more than 30% of their income toward rent. But what about those families on the lower end of the earnings spectrum? If you make minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), you need to work 87 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment, 111 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom house, and 143 hours a week to afford that three-bedroom home. For a family with two parents working minimum wage jobs, that’s 71.5 hours a week each to afford a “fair” rental price for a three-bedroom house in our community. For more details on Lehigh Valley wages and affordability, visit the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach 2019 report and select the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton MSA.

In south Bethlehem, where 67% of households rent their homes, affordable rentals are a major priority. However, many affordable housing programs focus on homeownership. What does affordability for homebuyers mean locally? HUD prioritizes spending on homeowners that have “low- to moderate-incomes,” which means families with an annual income that is 80% or less of the Area Median Income, based on the size of the family. In the Lehigh Valley, a four-person family that would qualify for HUD-funded affordable homeownership programs would have an income of $62,700 or less. Far from poverty-wages, affordable homeownership opportunities target a substantial portion of our professional workforce (which is why many advocates have switched from the term “affordable” to “workforce” housing—although that term is also imperfect, since it excludes those who may not be in the workforce).

When we speak about an affordable housing crisis in our community, we are talking about families with two incomes, single-earner families, young professionals, individuals on fixed incomes, and elderly adults who cannot afford to live in our communities, and who are making impossible choices between paying their rent/mortgage or paying for healthcare or food, saving for the future, or paying off student loans, among many other priorities. We’re talking about a significant percentage of our neighbors, co-workers, family and friends who have spent their entire lives in a community and who are now unable to envision a sustainable future there. The next logical questions are: what has caused this crisis, and what can we do to mitigate its impact on our community? I’ll save my thoughts on that for a future post, but I’ll throw out my conclusion now: there is no simple explanation and no simple solution, alas!

Anna

Lots to chew on here!