Affordable housing is at such a premium in Lancaster County, the waiting list is extensive.
Social media has numerous posts about people losing their homes due to rent increases, many of whom don’t know where to turn.
The Lancaster County Housing and Redevelopment Authority and the Lancaster City Housing Authority along with other county representatives, recently attended a Housing Solutions Workshop at the New York University Furman Center’s Housing Solutions Lab to find a solution.
Justin Eby, executive director for the county authority, said the issues are many. “The pandemic put a strain on the number of units available and the price for those units has gone up,” he said.
“We need to look at this wholistically,” Eby said. But with 59 townships and a city within the county, the solutions are not easy. Current zoning and uses don’t align.
The demand for affordable housing increases 12% to 15% every year. “The supply is just not there,” Eby said.
Katie Walsh, director of strategic initiatives for the Lancaster City Housing Authority and a Lancaster City Council member, said the workshop was “quite helpful.”
The workshop “provided access to experts who understand supply and demand and helped us access what we need to build or preserve units,” she said.
That is no small task. Walsh said her team has met with county officials and quickly realized they work in separate domains. However, she said, they are working cooperatively to solve this issue.
Both authorities work with qualified people to provide safe, decent, affordable housing, Walsh said.
The city authority, a Quazi-government entity, gets funding from the federal Housing and Urban Development. It runs public housing in two high-rise buildings that total 565 units. It also provides 1,000 vouchers to people living in what Walsh said people know as Section 8 housing.
The vouchers, she said, are capped by the U.S. Dept. Of Housing and Urban Development. Walsh said one bedroom apartment can be rented for $800 a month. The problem is the market rate is around $1,200.
“That is a disincentive for landlords to accept the vouchers,” she said. “If they can rent for $1,200, why would they accept $800?”
Eby added that even though municipalities work with developers to provide mixed use properties, with the cost of construction prices going up and the desire to make at least a 10% profit, it’s hard to get developers on board.
Walsh said clients are the most vulnerable citizens. “Most are seniors, and the others are disabled and families,” she said.
Eby and Walsh said affordability is based on no more than 30% of income. If it is more, it is considered a cost burden.
“We can only do what we can with the resources we have,” Walsh said. “People end up staying with family and friends or end up on the street.”
Eby agreed. “We have an enormous wait list, and the shelters are already full which is unusual for this time of year.”
Eby said data has shown the county needs 1,150 units per year. He hopes to see 100 units go online this year.
Both agreed increasing the supply of housing would help, but it takes at least 18 months to finance and build new units.
Eby said landlords are not regulated unless a unit is covered by affordable housing. So, when they decide to raise rent, it can displace tenants.
Walsh said the city, too, is burdened with rising rental rates, leaving people with nowhere to go. “We are looking at building new units, but we also have to upgrade the current one,” she said, adding that most were built in the 1950s.
“There is progress,” Walsh said. “The city has created an Interim Housing Plan. The issue is it needs lots of helping hands.”
Walsh said there is a lot of attention being placed on the affordable housing issue. “I’m glad people are paying attention and it’s becoming a priority,” she said. The federal government has invested American Rescue Plan money and the city and county are setting it aside for housing. In fact, Walsh said there is about $10 million for projects.
“Low-interest soft loans to offset construction and permit costs could help for long-term low rent projects,” Eby said.
“There is a lot in the works. Some agencies are working on new housing while others are preserving what they have,” Walsh said. “There is investment and energy, but it won’t happen overnight.”
In the meantime, with shelters full earlier than anticipated, Eby said the county may have to look at hotel rooms, which is an expensive way to house people.