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“Having access to safe, affordable housing is critical and it is our job as legislators to make that attainable,” state Sen. Vincent Hughes said.

Pennsylvania, like other states, has an affordable housing problem: According to the latest data, the Commonwealth is short more than 279,000 rental homes for extremely low-income families.  

To address this crisis, one state lawmaker has introduced an ambitious proposal. The “New Deal for Housing” plan will, according to state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), “transform housing opportunities and conditions for struggling individuals and families across the Commonwealth.”

The state’s housing shortage has left 71% of the state’s nearly 480,000 extremely low income (ELI) renter households—defined as those with incomes at or below the poverty level or 30% of their area median income—facing a severe cost burden, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The issue affects more and more people from different walks of life, said Levana Layendecker, deputy director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. “The numbers of people who face housing insecurity is a lot greater than I think most people really understand,” she told COURIER in a phone interview. “People who are working full time, who are playing by the rules, who are doing everything they’re supposed to do can’t afford their basic housing needs.”

Hughes’ plan, which has earned the support of the Housing Alliance, aims to ease the burden facing low-income families, domestic violence survivors, and others who face housing insecurity.

“Everyone needs a place to live, and housing is generally the largest expense individuals and families carry,” the lawmaker told COURIER via email. “Having access to safe, affordable housing is critical and it is our job as legislators to make that attainable.”

Sen. Vincent Hughes (center) with other lawmakers announcing the plan in January | Photo via JP Kurish, staff photographer Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus

Here’s what’s in Hughes’ plan:

Offer more options for low-income families

Hughes’ New Deal for Housing would expand the state’s proposed Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program to provide $50 million annually to fund construction of affordable housing. The state Senate unanimously passed a version of this bill, which Hughes co-sponsored, in January, but that legislation only provides $10 million a year. 

If either version is passed by the state House and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, the program would mirror the federal-level program of the same name, which has financed over 3 million apartments and served 7 million households since it was created in 1986, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.

Layendecker called the national program the “greatest source for producing new, affordable, rental housing everywhere in the country,” and said the state program would supplement the federal one and provide more affordable rental options for low-income families.

An expansion of the program could also provide a substantial economic boost. Every $10 million spent on affordable housing construction in Pennsylvania generates $19.6 million in total economic impact and supports 110 jobs, according to the Housing Alliance.

Hughes’ plan would also create a program called Step Up PA, which would focus on expanding homeownership for low-income communities. The program, which would be managed by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, would provide up to $10,000 in down payment and closing cost assistance to qualified, low-income individuals purchasing homes in census tracts that were designated as “qualified opportunity zones” by the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. 

Increase money and flexibility

Hughes also wants to increase funding for the state’s Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund (PHARE) from $40 million to $100 million. 

The program helps leverage both public and private funding to invest in the construction, renovation, and support of affordable housing in Pennsylvania. PHARE can also help people pay their utilities and provide down payment assistance to aspiring homeowners.

According to the Housing Alliance, since PHARE was implemented in 2012, it has helped almost 6,000 households, funded over 400 projects, created over 500 jobs, and leveraged half a billion dollars from the state’s $78 million investment.

“An investment of $100 million in PHARE could create and preserve up to 2,000 affordable housing units annually and help approximately 800 new home buyers defray costs associated with purchasing a home,” Hughes wrote in a January memo to his fellow senators.

Hughes’ proposal would also remove the limit on how much money from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) can be used for housing. This expansion would provide funding for certain affordable housing projects and projects for at-risk communities, including homeless veterans.

Help domestic violence survivors

The New Deal for Housing would also establish the Survival Accessible Fair and Empowering (SAFE) Housing Trust Fund to provide permanent supportive housing for survivors of domestic violence, which research has shown is linked to higher rates of homelessness. 

“There’s a tremendous shortage of housing for people who are living that experience,” said Layendecker. “We think that having a separate dedicated fund to support those women and other people who need it is critical.”

What’s next?

Hughes has yet to formally introduce his legislation, but it could happen when the legislature returns to session in March. A spokesperson for Pennsylvania Senate Republicans told Erie News Now the Caucus will have to study the proposal, including where the money will come from, prior to making any decision.

Layendecker hopes the legislature will take action to address a crisis that she says has been a long time coming. 

“I think it’s been bubbling under the surface. A lot of people were living with housing insecurity and then the mortgage crisis really brought that to light in a way,” she said. “But we as a society have been kind of slow to bring forth the policy solutions to really address it, and so the market continues to raise prices and affordability gets more and more out of reach for average families.”

“We really need to have more of a structural solution,” she said, because “housing insecurity faces all people at almost every income level, except the very top.”