Monday, March 11, 2013

The Borough's Burden, Part 3

According to this map from the DVRPC study, "The Mismatch Between Jobs and Housing," Pottstown has between 10 and 20 percent of its population living below the federal poverty line, just one of many indicators of the way current policies concentrate poor and needy people in the communities often least able to carry that burden.

The Weight

Welcome back.

This third installment to my potentially never-ending series of posts brings us to information that's a little closer to home -- a 2011 study by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission about the "mis-match between housing and jobs."

(Sorry for all the studies folks, but experts do look at this stuff and we might as well make use of the knowledge gained as a result. Better than it just sitting on a shelf.)

This study was undertaken at the behest of the First Suburbs Project of Southeastern Pennsylvania and confirmed much of what they have argued, that government policies and economics have had the unintended consequence of concentrating poorer housing and residents in older, established communities, away from jobs that pay good salaries.

After all, no one sets out to create the conditions under which we're now struggling. It's usually just an example of short-sighted policies and a mistaken belief, despite history's many reminders, that the good times will never end.

So I looked through this study more than  a year ago and made a set of notes in the hopes of trying to drive a larger, regional series of stories among our several newspapers that looked at these issues, and at housing authorities in particular.
Pottstown also has a higher concentration of children

living below the federal poverty line, thus requiring more
expensive services from a school system dependent on an
eroding property tax base. 

Sadly, the will, the time, the staff and the money to pay that staff never materialized to make that happen.

Luckily for you loyal reader, I rarely throw anything away (as a photo of my desk would attest) so I have it at hand for presentation here, in a somewhat less refined form.

Rather than re-write all this stuff and pretend it's all original, I have pasted relevant sections I lifted for my notes and strung them together into a kind of logical narrative.

(Those things I have bolded are my own emphasis or comment.Remember, the order in which they appear here are not necessarily the order in which they appear in the report.)
Although well-intended, past and current federal and state housing policies support suburban homeownership and have resulted in concentrations of low and moderately priced housing in older developed communities.
The creation of geographic imbalances between housing and jobs is largely the effect of suburbanization. Prior to the 1950s, the Greater Philadelphia region formed around employment opportunities located in the central business district, modern day Center City.
Housing developed in suburban areas adjacent to the city and commuting to Center City for work was facilitated with the development of publicly-funded highways and transit service.
Today, with the lack of (easily) developable land for light industrial and commercial sites in the central business district and the lure of large expanses of vacant, relatively inexpensive, and developable land in the suburbs, more lower-wage jobs are relocating to suburban locations that lack transit-accessibility. Many of these communities are often higher-end “bedroom” communities that lack the affordable housing opportunities appropriate for the entry-level and low-income labor force. 
By contrast, existing infrastructure and transit service, affordable housing choices, and the availability of necessary services make cities and older suburbs logical choices for low and moderate individuals and families searching for a home, with or without financial assistance.
This map shows that Pottstown has the highest concentration
in the region of 
people without cars, making it much harder
for them  
to get to a job that pays a living wage.
Many of the region’s largest employment centers, however, are located in the growing suburbs, in places that lack both affordable housing opportunities and transit access. Concentrations of low and moderate income households in cities and older suburbs result in a mismatch between the locations of jobs and labor, with entry-level and lower income workers living far from suburban job centers. 
Additionally, the concentration of affordable housing in the region’s cities and older suburbs corresponds to concentrations of disadvantaged populations. Disadvantaged households living in older cities and suburbs are often isolated from opportunity, both in terms of finding and maintaining a job and moving up the housing ladder.
Concentrations of low and moderately priced homes impact the municipal tax base and, given the current reliance on property taxes as the primary source of funding for public services (especially education), place an unfair financial burden on these communities.
Pottstown has a high concentration of single-parent households
A reduced tax base and the resulting impact on tax revenue impedes the community’s ability to provide a quality education system, invest in necessary infrastructure repairs, and meet social service demands.

