Southern Chester County is facing an affordable housing crisis
By Steven Hoffman
Over the last three years, the number of people in southern Chester County who’ve faced homelessness has more than doubled as the costs for housing in the area have soared while incomes for individuals and families who are struggling financially have remained flat.
A two-bedroom apartment in Kennett Square now commands $1,200 a month―or more―on the open market, leaving people with low incomes or fixed incomes with few options as they struggle to meet their basic needs.
According to Melanie Weiler, the executive director of the Kennett Area Community Service (KACS), more and more people are having a difficult time finding and maintaining affordable housing in southern Chester County. It's an illustration of the principles of supply and demand at work: the demand for affordable housing out-paces the supply in the area, so prices inevitably rise on the limited supply. Families looking to purchase affordably priced homes in the community can't find what they are looking for, so they turn to rental properties, which puts more pressure on that market. A significant number of properties that previously offered affordable rental options to local residents have been taken off the market—some have been transformed into more expensive rental units. At the same time that rents have skyrocketed, incomes have not increased at nearly the same rate, especially for low-wage earners. The elderly and the disabled are particularly vulnerable in the current climate.
In 2015, Weiler said, KACS re-housed 35 households. The next year, that number jumped to 55 households. And in 2017, KACS assisted more than 100 households who needed help getting re-housed. So far in 2018, the pace has continued, so there is little evidence that the problem is getting any better yet.
“We are in an affordable housing crisis in southern Chester County, and most people don’t realize it,” Weiler explained. “It really is the silent crisis in the community.”
An effort is underway to end that silence. At the annual meeting of the United Way of Southern Chester County on May 16, Carrie Freeman talked about the need to focus on the homelessness as an issue in the coming year.
Weiler also explained that a group that includes KACS, local elected officials, investors, developers, and landlords is working collaboratively to develop solutions to the problem. Another group, the Housing Discovery Team, is focused on gathering data related to the affordable housing crisis in the community.
“It’s time for us to work together,” said Weiler. “It's a community-wide problem, and we need to work together as a community to come up with solutions.”
Freeman, the CEO of the United Way of Southern Chester County, has enough data to know that the issue needs to be addressed.
“We’re doing a lot more work on the issue of homelessness,” Freeman said. “We have a crisis. It’s the biggest social crisis we have in the area.”
The physical and psychological impact that homelessness can have on a person or a family can be devastating, especially for the most vulnerable in the community—the elderly, the disabled, and children.
With the arrival of the summer months, Weiler fears that there might be another spike in homelessness on the way. During the cold winter months, especially around the holidays, family members and friends of those who are struggling are usually more willing to allow someone to sleep on the couch for a few nights or make the space for an extended stay. But in the summer, when the weather is nicer, people who are struggling might be more inclined to try to survive on the streets or sleep in a vehicle. Weiler pointed out that by the end of August, people with school-age children must have an address, so they must find housing in the school district before then. But the resources that KACS has can be stretched very thin during the summer months. As a result of the dramatic increase in the number of people who are struggling to maintain their housing, KACS has had a waiting list for people who need help with housing stabilization. That has never happened before.
Southern Chester County has seen a declining supply of affordable housing for years. While there is a lack of affordable housing throughout the area, the shortages are perhaps greatest in Kennett Square Borough and Kennett Township—most critically Kennett Square Borough, Weiler said, because there had previously been a greater supply of affordable housing available there. She explained that no fewer than six buildings in the Kennett Square area that had been used as multi-family dwellings were repurposed. Some property owners are taking previously more affordable rental units, fixing them up, and then renting them for much more money that the previous tenants can afford to pay. The residents who are displaced when this happens may not show up on a statistical report as an eviction―there were only 11 eviction filings in 2017, and only a handful of those were acted upon, but the residents were left with no choice but to leave their homes.
“This is the downside to gentrification,” Weiler said. “People want to live here in Kennett Square. It's a walkable community. We have arts and culture here. We have good schools. Investors want to invest here.”
Weiler said that it's important for any community to have economic diversity. A family of four needs to have an income in the neighborhood of $80,000 a year to reach the standard set for a sustainable income in Kennett Square and the surrounding communities, Weiler said, which isn't possible for many people who have long called Kennett Square their home. What gets lost when these people can no longer afford to live in their community?
