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Affordable Housing Need in Lehigh Valley Hits Crisis Levels

The fifth annual Health Equity Summit this week reported the housing crisis in the Pennsylvania community has not been dealt with adequately. About 34 percent of households are cost-burdened.

(TNS) — The lack of affordable housing in the Lehigh Valley, Pa., has hit crisis levels — affecting the physical, mental and social health of many residents — and while steps are being taken to address these issues, more needs to be done.

This was the focus of the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley’s fifth annual Health Equity Summit. Held virtually Tuesday morning, the event featured local and state experts speaking about the housing issues in the Lehigh Valley and their health implications.

“When we talk about health, and we talk about housing, you cannot divorce one from the other, they must come together,” the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development’s Norman Bristol Colon said. “Not only in the Lehigh Valley, but all across this state and all across this nation, housing is becoming a human rights issue.”

Anna Smith, interim director of Community Action Development Bethlehem, said the quality, availability, stability and cost of housing can affect every aspect of health. Old and poorly maintained housing, particularly rental units, may have bad wiring, pests, lead paint, asbestos or high levels of radon. Many lower-income homes are in areas with poorer air quality, due to factors like high vehicle traffic.

A lack of quality affordable housing can lead to increased anxiety and stress. Constant moves due to searches for more affordable housing, evictions or other reasons can lead to feelings of isolation and disrupt the education of children, speakers said.

“The choices are impossible: Live with an unsafe and unhealthy home but retain an affordable roof over your head and maintain your ties to your neighborhood and your community. Or try to move elsewhere in search of better conditions or a more affordable home, but lose your connection to neighbors, schools and your community,” Smith said.

Bristol Colon, DCED’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, said as a child he lived in a situation similar to the one many families in the Lehigh Valley and elsewhere experience today.

“Coming from poor and humble beginnings, you truly know what is good housing and what is bad housing, when you have a good landlord and when you don’t have a good landlord,” Bristol Colon said. “And you see, at least for myself, coming from a single-mother household, how depressed my mother was almost every single day trying to ensure that her kids would have a place to sleep.”

In Northampton County, about 1 in 4 households, more than 30,000, are cost-burdened, meaning they pay 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs, according to 2021 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. For Lehigh County, it was estimated nearly 48,000 households, about 34 percent, are cost-burdened.

Dr. Rajika Reed, vice president of community health for St. Luke’s University Health Network, said a greater percentage of Latino households are cost-burdened compared with Black and white households.

Smith said that 77 percent of Bethlehem’s Black residents and 70 percent of Latino residents are renters, compared with 37 percent of white residents. Meanwhile, rent has increased about 35 percent over the last three years, she said.

“As our local housing market becomes increasingly dominated by investors, who treat housing as a financial instrument, something to invest and make money off of, rather than a human right, the scope and scale of the challenges we face as a community have the potential to grow. And the burden of the housing crisis is disproportionately borne by our Black and Latino neighbors in the Lehigh Valley,” Smith said.

St. Luke’s 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment found that in parts of Lehigh and Northampton counties, as many as 13 percent of households lack a complete kitchen. Reed said because of this, many people are unable to prepare healthy meals for themselves or their families and have to resort to less healthy alternatives. She added there are several low-income census tracts where people live in units without adequate plumbing.

And while there is a good stock of housing for people with incomes between $25,000 and $99,000, there are shortages of both high- and low-income housing. The local market is short about 15,000 housing units for households with incomes less than $25,000, and more than 32,000 for households with annual income greater than $100,000, according to data Reed shared from the Census Bureau.

The end result is low-income households buying or renting units that are unaffordable to them and higher-income individuals taking up more affordable housing options.

Smith lives in south Bethlehem and said she sees the impact of the Lehigh Valley’s housing crisis on her neighbors who rent.

“On the 31st of every month, my neighborhood fills up with moving vans, U-Hauls and piles of mattresses and toys that just didn’t fit in the truck, piled high in front of the homes. Within hours, the cleaners and property managers arrive, adding broken furniture to the piles as they get the place ready for the next tenant to come through,” Smith said. “The housing crisis is played out in my neighborhood every month among the families who move in and out of the revolving doors of rental properties.”

Smith said the end result of the lack of affordable housing inventory is unstable living situations, people staying in unsafe and unhealthy living spaces, and demonstrable impacts on health.

“Many tenants I’ve talked with assure me that landlords have offered to fix the leak in the ceiling, clean up the mold or deal with a rodent infestation, but the repairs will be accompanied by an increase in rent they won’t be able to handle,” Smith said. “I remember a single mom explaining to me that the mold in her child’s home was so bad that it was making him sick, and half her unit lacked electricity, but she wasn’t sure she could find anywhere else to go.”

Lack of affordable housing is also affecting homelessness in the Lehigh Valley. New Bethany Ministries works with the local unhoused population through food pantries, meal services, showers, mailing services, housing assistance, rehousing assistance and other services it operates.

Veronne Demesyeux, associate executive director of New Bethany, said homelessness in the Lehigh Valley has increased since 2020, with a 50 percent increase of families with children experiencing homelessness and a 93 percent increase in homelessness among veterans.

Though there are significant problems and challenges facing the region, the presentation also focused on local and regional efforts targeted at housing inequity and inequality, including those through organizations like New Bethany Ministries, Community Action Development Bethlehem and others.

Demesyeux said New Bethany has taken steps to remove language barriers within case working and other services it offers. Marc Rittle, executive director of New Bethany, said the organization has also worked to place caseworkers throughout the community, allowing people to speak with caseworkers without having to open a case.

Rittle said the organization plans to expand its residential shelters and create more private spaces within them. He also said New Bethany is planning to build a day shelter, add case workers to its housing advocate program and build stronger cooperative relationships with Bethlehem and other municipalities in the Lehigh Valley.

But Bristol Colon said a lot more work needs to be done and pressure needs to be put on politicians at all levels to enact policies that will address the housing problems of the Lehigh Valley and beyond.

He said funding and resources need to be used for remove lead that is still in many older housing units. He said many Latino children suffer in school and later in life because of the damage lead poisoning does to the brain and nervous system.

He said local officials must also oversee and encourage responsible development that balances high-end housing needs with new affordable housing. And he said politicians must work to create more good-paying jobs close to areas with affordable housing.

“Every time my mom would have a job that she could support her five kids, she was a happy mother. Every time she lost that job, she was depressed and she developed some mental issues. And I don’t blame her. Who wouldn’t?” Bristol Colon said.

Smith added the entire community needs to be engaged to solve these community housing issues.

“The housing crisis will not be solved by folks facing housing instability and just the nonprofit partners,” Smith said. “Some of our most important allies will be our suburban neighbors who can advocate for additional workforce housing in their neighborhoods and changes to their zoning codes. We need local landlords to step up and get engaged. We need our health care organizations to advocate for a housing as health care approach.”

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