(The communities are also often the only  place single-parent families can afford to live. Statistically, children of these families need more in terms of special educational services and thus cost more to educate in a system already struggling with diminished property tax revenues.)
As a result, many of the region’s cities and first suburbs find it even more difficult to attract market-rate housing, further compounding the problem. The attractiveness of the inner ring communities is reduced and both residential and commercial development sprawl outward into the suburbs, perpetuating the cycle of disinvestment and continuing a downward cycle that reduces the region’s overall attractiveness and competitiveness. 
Homeownership rates are highest in the suburban counties, especially in the most recently developed municipalities in Gloucester, Burlington, Bucks, and Chester counties. The highest renter-occupancy rate is evidenced in the City of Philadelphia, where over 45 percent of the occupied housing stock is occupied by renters. 
(By way of reference, the population of Pottstown is about 40 percent renters, so not much different from Philadelphia.)
In this map: Pottstown has the highest concentration of
households living in poverty in the entire area.
In the Pennsylvania counties, the highest housing values are found in Central Bucks County (Solebury, Buckingham and Upper Makefield townships and New Hope and Wrightstown boroughs); Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County; Radnor and Edgemont in Delaware County; and West Pikeland, Easttown, and Birmingham townships in Chester County. 
DVRPC has analyzed housing affordability in Greater Philadelphia several times in the past. The conclusion has consistently been the same: the region’s most affordable housing (both renter and owner-occupied) has typically been located in places least accessible to suburban employment centers and where the housing stock is generally of poorer quality.
Municipal-level maps provided in the appendices (some of which I have posted here) illustrate that lower income households and people living in poverty are concentrated in the region’s cities (including the smaller cities of Coatesville and Chester City in Pennsylvania and Beverly City in New Jersey), and older boroughs (including Darby, Bridgeport, Colwyn, Pottstown, Norristown, and Marcus Hook in Pennsylvania and Hi-Nella, Audubon Park, and Lawnside in New Jersey). 
Given the region’s dependence on property taxes as the primary source of local revenue, the overall strength of the local tax base directly affects the ability of local governments to provide quality services.
The tax bases of many of the region’s core cities and older developed communities are stagnant or declining, while, ironically, the number of low-income and dependent residents (including seniors) that require an increasing level of services continues to increase in these same areas. Increasing the property tax rate not only places an unfair cost burden on current homeowners, but also higher taxes and reduced services resulting from a lack of resources perpetuates the population and employment losses realized in many of these older communities in recent years. 

Ironically, the property taxes in the region’s older communities (which have the largest available supplies of low and moderately-priced housing) are often very high relative to housing value and the residents’ income. As property taxes rise in urban areas, lower-income households can have trouble paying their property tax bills and may become tax delinquent. 
(The areas outside Pottstown in the map below which are also blue, such as East Coventry, are likely home to senior housing and nursing homes, such as, in East Coventry's case, Manatawny Manor.)
Pottstown is also has a higher concentration of the elderly. 
As the financial burden on lower income families increases, many rental and owner occupied units can deteriorate, become vacant and fall out of the housing stock.
If the municipality responds by placing tax liens on these properties, developers may hesitate to rehabilitate them because they cannot recapture the cost of the rehabilitation or because of the extremely deep rental assistance subsidies needed for tenants to occupy the units. Local property tax policies often discourage the replacement of these affordable rental units.
Areas most at risk of foreclosure include locations in and immediately surrounding the cities of Philadelphia, Trenton, Camden, and Coatesville and Pottstown Borough
The opposite also holds true in communities that are less developed and have available vacant land. Although land is available in these communities that could theoretically be used for needed residential development (especially higher density rentals) these communities are often not served by transit to provide access to jobs and services.
Higher property taxes in these communities are often offset by the higher average annual income of the residents and higher housing value.
We also have a higher number of disabled residents.
The high cost of providing services and its consequent impact on property tax rates encourage municipalities to zone their land for uses that place the fewest demands on the school system and other municipal services.
(In the tax ratables chase in which so many municipalities here engage,) Single-family residential is preferred over higher density family residential; commercial development and other employment generating uses are preferred over any residential. 
Multi-family rental housing is often viewed as particularly undesirable because it disproportionately increases the demand for local services while generating comparably little tax revenue. 
Commercial uses generate significant tax revenue while demanding fewer services than residential development, thrusting communities into a chase for the highest and best ratables. 
So as illuminating as all of this is, it mostly confirms that the conditions locally meet the criteria set out in national studies which we looked at in the previous post.

The next logical question is the one we will address in tomorrow's post and the one which consumes much of Pottstown's discussions of how we get back on our feet -- what role does public housing policy play within the context of these burdens?

See you tomorrow.

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