'The perfect storm': Lehigh Co. goes through $2.7M of home-repair help like a buzz saw
BETHLEHEM, Pa. – A state program expected to provide millions of dollars in free home repairs to Lehigh County residents has attracted unprecedented demand and is now closed to applicants.
Funding for the American Rescue Plan Act Whole-Home Repairs Program was allocated last summer with an initial $120 million appropriation by the state General Assembly.
Neal Weaver, acting secretary for the Department of Community and Economic Development, said the program would “provide eligible homeowners and landlords across the state with critical home repair and weatherization assistance.”
- Lehigh County's window of enrollment for the Whole-Home Repairs Program is closed following unprecedented demand
- The county received $2.7 million for the program and will be able to help about 60 homeowners
- The average home repair paid for through the program will be around $20,000
In December, Weaver urged counties to begin the application process as soon as possible in order to “distribute these funds to those who need them the most.”
A county or designated entity had until 5 p.m. on Jan. 31, 2023, to apply.
With applications reviewed on a rolling basis, each county was guaranteed a minimum allocation of $200,000 to address housing repairs or safety concerns, improve water or energy efficiency, or make housing accessible for those with disabilities.
Counties were directed to make assistance — up to $50,000 — available to homeowners whose household income did not exceed 80% of the total area median income.
‘Every day, we’re still getting calls and emails’
Lehigh County Board of Commissioners Chairman Geoff Brace announced in January that the county would receive $2.7 million for the program, but cautioned homeowners to have their expectations in check.
““I expect that there’s going to be far more demand for this program than there will be awards that are made for individual properties,” Brace warned at a public meeting.
He was right.
Chuck Weiss, the Associate Executive Director of Housing for Community Action Lehigh Valley (CALV), said the nonprofit advertised open enrollment at two different events in Allentown and Emmaus and phones were immediately ringing off the hook.
“We were getting about 50 calls a week since January,” Weiss said. “The politicians really did a good job promoting this thing. Maybe too good of a job.
“May 19 was the day we opened [enrollment]. It was first come, first served and opened at 8 a.m., and by 2:30 p.m. we got the first 40 applicants. Everyone after that we collected their data to find out how many people were looking for home repair."
With CALV in charge of distributing the funds in the county, it also had an initial waiting list of 180 people.
“So what we are asking our people to do is spend half the dollars on the waiting list and half on open enrollment,” Weiss said.
The strategy consisted of sending a letter to everyone on the waiting list and serving the first 30 people who responded.
“As they came in, we time and date stamped all the cards,” he said. “So now we have people in reserve. Essentially, we are going to be serving 60 people, for sure.
“At this point, every day we’re still getting calls and emails. We’re over 500 people wanting to do the program.”
'It's just too many people'
“Demand was obviously greater than supply of resources, there’s no doubt about that,” Brace said in a phone call Monday, attributing the need to a combination of aging housing stock and the lack of household income in the region.
“It kind of brings everything together and creates a perfect storm for demand for these types of resources, so I’m not shocked in any way that there was this type of demand,” he said. “I think if the General Assembly or the governor doubled or tripled the funding, it would still be greater than the resources.”
The average home repair paid for through the program will be around $20,000 and affect roughly 60 Lehigh County homes, Weiss said. He noted the overall funding was roughly $1.8 million, with the remainder of the $2.7 million dedicated to other impact areas such as roofing repairs and home mobility solutions.
“We normally serve 70 to 90 people a year in home repair projects,” he said. “We have our own waiting list we’re trying to serve with those people. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to contact everyone who contacted us. It’s just too many people.”
“Some of them have been on the waiting list since 2015 and we had to requalify them. And this program covers health and safety items.
"We had some people ask if we can replace kitchen cabinets. The repairs we’ll be able to make are the plumbing issues, electric issues, roofing, windows and things like HVAC. I’m just trying to put as many of the other dollars into these houses to serve more people."
'We understand the real need for this program'
“Generally speaking, any government program that essentially helps somebody help their life, the demand is going to far outstrip the needs,” State Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, said Monday. “But this one is, I think, a little greater than even most of us really anticipated.”
To that end, proposed budget legislation for 2023-24 includes another $125 million for assisting homeowners making the necessary repairs to continue living in their homes.
“We're definitely looking to get that funding,” Schlossberg said. “The demand has been so positive that we understand the real need for this program. And I’ll add that part of the reason the program is so popular among members of the General Assembly is because it’s something that impacts every area of the Commonwealth — urban, rural, and suburban all have pretty significant needs to increase the quality of their housing stock.”
"It’s something that impacts every area of the Commonwealth — urban, rural, and suburban all have pretty significant needs to increase the quality of their housing stock.”State Rep. Mike Schlossberg
Schlossberg said additional funding directed to these types of programs then becomes a year-by-year determination.
“Part of the reason we’re in a position where we can fund it this year is because the Commonwealth is actually doing pretty well," he said. "The recent revenue picture that came out was much more positive than previous ones have been, and that gives us the opportunity to increase funding for programs like this.
“The Senate and the governor's office are obviously in the course of negotiations on the budget,” he added. “Frankly, I think there's a lot of Republican members who really saw the benefit of Whole-Home Repair. So, are we going to hold it at $125 million? I don't know. I wouldn't be surprised to see that number reduced, but I do hope that we can get something in there. It's such an important program to so many of our constituents.”
Pennsylvania has also allocated funding to Northampton County, but applications for homeowners are not yet available.
The application process for grants might start in the early fall, with about $2.3 million for the program. Around two-thirds, or around $1.5 million, will be allocated strictly for home repairs.