Lack of affordable, safe homes in the Lehigh Valley impacts quality of life for many residents

A place to live is a basic human need. We all need a safe, clean and secure home in which to live our lives, raise our families, and sleep every night. Affordability is one of the key components of what makes a home livable, along with the home being safe to live in and free of defects and health concerns.

Pick up the local paper and you may read about yet another new apartment complex being built in the region, but many of those homes are not affordable for a large percentage of residents. In fact, many residents are living in substandard housing that isn’t up to code. Many residents deal with landlords that take advantage of their situation. Poor living conditions affect residents’ health, both mental and physical, their self esteem, and their overall quality of life.

The Status of Affordable Housing in the Lehigh Valley

“There’s a huge shortage of affordable apartments and homes in the region,” said Holly Edinger, Executive Director, Habitat for Humanity of the Lehigh Valley. “The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission just released data that indicates that the market is starting to fill this need based on recent building permit data. However, there is still a shortage, and that has the rental rate for all apartments out of alignment with income in the area. Basically, the demand is much greater than the supply. This puts pressure on the market. It pushes low-income renters into spending 40-65% of their income on rent. There are just not enough decent apartments or homes available to rent at a fair price.”

In order to afford the rent or mortgage payment on a home, some residents will cohabitate their family with another family, in effect doubling up the number of people the home was intended to hold. “When we work with families we often see large numbers of people, usually multi-generational families, living in a small house or apartment in order to afford the rent,” explained Edinger. “This puts stress on the family and on the neighborhood. In other cases, low-income families rent substandard apartments that they can afford, which often have unresponsive landlords, lead paint, or code violations.”

“Tenants’ unfamiliarity with their rights as a renter and the systems in place to protect them from abusive landlords and unfair evictions is a disadvantage,” Edinger continued. “The problem is partly education and familiarity with their rights.”

The Impact of Quality, Affordable Housing on Well Being

The Health Care Council of the Lehigh Valley conducted a series of focus groups with a variety of Lehigh Valley residents to ascertain their opinions on issues related to several quality of life topics, including housing and homelessness. The focus groups were conducted as research for The 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment of the Lehigh Valley. The Affordable Care Act requires this report to be conducted every three years by all nonprofit hospitals and health care systems in a community.

The final report, called The Road to Health, found “housing was consistently mentioned as one of the biggest contributors to poor health and poor quality of life in the Lehigh Valley. In all of the focus groups we consistently heard that pride is essential to an increased quality of life. Specifically, participants expressed that pride in oneself, pride in one’s home and pride in one’s community were necessary to have the strength and hope to work towards a better life.”

Edinger agrees. “The value of homeownership is multi-fold. There is the importance of building financial equity and wealth, as well as the stability and predictability of having a steady mortgage payment. We also know kids that live in homeownership households are much more likely to graduate from high school, which is reflective of the importance of stability. Putting a family in a decent home that they can afford (30% of their income) allows them to save money and better handle hardships, thus relieving stress from parents.”

Aging Homes in the Community

It’s also important to consider the age of homes and apartments in our region and the level of maintenance that comes with older properties. As The Road to Health explained, “Because many homes in the Lehigh Valley are older than in other parts of the country, they are more likely to contain environmental hazards like lead paint, asbestos, and mold.”

According to the focus groups, many of these housing issues were a big source of stress, hopelessness, depression and anxiety. When this is combined with the limited number of other affordable housing opportunities, people feel they are being taken advantage of and they feel ‘trapped’ in unhealthy and sometimes dangerous housing situations.”

The Road to Health report found that the Lehigh Valley has more substandard housing violations than other areas. “More than 1 in 3 (35.3%) occupied housing units in Lehigh and Northampton Counties have one or more housing problem including overcrowding, high housing costs, or lack of kitchen or plumbing facilities. Living with these kinds of housing problems makes it harder to feel pride and harder to do the things we know we need to do to be healthier. When people have limited income and work long hours, and these types of problems arise in homes, sometimes people choose to move rather than invest in improving things. The lack of a stable home often makes doing well in school, buying healthy food, exercising regularly, and managing chronic disease or mental illness really hard.”

Helping Residents Become Homeowners

“Habitat LV helps three to five families a year buy a home they helped to build,” explained Edinger. Homebuyers and Habitat for Humanity LV work side-by-side with other volunteers on the construction of their house. This partnership builds a sense of community and connection for the families. Families also experience a great deal of pride in the house because they know how much work they put into it. Each week there are between 50 and 100 volunteers involved with Habitat. The volunteers do construction work in the houses and are key to staffing our Habitat ReStore in Whitehall, which helps fund the construction materials for the home. Volunteers play a major role in our organization and we couldn’t do this work without them.”


Note: This article is one in a series of four dealing with homelessness in the Lehigh Valley. Please read our other articles on adult homelessness, child and youth homelessness, and the LVHN Street Medicine Program.

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