HOUSING JUSTICE POLICY PAPER
Equitable growth means access, affordability, and opportunity for all in Allentown. The ability to access safe and decent housing is a fundamental human right. Yet, many in Allentown are underhoused or homeless. Further, many Allentown residents spend up to 75% of their income on rents that are rising faster than income and that have continued to rise during the pandemic. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends that households spend no more than 30% of their income on housing costs. In Allentown, the poorest of residents spend the largest proportion of income on housing. Yet, it is often substandard, subject to rising rents, and not secure.
Structural racism in lending, segregation, and the correlation between race and poverty mean housing inadequacy hits certain demographic groups more than others. Non-white, non-English speaking, low-income residents, and residents from other marginalized populations are hit hardest. Those experiencing mental health challenges, such as PTSD, and other disabilities often need housing with services. People become homeless for a variety of reasons, with veterans and LGBTQ youth often at risk. Paths out of homelessness and safe emergency shelters are needed.
The largest tax incentive zone in Allentown is the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ). Over a billion dollars has been poured into just a couple of blocks downtown. Benefits from development have yet to reach the surrounding neighborhoods. One-third of residents living in the NIZ are living in poverty.
We can promote Housing Justice by recognizing housing as a right; by recognizing the structural barriers and biases communities face when trying to access decent housing, and by implementing policies that address specific issues and opportunities.
The Allentown Vision 2030 Comprehensive & Economic Development Plan Final Report- November 2019 states the following goal:
“Our community will work together to achieve
inclusive and equitable growth anchored by strong
education, safe and accessible housing, and workforce opportunities to ensure a thriving future for all.”
It goes on to recommend:
- Improve the Quality of Allentown Housing
- Increase the Quantity of Healthy, Safe, and Affordable Housing
- Expand Pathways to Homeownership
- Preserve Allentown’s Historic Legacy Housing
Allentown Vision 2030
Comprehensive & Economic Development Plan
Final Report- November 2019
With my team of experts and by learning lessons from best practices in cities across the nation, I have created a three-part plan to achieve these recommendations through specific policies.
Part One – Specifically, we should take action to assist the most vulnerable populations in our City:
- People Experiencing Homelessness and At Risk of Homelessness
According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), housing plays an essential platform for human and community development. Stable housing is the foundation upon which people build their lives.” Allentown has the 4th largest homeless youth population in the State according to data provided by the Allentown School District. In 2019, 1,095 children enrolled in the Allentown School District, experienced homelessness. Only 11% of the people who requested help to exit or prevent homelessness were able to be assisted. This is because of the lack of affordable housing, shelter beds, and transitional housing options. Seventy percent of people requesting assistance identified Allentown as their place of residence. Five-hundred twenty seven people in Allentown enrolled in the Coordinated Entry System, which assesses and coordinates services for people experiencing homelessness.
These statistics only convey part of the crisis. Not every person experiencing homelessness is captured in these numbers because of the different criteria used to define homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines homelessness as someone without a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” which includes couch surfing. Some providers that receive federal funding cannot use this definition because the federal definition does not recognize couch surfing as homeless. I will pursue the following policies as mayor to assist our unsheltered and at-risk neighbors.
- Decriminalize Homelessness
Being homeless is not a crime. People experiencing homelessness have the same rights as those with stable housing. These rights include: the right to enjoy public space, the right to housing, the right to seek and maintain employment, the right to maintain hygiene needs, the right to receive meals and other needed items in public spaces, and the right to privacy and protection of information.
- Support and Expand the Homeless Commission
I introduced and passed legislation forming a Homeless Commission in Allentown. This commission will serve as the policy advisory board to the Mayor and City Council. The City needs a full-time staff dedicated to the work of the commission. This staff member would focus on implementing the commission’s plan, addressing emergency needs, working with Council and the Mayor on drafting and implementing policy, and serving as a liaison between the City commission and the Regional Homeless Advisory Board.
