Fair and Affordable Housing Challenges: Are We Prepared?
What are some of the challenges to fair and affordable housing in the Lehigh Valley, and are we prepared to meet these challenges? These were some of the themes presented during the 2018 Regional Housing Summit on February 8 at DeSales University. Organized by Paulette Gilfoil, CDBG Program Coordinator from Lehigh County and Diane Elliott, Executive Director of New Bethany Ministries, this summit was designed to ask these difficult questions with all the key players present: Building Developers, Government Regulators, Advocates, Non-Profits, and even first-hand “consumers” trying to afford a place of their own.
Fair Housing: Are We Prepared?
This year is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, and the 30th Anniversary of the adoption of the Fair Housing Act Amendments, which added protections for people with disabilities and families, pregnant women and persons seeking custody or adoption of a child. Despite the Fair Housing Act Amendments, the number one complaint to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is denial of rights of persons with disabilities to be free from discrimination or entitled to reasonable accommodations or modifications so they can have equal enjoyment in their housing choices.
In the past year, we have seen several news headlines in the Lehigh Valley about challenges faced by group homes for the disabled that seek to open in a residential community. These homes have sometimes been faced with community opposition, refusal an occupancy permit by the local municipality or required to have a public hearing. As Rachel Wentworth, Executive Director of the Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania explained, zoning ordinances may not treat small group homes in single family residences for persons with disabilities differently than other uses. Generally, such homes should be treated as single family dwellings and a good zoning ordinance will define “family” to include these homes.
Persons providing services to the disabled are required to provide those services in the least restrictive setting. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits unjustified institutionalization and encourages community based settings, in the most integrated setting appropriate to the individual’s needs. The Fair Housing Act and the ADA are consistent and those working on local municipal ordinances need to be prepared; we recommended review of their current ordinances for compliance. The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission is available to provide review of ordinances and has model ordinances for best practices: http://www.lvpc.org/
HUD has issued a number of Joint Statements with the Department of Justice which provide guidance on fair housing issues. This guidance answers a number of common questions and concerns for those involved in land use and zoning decisions. This guidance can be found at https://www.justice.gov/opa/file/912366/download. HUD/DOJ have also provided helpful guidance on the rights of the disabled to reasonable accommodations, which is available at https://www.hud.gov/sites/documents/huddojstatement.pdf.
Keynote speaker Dr. Kamran Afshar, Director of the Data Analytics Center at DeSales University, set the tone for the afternoon when he shared his thoughts about how, even with a relatively positive economy and close to “full” employment, unexpected “disruptive technologies” can have a big impact on economic security in the future. Some examples he shared included self-driving trucks and drones replacing truck drivers and delivery drivers, and completely automated retail stores, such as the new Amazon Go store that eliminates all checkout/sales staff.
Following this was one of the most eye-opening moments of the Summit: the discussion entitled “Impact of Housing Shortages – Families, Children, Young Professionals, Homeless.” Brett Feldman, Co-Founder of the Street Medicine Program of LVHN revealed that, based upon surveys done at LV hospital admissions, there were more than 9,000 homeless in the Lehigh Valley last year. Although the homeless appeared to be almost equally male and female, there are less than 300 beds available in area homeless shelters, and only about 100 beds specifically designated for women. The gap between need and reality is staggering.
Not counted in the official homeless numbers are the many who can’t afford housing and instead rely on “couch surfing” and other creative ways to make ends meets in order to live and work in the Lehigh Valley. Representing this overlooked population of housing-challenged was Estefania Perdomo, a young professional and Lehigh University graduate who passionately shared her story of the difficulties she faced trying to afford housing amidst student loans and car payments – even with a fulltime job.
Opportunities and Next Steps
In the past several years, we have seen rising rents and decreasing homeownership rates in the Lehigh Valley, especially among blacks and Hispanics. Developers and non-profits who seek to create affordable housing described the creativity, advocacy, patience and serendipity that needs to come together to create a successful plan; however, the challenges are steep and it’s too easy for the focus to waiver when we stop talking and go back to our day-to-day lives. That’s why we need to keep the conversation going and use occasions like Fair Housing Month (April each year, marking the anniversary of the Fair Housing Act of 1968) and opportunities like this Housing Summit to get the word out that the housing needs of the Lehigh Valley are very real and need creative partnerships and effective solutions.
(Lori Molloy, Director of Legal Advocacy from NPLS)
(State Representative Robert Freemen; William F. Kerr - Attorney from High Swartz LLP; Clay Lambert, PHFA; John Kromer, Consultant - Univ. of PA Fels Institute of Government)