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Building units, changing zoning, revamping neighborhoods: How Bethlehem will tackle its affordable housing crisis

People attend the Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy plan open house meeting and presentation Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, at Northampton Community College Fowler Family Southside Center in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
People attend the Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy plan open house meeting and presentation Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, at Northampton Community College Fowler Family Southside Center in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
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The lack of affordable housing is Bethlehem’s most pressing crisis, Mayor J. William Reynolds said at an open house Wednesday.

It’s a desirable place to live with good quality of life, relatively low crime and a strong economy, but one that’s hindered by an acute lack of housing, particularly subsidized affordable housing, he said. Between 2019 and 2023, the median home sale price nearly doubled from $182,000 to $302,000, and median monthly rent skyrocketed from $1,354 to $1,910.

“There’s always been an opportunity to find a place to live in Bethlehem. For 100 years, you could move here no matter what your education level was, no matter how much money you had, and you could find a place to live,” Reynolds said. “There was always a place for for you to live, and that is under threat.”

With the help of funding via the American Rescue Plan and other federal grants, the city has launched a comprehensive affordable housing strategy called Open Doors, a plan years in the making that will use a “multifaceted approach” to housing in the city. It allocated $5 million in its 2024 budget toward the strategy, and will apply for more grants in the future to implement these solutions.

The plan can be read in full on Here are the highlights:

Zoning updates

According to Bethlehem Deputy Director of Community Development Sara Satullo, the city is looking to make more types of housing allowed “by right.” A majority of the city is allocated for single family zoning, a restrictive designation that allows little else other than detached single family homes to be built without a special zoning exception.

But the city faces a shortage of around 1,000 apartment units, and has only a 2% housing vacancy rate, which signals a “crisis,” so the city is looking to add more housing to neighborhoods. By rewriting the city’s zoning code, slightly denser types of housing — like small apartment buildings or bungalows — could come to residential neighborhoods, Satullo said.

“You are not building a 10-story apartment building in a neighborhood that has only three-story buildings,” Satullo said. “It’s being respectful of the environment and trying to make it look like it has always existed there.”

The city is also looking to incentivize “accessory dwelling units,” which are small units of housing built onto an existing property. The city, in partnership with Lehigh University, Community Action and New Bethany, is piloting a program to cover the cost of building these units for property owners who opt in.

  • Information boards are seen during a Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy...

    Information boards are seen during a Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy plan open house meeting and presentation Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, at Northampton Community College Fowler Family Southside Center in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

  • Sara Satullo, Bethlehem's deputy director of community development, talks with...

    Sara Satullo, Bethlehem's deputy director of community development, talks with people during the Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy plan open house meeting and presentation Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, at Northampton Community College Fowler Family Southside Center in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

  • People attend the Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy plan open house...

    People attend the Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy plan open house meeting and presentation Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, at Northampton Community College Fowler Family Southside Center in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

  • Information boards are seen during a Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy...

    Information boards are seen during a Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy plan open house meeting and presentation Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, at Northampton Community College Fowler Family Southside Center in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

  • Bethlehem Mayor J. William Reynolds talks with Bethlehem Housing Authority...

    Bethlehem Mayor J. William Reynolds talks with Bethlehem Housing Authority board of commissioners chairperson Lindsey Clifton during a Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy plan open house meeting and presentation Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, at Northampton Community College Fowler Family Southside Center in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

  • People attend the Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy plan open house...

    People attend the Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy plan open house meeting and presentation Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, at Northampton Community College Fowler Family Southside Center in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

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Incentivize affordable housing

In some ways, Bethlehem is limited in how much it can incentivize affordable housing. The city cannot implement rent control because of state laws, and cannot legally force developers to make apartment units affordable because of the third class city code.

Still, the city is looking to do what it can to increase the number of available affordable units. It is looking to establish a revolving loan pool, which would help cover costs for affordable housing projects that need an extra boost in funding to move forward.

The Bethlehem Housing Authority also has around 100 Section 8 housing vouchers that are going unused, and the city wants to change that. Landlords often refuse to accept federal housing vouchers because the federal “fair market rate” limit is significantly lower than the real average rate of rentals in Bethlehem. The city is looking to close that gap by providing paying landlords enough that accepting a Section 8 voucher would be roughly equivalent to market rate rent.

And finally, the city is in the early stages of a federal Choice neighborhood grant, which would allow them to revitalize the Pembroke public housing development. The city will spend the next two years designing a plan to transform Pembroke from a 1940s-era public housing development into a vibrant mixed income neighborhood — and at the end of that process, apply for $30 million to $50 million in federal grants to implement the plan.

Preventing homelessness

The city is prioritizing addressing homelessness, namely by aiming to stop people from losing their homes in the first place.

“Open Doors is a homelessness prevention plan, it’s about making sure that we’re taking care of our neighbors in the way that Bethlehem has historically taken care of our neighbors,” Satullo said.

The city is working with North Penn Legal, New Bethany and Community Action on eviction prevention programs, including emergency rental assistance and pro bono legal representation during court proceedings.

Bethlehem is also looking to launch the Lehigh Valley’s first year-round homeless shelter, though it has not yet selected a location for the building.

Advocacy

Bethlehem officials also plan to lobby the state government and other municipalities to implement affordable housing solutions. Satullo said officials would like to see the state municipal code updated to allow cities to require affordable housing in some cases.

The city will also push suburbs to build more affordable housing, because these municipalities have more land available and, according to Reynolds, are not doing their fair share of the work to address the Lehigh Valley’s housing crisis.

“We would love for some of our municipal neighbors to be stepping up and being as passionate about housing as the leadership in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton are, but that hasn’t happened yet,” Reynolds said.

Reporter Lindsay Weber can be reached at Liweber@mcall.com.

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