The Commission completed a Strategic Plan that includes the following strategies:
- Prevent Homelessness through Rental Assistance – Expand housing vouchers and flexible assistance funds
- Landlord Engagement – Housing Navigators recruit landlords to rent to individuals and families that have experienced homelessness through offering incentives and establishing a database of available units to centralize landlord relationships
- Expand Housing Options – Pursue a spectrum of housing options from rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing, and transitional housing (tiny home)
- Seek New Funding Streams – Explore grants, tax credits, and public/private partnerships
- Improve Community-wide Coordination – The Built for Zero campaign focuses on ending homelessness within a demographic targeted group.
- 3. Year Round Emergency Shelter
As the third largest city in Pennsylvania, it is unacceptable that we do not have an inclusive year round shelter that accepts anyone in need regardless of who they love or how they identify. Part of the problem is that well-meaning organizations and institutions operate in silos. Non-profits, the City, County, and State need to collaborate and combine resources. The shelter must be a full-service facility with case management, mental health, and drug and alcohol counseling.
- 4. Youth and LGBTQ+ Homelessness
Host Homes connects youth ages 16-24 experiencing housing instability with volunteer host families. The City can support families by providing financial and non-monetary incentives for people to become a host home such as grants to renovate their property. Housing is not always enough. Many youth are missing the sense of belonging and family.
- One-Stop Intake Center
Individuals and families who are experiencing an immediate housing crisis need a place to go where they can access emergency services and opportunities. Calling 211 is not always possible and there are sometimes long hold times, which is not conducive to someone in a crisis. An intake center would be open 24/7, including weekends and holidays. Staff would process applications, complete referrals, assign a temporary shelter placement and help determine alternatives to temporary housing. Housing counseling, employment and benefits support, medical care, and family mediation and counseling services would also be available. Establishing this center within the same location of the Emergency Shelter would be the most effective logistically.
Nobody who has served our country should wonder where they’ll sleep at night. Across the country, model programs are assisting our veterans:
- “Tiny Homes” – Unlike other services, a tiny home provides a Veteran who formerly experienced homelessness with privacy, a sense of security, and the opportunity to reintegrate at a comfortable pace. Tiny homes are becoming more popular for individuals and even couples as they are inexpensive to build and often can be moved to another site. In tiny home communities for veterans, onsite wrap around services can provide needed support.
- Supportive housing – Many veterans need some mental health services as they cope with PTSD or other issues. State funds and local community development organizations often collaborate to fund and staff supportive housing, which gives veterans a safe and affordable place to live while providing ongoing supportive care to address challenges.
- People with Special Needs
People with special needs, including those who have very low incomes AND serious, persistent issues that may include substance use, mental illness or other disabilities, HIV/AIDS, and/or chronic homelessness are most successful in retaining and thriving in their living environments when they are offered services where they live. Permanent supportive housing (PSH) combines affordable housing with services that help people live more stable, productive lives. Many non-profit models of housing delivery include housing with mental health and social services. By assisting these providers in securing property that can be used for PSH, residents benefit from lower cost housing that is well-maintained and that serves their needs for supportive care.
Part Two – Policies and Practices by Housing Type
- Hold Slumlords Accountable
- Code enforcement: We need to expand housing code enforcement with more inspectors and quick responses to housing complaints. Housing services, like the NHS of the Lehigh Valley, the City, and local community organizations and churches can make sure all households eligible for Section 8 vouchers know how to apply.
- Reinstate the Slumlord Hall of Shame
- Create an online database of rental inspections so that tenants and housing seekers can see if the property is up to code
- Establish a point system for inspections that targets more frequent inspections of the problematic properties. The 5 year inspection cycle is not working.
- Deny building permits to slumlords
- Work with the County to start a pre-registration system where people have to register ahead of sheriffs sales to ensure that slumlords are not purchasing more property
- Place a lien on the personal assets of slumlords
- Housing Court – Provide an avenue for both property owners and tenants to have representation and present evidence. Tenants need access to representation, and non-English speakers should have translators for documents and in court. The biggest cause of eviction decrees in court is that landlords are represented and tenants, especially elderly tenants are not. Tenants who cannot read legalese English may not understand what is happening or their rights. Community organizations or the city can provide tables outside Housing Court proceedings in multiple languages as well as resources for pro bono representation.
