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Pennsylvania must dramatically expand access to housing, advocates say

“The private housing market is not meeting the demand for homes that Pennsylvania’s lowest-wage families can afford."

Houses in Pittsburgh.

 Katie Blackley / WESA

Houses in Pittsburgh.

(Pittsburgh) — In 2020, more than a quarter of Pennsylvanians paid half of their income in rent. Then the pandemic struck, endangering or ending people’s employment, and upending their housing choices. A panel of Democratic state lawmakers met last week to discuss how to expand the pool of affordable housing.

State Representative Sara Innamorato, who represents parts of the city of Pittsburgh and nearby communities, organized the hearing. In her opening remarks, she noted that investors across the country see the rental crisis as an opportunity for profit, which further imperils the growing number of Pennsylvanians who struggle to find housing.

Innamorato said if government fails to intervene, “not only will we lose out on opportunities to provide safe, stable, and affordable homes to average Pennsylvanians, but we’ll also lose the fabric of our communities.”

However, she said, “This crisis has given us an opportunity to do things differently moving forward.”

Nationwide, housing that is affordable without a government subsidy is nearly extinct, said Bob Damewood, a staff attorney with Regional Housing Legal Services.

“The private housing market is not meeting the demand for homes that Pennsylvania’s lowest-wage families can afford,” he said.

Damewood said even the existing mechanisms that create affordable housing fail to make homes affordable to people with extremely low incomes — those who earn 30 percent or less of area median income. Damewood said Pennsylvania must expand funding to existing programs, and be more choosy about who gets that money.

For instance, low-income housing tax credits, or LIHTC, are one of the primary tools to create housing, but often they are structured to keep rents low for 15 to 20 years, though that term can be as long as 40, said Damewood.

“If we want to have any hope of closing Pennsylvania’s affordable housing gap, we must find ways to first of all expand ownership by tenants and mission-driven entities,” he said.

Some of the alternative solutions presented to lawmakers included: cooperatives, where residents buy their buildings to create long-term affordable home ownershipsocial housing, where residents don’t own an affordably-priced building but have an active role in managing it; and community land trusts, in which a non-profit organizations owns the land beneath homes, and helps to limit how quickly those home prices can increase.

Judy Sullivan handles government relations for the National Association of Housing Cooperatives, which represents 1 million units across the country. She said limited-equity cooperatives are one way to help people with lower incomes become homeowners, which makes them less vulnerable to rising housing prices.

“I think that we all know that you can’t go after this problem fast enough, because it’s spiraling out of control as we speak,” she said.

Community land trusts can also have an impact on the affordable housing supply, said Ed Nusser, who directs City of Bridges Community Land Trust in Pittsburgh. Community land trusts, or CLTs, have their roots in 1960s Albany, Georgia, where an organization called New Communities, Inc. worked to protect farmers who faced eviction because they participated in the movement for civil rights.

Nusser said in the current context, when the racial wealth gap is widening and home prices are exploding, “We must invest in proven alternative housing models that can stabilize communities, prevent displacement, and create wealth for families who have been systemically blocked from homeownership.”

Representative Michael Sturla, who represents Lancaster, asked what role increasing the minimum wage could play in addressing the problem of affordable housing, “given the fact that we struggle, particularly in the minority to raise funds.”

Damewood said “increasing incomes is probably the most direct way of closing our affordable housing gap,” but added there also must be more supply.

Lawmakers said Pennsylvania could use some of its $7 billion in federal pandemic relief, but state officials disagree over how to spend that money.

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