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United Way of Lancaster County


‘Affordable Housing 101’: Underlying Covid-19, a local market already in crisis

Lancaster City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El speaks about affordable housing at a Global Shapers Lancaster Hub forum on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Lancaster City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El speaks about affordable housing at a Global Shapers Lancaster Hub forum on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)
Lancaster City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El speaks about affordable housing at a Global Shapers Lancaster Hub forum on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Ismail Smith-Wade-El said the American flag he brought to the podium of Friday's "Affordable Housing 101" forum represented two Independence Days: July 4 and Juneteenth.

The notion of American freedom was pertinent to the topic at hand, the City Council president and Lanc Co MyHome program specialist said: For most Americans, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ... rely on safe, stable housing."

Smith-Wade-El and Tenfold CEO Mike McKenna were the featured speakers at Friday's event, part of the "Home is Here" initiative of the Lancaster Hub of the Global Shapers, a network of young people engaged in addressing local and global challenges.

Smith-Wade-El and McKenna painted a sobering picture of Lancaster County's affordable housing crisis. The pandemic exacerbated what was already a severe problem; and although remedies exist, they will require patience, political will and ample funding.

Coming Up:

"Affordable Housing 101" was the first of two talks on housing sponsored by the Global Shapers Lancaster Hub. The second, "Future of Affordable Housing," takes place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. this Friday, July 9, at the Ware Center, 42 N. Prince St.

Moderated by Kearasten Jordan (SafeHouse Lancaster), it will feature:

  • Ryan Gabriel Davis (Starlight Saloon),
  • Carlos Graupera (CEO of the Spanish American Civic Association),
  • Ben Lesher (Founder of SDL DevCo and developer of Stadium Row, board member at Chestnut Housing Corp.),
  • Jennifer Frank (assistant professor, Millersville University School of Social Work).


To register, click here.

This chart compares number of households in various income brackets (HAMFI = "HUD Area Median Family Income") to available housing in their price range. Click to enlarge. (Source: Tenfold)

At the lowest end of the market, the number of families needing housing vastly exceeds the number of units available at affordable price points, McKenna said.

Moreover, Lancaster County's housing, like that of the U.S. as a whole, is segregated by race and class, the result of explicit past policy decisions, McKenna said, citing the award-winning recent book, "The Color of Law" by Richard Rothstein, a featured guest in Tenfold's recent "Housing Access & Affordability" speaker series.

Mike McKenna

Households that pay more than 30% of their gross income in rent are considered cost-burdened. A 2013 study found that just under half of Lancaster County renters fit that category, a problem that has only grown worse in the years since.

Systemic housing disparities, he said, lead to negative outcomes that affect health, education and have implications for racial and social justice.

Smith-Wade-El noted that housing costs have outpaced income gains: Over the past decade, rent has risen 27%, while renters' incomes have risen just 12%.

(Source: Lanc Co MyHome, U.S. Census)
(Source: Lanc Co MyHome, U.S. Census)

When affordable housing isn't affordable

This slide, adapted from Ismail Smith-Wade-El's "Affordable Housing 101" presentation, shows why affordable housing projects can still be out of reach for the residents of the neighborhoods where they're built.

To qualify for subsidies, housing projects typically must be affordable for households earning 80% of the area median income (AMI) in their Metropolitan Statistical Area, which locally is Lancaster County. As you can see, 80% of county AMI is significantly higher than 100% of city AMI.

Thus, a project could meet the federal 80% AMI threshold (that is, families earning $52,844 would pay no more than 30% of gross income as rent) yet it would still be a cost burden for the median city family to live there. (Specifically, the median city household would pay about 35% of its income. A family at 80% of city AMI would pay 43.5%.)


Both speakers expressed concern about what happens once the CDC's Covid-19 eviction moratorium expires at the end of this month. While Lancaster County's Emergency Rental Assistance Program is well-funded, there are many situations it can't address: If a landlord ends a lease and tenants can't find another apartment they can afford, "none of that protects you," Smith-Wade-El said.

Smith-Wade-El and McKenna called for a variety of reforms: Less restrictive zoning; more generous subsidies for affordable housing; stronger tenant protections; property tax reform.

Get involved, McKenna advised the audience: "Let it be known that you value affordable housing." When projects come before local governments for approval, "be a voice of reason in those conversations."

The next six months to a year are likely to be challenging, Smith-Wade-El said after the forum. It will be essential to expand assistance programs to help households with security deposits and other upfront costs, he said, suggesting that advocates reach out to landlords about the importance of keeping tenants housed, keeping rent increases moderate, and not increasing the burden on the already-stressed social safety net.