- Relocation Ordinance – When properties are deemed inhabitable, require the property owner to pay for the relocation costs of the tenants to prevent them from becoming homeless through no fault of their own.
- Increase Affordability
- Inclusionary zoning should be in place across the City – Offers such as density bonuses, zoning variances, and other negotiated incentives, in exchange for permanent rental apartments for households between 50%-120% of AMI (area median income)
- Land Banks – Land banks are a tool that municipalities may use to facilitate the return of vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties to productive use. City Council passed a land bank ordinance, but this law needs to be fully implemented and expanded. As mayor, I will ensure that we use this tool to address blighted properties and turn them into much needed affordable housing assets.
- Incentivized Community Stabilization – Provide landlords with financial incentives to not raise their rents more than the Consumer Price Index
- Existing Homeowners
- Low-interest programs for home improvements, especially related to health, safety, and energy efficiency. New federal programs under the Rescue Plan for solar energy should be used aggressively for homeowners and multi-dwelling owners
- Assistance to homeowners – Organizations like the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, NHS in Allentown, and PPL can assist with avoiding fraudulent lenders, budget planning, repairs, and other technical assistance
- Future Homeowners
Fifty-seven percent of Allentown residents are not homeowners, and, therefore, are not building equity in property or generational wealth. (Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2013-2015).
- Create new homeownership opportunities for renters by establishing a program to sell property seized for non-payment of taxes to households less than 80% of the area median income
- Work with NHS of Lehigh Valley, the Real Estate Lab, and CACLV on educational programs for new homeowners and explore establishing new programs with financial incentives
- Consider creation of a “sweat equity” program, such as those used in other cities, where tenants make repairs (and hire licensed contractors when necessary). The City provides the building at nominal cost and often seed funds major repairs. To maintain the housing as affordable long-term, tenants agree to re-sell only for the cost of improvements they’ve made, and under an income cap.
Part Three – Community Investments for Liveable Neighborhoods
Neighborhoods are the heartbeat of Allentown. We will only thrive as a City when our neighborhoods are strong and are enriched with opportunities. Thriving and sustainable neighborhoods in Allentown include:
- Access to fresh food – Community gardens, grocery stores, food banks, and soup kitchens
- Access to recreational opportunities – Green space, after-school programs, and athletic teams
- Educational opportunities – Early childhood and enrichment programs
- Employment opportunities – Satellite training and job centers with technology to assist job seekers
- Healthcare – Medical and mental health providers that are culturally competent and responsive to marginalized communities’ specific risk factors.
Much of this can be accomplished through passing a Community Benefits Ordinance modeled after the legislation from Detroit, Michigan. A Community Benefits Ordinance (CBO) would be triggered for large scale development in Allentown and would formalize the communication process between developers and the community. Passing a CBO would ensure that development actually benefits the community and not just a handful of people.
The need for affordable, secure, and safe housing is particularly high in Allentown due to our high poverty rates, high rents, and lack of homeless services and homeownership policies. Renters outnumber homeowners, and rents are rising. The American Rescue Plan is an opportunity to bring Allentown into the forefront with funds for solar energy, green housing, and inclusionary development. As mayor, I will ensure that the valuable allocations of federal funds into our community are managed responsibly and are as aligned to my overall planning strategy as possible under federal guidelines.
Our population, like all cities, includes those with emergency needs such as victims of domestic violence, LGBTQ youth, veterans, and those with mental health emergencies. All are in danger of homelessness and Allentown must be equipped to help them in crisis as well as find paths to long-term housing for them.
Supportive and not-for-profit housing are important elements of a housing plan. Supportive housing combines low costs for renters with services that meet special needs. This wrap around support is something an average landlord cannot provide. A vision that says housing is not ONLY a commodity for profit but also a right regardless of income is one that serves all residents and ensures we thrive as a community.
With attention to housing as a right, and an understanding of who in Allentown is at risk of housing instability, we can have a coordinated and collaborative approach to providing appropriate housing types and meeting the needs of vulnerable populations so that Allentown is a city of opportunity for all.