Housing costs in the Lehigh Valley are steep. For many families, housing is simply unaffordable, and programs designed to help this sector of the population are being defunded.
The Restoration House Program, operated by New Bethany Ministries on Bethlehem’s Southside, is one of those programs. By the end of October, all current residents were required to vacate their apartments, even if they had not reached their full duration of stay.
Oana, one of Restoration House’s last program participants, is one of the affected residents. Prior to beginning at Restoration House, Oana and her son were living in the Sixth Street Shelter in Allentown, where they stayed for three months. Through a connection at that shelter, she learned of New Bethany Ministries and applied for the Restoration House Program.
“I got accepted and ever since I came here, my life just changed for the better,” Oana said. “Before I had my son, I was lost. I was in New York, working, and I was a bad girl. So he [son] was just a blessing, he changed my life.”
After the birth of her son, Oana lived with family, but it became clear that arrangement was not working well.
“He wasn’t allowed to touch anything in the house, and that’s why I took myself out and put myself in the shelter,” she explained. “I think that was the best move I’ve made ever.”
But now Oana must move again. Although she would have had until February to find another place to live, she was forced to take that next step much earlier. The decision to close this program and others like it was made by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) effective Nov. 1.
Restoration House Case Manager Pamela Lewis attributes this decision to the cost of running the program and its relation to the length of stay. Unlike other transitional housing programs designed to help the homeless, the Restoration House Program is unique in the way that it is an extended program with a focus on both education and family.
According to Bethany Ministries’ website, Restoration House Program is “an 18- to 24-month transitional housing program for families in which at least one parent is interested in furthering their education.”
Through the Restoration House Program, participants were assisted in their efforts to achieve three primary goals: complete an educational program; increase their income by finding a job in their chosen field; and secure permanent housing.
But according to Lewis, the program accomplished more than just these three goals.
“I think in life we’re all held to standards, ethics, morals … and that’s also what transitional housing programs teach individuals,” she said. “Accountability, responsibility, these are key words. The teaching component is what helps individuals thrive.”
Through her shortened stay, Oana was able to attend a certified nursing assistant program and find a job in the healthcare field, but as of late-September, she still did not have any solid plan as to where she and her 3-year-old son would go next.
During this program’s years of operation, many individuals and their families have thrived and found success. In 2016 alone, the program served 16 families, consisting of 16 single mothers and 27 children. While 16 families may not sound like many, each homeless family helped counts when the Bethlehem Housing Authority’s waiting list for housing is an estimated several years long.
“There are currently over 1,900 families on the waiting list,” said Bethlehem Housing Authority Executive Director Eugene Gonzalez. “Due to the large number of families waiting for assistance, the application process is currently closed. Those at the end of the list will probably wait two to four years for assistance.”
According to a report released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition in March 2017, titled “The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes,” the issue of unaffordable housing extends far outside of the Lehigh Valley.
According to the report, “The U.S. has a shortage of 7.4 million affordable and available rental homes for E[xtremely] L[ow] I[ncome] renter households, resulting in 35 affordable and available units for every 100 ELI renter households.”
Another National Low Income Housing Coalition report, “Out of Reach 2017: The High Cost of Housing,” lists the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area as the fourth most expensive area in Pennsylvania when examining two-bedroom housing wage and affordability. The area is fourth only to the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington area, East Stroudsburg and Pike County areas.
The report indicates that the hourly wage necessary to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area is $19.96. However, the report states that the estimated hourly mean renter wage in 2017 is $13.47, indicating that a renter would need to hold 1.5 full-time jobs to afford a standard two-bedroom apartment.
Alternatively, the report states that a person would have to work 103 hours per week or 2.6 full-time jobs at minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom rental home, and 83 hours per week or 2.1 full-time jobs at minimum wage to afford a one-bedroom rental home.
This past May 23, the White House released its budget for the 2018 fiscal year. Affordable Housing Online reported a total of $6.8 billion in cuts to HUD programs and a funding loss of $4,419,133 annually to Northampton County predicted to impact up to 106 households per year.
The website reports that the programs losing funding include Community Development Block Grants, the Public Housing Capital Fund, the Public Housing Operating Fund, the Housing Choice Voucher program and Section 811 Housing for Persons with Disabilities.
“In 2016, Public Housing properties located in Northampton County, Pennsylvania qualified for $1,993,422 in operating subsidy,” according to Affordable Housing Online. “A 13.3 percent reduction in the Public Housing Operating Fund would reduce subsidies received in Northampton County, Pennsylvania by $226,525 and would cut services to the 106 families living in Public Housing.”
This would increase the average public housing tenant’s payment towards rent from $357 to $417. Without reimbursement for tenant-paid utilities, which could cost up to $82, the 2018 White House budget could cost the average Northampton County public housing tenant an additional $142, according to the website.
Further, the website explains that with an average monthly income of $1,313, the average family will be left with $815 per month to cover all non-housing living expenses.
“We’ve been calling this a crisis for so many years that the word has lost its imperative,” said Alan Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV). “I’ve been using words like ‘calamity’ and ‘disaster’ lately. As long as I’ve been doing this work, almost 40 years, we’ve had this very fierce problem.”
Gonzalez and Jennings attribute the Lehigh Valley’s unaffordable housing problem to a variety of reasons: an influx of residents from New Jersey and New York; a resistance to as well as a lack of rental housing; market conditions; minimum wage not keeping up with inflation; and the desirability of the Lehigh Valley and its close proximity to both Philadelphia and New York City.
With housing costs remaining unaffordable for many, organizations such as New Bethany Ministries remain a source of hope for families who utilize their services.
“It’s a disservice that the Restoration House program has not been reallotted our money,” Lewis said. “We’re still focusing on affordable housing, we just don’t know what that looks like right now.”
NEXT WEEK PART 2: Housing programs in the Lehigh Valley.