Weiler pointed out that it's not just increased housing costs that are impacting many local families—it's costs associated with other basic needs like food, clothing, and utilities. PECO has a cap rate program that limits utilities costs, but it got revamped and far fewer families now qualify for the program. Others qualify, but only see small reductions in their utilities bills. As a result, some families saw their utility bills go from $60 to $180 month instantly.
“Their incomes haven't increased,” Weiler said. “So our families do whatever they can to make it through.”
Families that have a gross income of, for example, $1,800 a month could easily be spending 60 percent or more of their pay on rent and utilities, leaving not nearly enough for food, clothing, and other necessities. For families struggling to get by financially, it is a challenging time.
The organization has long been on the front lines when it comes to fighting hunger and homelessness in Kennett Square and the surrounding communities, and is one of the best places to turn for people who are struggling to maintain their housing.
One of the more important services that KACS provides is working to intervene before a person or family becomes homeless, and Weiler encouraged anyone facing a situation where they may left homeless to reach out for help before it becomes a crisis.
“If we know, we can start working on a preventative housing plan,” Weiler explained. “Our staff can negotiate with utilities companies or with landlords. We have very high sucess rates when we can get a preventative plan. We know what agencies can step in and provide help.”
Through its Emergency Assistance Program, KACS offers occasional financial assistance for rent, utility bills, and other basic living expenses. KACS also operates a food cupboard. The Oxford Area Neighborhood Services Center provides many of the same forms of assistance—but the rapid increase in the number of people in the community who are facing homelessness has already stretched resources.
To make matters worse, there is no real homeless shelter to serve struggling individuals and families in the southern part of the county, and the county-wide shelter system has far more demand than capacity, especially at the times of the year when homelessness spikes. KACS can sometimes help people get placed in the Delaware shelter system. There also aren’t any low-cost hotels or motels in the area for people to be housed in temporarily until they can get back on their feet financially.
Solutions to the affordable housing crisis, Weiler said, will come only if local leaders in the community and elected officials work collaboratively. Groups like KACS that offer support to people who need it can play a role, but so too will property owners, developers, and landlords. Solving the affordable housing crisis will strengthen the community as a whole.
Weiler pointed out that the lack of affordable housing is already impacting Chester County’s top industry. Workers in the mushroom industry have been hurt by the increased rents―they can’t find adequate housing and some workers are leaving the area, making it more difficult for mushroom companies to find an adequate supply of employees.
Some of the workers who do remain are desperate for housing, and there are already signs that some are living in spaces with unsafe conditions or crowding into smaller living spaces, in violation of local regulations. This is a particular concern in some of the townships in the area.
Weiler lauded Kennett Square Borough Codes Enforcement Officer Rusty Drumheller and the staff of the borough's Codes Enforcement Department for working tirelessly to ensure that all properties in the borough are safe for residents, and for making sure that all regulations are being followed—this helps prevent a large number of people from crowding into one apartment, for example. The goal is to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of housing for all segments of the community.
Right now, Weiler said, they are in the process of evaluating the extent of the problem, and looking at long-term solutions to the crisis.
Freeman said that it’s critically important to get the whole community involved in the effort. Organizations like KACS and the United Way of Southern Chester County, as well as the Oaks Ministry in Oxford, and the Oxford Neighborhood Services Center are already working to serve those who are most in need in the community. So, too, is Family Promise of Southern Chester County, which joined the effort to help house local families three years ago. The county also has a Decade to Doorways initiative that is aimed at ending homelessness. But none of these groups will be able to provide a solution to the issue on their own.
Homes need to be available at various price points, so that requires developers who are willing to build them—and elected officials who are receptive to such plans.
“We also need additional facilities like the Luther House,” Weiler said, referencing a community in Penn Township for independent seniors over the age of 62 that is HUD-subsidized. There is a two-year waiting list for people to move into the Luther House.
“We need people to support affordable housing,” Weiler said. “Advocate to local officials, and make them aware that the community supports affordable housing. The healthiest model is when there is diversity in housing in a community.”
The efforts will hopefully provide a voice to people who may not always have one at meetings when decisions are made. At public meetings, “There are very few people who show up to advocate for affordable housing,” Weiler said. “We realize that there has been a lack of advocacy.”
The rise in homelessness has been very alarming, Weiler said, and it's important for the community to address the issue. She explained that these people who find themselves in desperate situations, sleeping in cars or living in storage sheds, are our neighbors, and they shouldn't be left alone to live on the streets.
“We will lose at least one person—one person who will die on the streets every year in this area,” Weiler said. “I think that’s unacceptable, and I think we’re better than that.”