Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Borough's Burden, Part 5

What Should We Do About It?

Welcome back again.

Thanks for sticking with us for the whole thing.

This is the BIG pay-off!

Well, in all actuality what we have here are a series of fairly sedate suggestions from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Study, "The Mismatch Between Housing and Jobs," 

This is the study we have been sharing in the two previous posts (Click here for Monday's post, here for Tuesday's post) and it ends with a series of suggestions for ALL levels of government that should be taken seriously.

I have a few suggestions to add, but we'll leave those to the end. And again, those comments of suggestions highlighted in bold are my own emphasis or suggestions.

Without further ado, here are the suggestions as outlined in the study:

The Federal Government should:

  • Review their program rules and guidelines to ensure that they support community planning and revitalization efforts. For example, Section 8 landlords that become tax delinquent should no longer be eligible for a federal subsidy until their taxes are made current.
  •  Link available discretionary funding (including transportation and infrastructure funding) to each community’s efforts to address their share of the region’s affordable housing needs.
(This is very important and would help Pottstown deal with the low-income housing burden it is carrying for the region.)

The Pennsylvania Legislature should:

  • Require counties and municipalities to address a fair share of their region’s housing need as a part of a comprehensive plan and, working through the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), should assume primary responsibility for establishing the goals, policies and standards for defining regional housing needs throughout the Commonwealth.
  • Target discretionary state funding (including funds available through the respective Departments of Community Affairs/Economic Development, Environmental Protection, and Transportation) to areas where the existing housing stock is currently affordable, to improve the ability of these communities to attract prospective homebuyers.
  •  Implement or expand property tax relief programs that provide assistance to elderly and low-income homeowners struggling to meet the increasing property tax burden, such as property tax postponement or deferral, tax assistance, property tax caps, assessed value caps, homestead exemptions, or property tax credits. (This would be very helpful in Pottstown).
  • Support programs that provide energy assistance to low and moderate income households, both for heating in the winter and cooling in the hotter summer months.
  • Require public utilities to dedicate funds for weatherization assistance, to help low and moderate income homeowners interested in weatherizing their homes and thereby reduce energy costs.
  • Research, review, and implement revisions to the current property tax structure, particularly the way in which public services (especially education) are funded, to allow housing location decisions to be based on sound planning principles rather than financial considerations. 
  • Research and review successful alternatives used in other regions or states to provide and maintain affordable housing and achieve an appropriate regional jobs housing balance and determine which programs or program components could be successfully implemented within Pennsylvania.

County Planning, Housing, and Community Development Agencies should:

  • County housing authorities that manage housing vouchers should proactively enforce property maintenance requirements (including annual inspections) and review their program rules and guidelines to ensure that they support community planning and revitalization efforts.

Municipalities should: 

  • Recognize their responsibility to provide for the housing needs of both current and prospective residents. 
  • Provide opportunities for an appropriate variety of housing types in residential zones, including increased densities in single-family zones and single story or “garden-style” townhouses.
  • Allow non-traditional affordable housing alternatives in appropriate locations, such as accessory dwelling units and elder cottages. 
  • Provide for inclusionary zoning in appropriate locations, where developers are offered density bonuses in exchange for providing affordable units.
  • Expand available assistance for homeowners and landlords for rehabilitation of the home’s major systems (plumbing, heating, and electrical systems as well as the roof) and for other improvements (including improvements necessary to make the home accessible and aesthetic improvements such as siding or painting). (This is some of what is happening with Pottstown's Homeowner Initiative.)
  • Adopt or revise and aggressively enforce a local property maintenance code, including both homeowners and landlords (including private owners as well as Section 8 landlords and public housing authorities).
  • Pursue all legal means of requiring landlords to maintain their rental properties.
  • Pursue all means available to legally acquire abandoned properties and properties that landlords have refused to maintain.
Given the means by which most local services are funded (especially education), concentrating low and moderate income families in certain municipalities (specifically, cities, boroughs, and older suburbs) places an unfair financial burden on these communities as they struggle to provide necessary services to disadvantaged residents.
Concentrations of low income housing units may also act as a deterrent to market-rate residential developers and non-residential redevelopment efforts.
Requiring that all of the region’s municipalities provide a fair share of affordable housing, however, will likely increase sprawl and result in disadvantaged residents living in areas where access to services and employment is limited.  
(Being politically impossible, it is also never going to happen. Instead, as I posted on Feb. 10, it's more realistic to ask the county and perhaps the state to provide additional funding to the borough to help support that burden Pottstown is carrying for the entire region.)
In that respect, targeting housing development (including affordable housing) to areas with existing services and access to jobs makes logical sense. The regional analysis of impediments and regional housing planning process must address and balance these valid but often competing regional objectives.

And now for a few of my thoughts on the issue:

The other, best answer, to all of this "cycle of disinvestment" is jobs.

Many, many, years ago, when The Mercury published my "Do or Die Time" series on Pottstown's plight, we looked at all these things -- education, codes, crime -- and while helpful, I have come to realize it was missing a crucial element.

That realization came from a reader who pointed out that we had not addressed the issue of jobs.

And the more we look at this, the more evident it becomes that good jobs, that pay a living wage, solve so many of these problems without any other need for programs, or ordinances or incentives.

After all, the name of the study is the "mis-match" between housing and jobs, which means the jobs ain't here but the low-income housing is.

More middle class wealth, means more support for local business, means more people who can pay their taxes, means more people who can buy homes here, who can be invested in this community and its schools and it means less crime.

Jobs and local investment means less low-income housing not because we've forced it out with some ordinance, but because the market has made Pottstown more attractive and the value of our homes has gone up.

In other words, having recognized the problems that concentrations of poverty bring, Pottstown should succeed not because we've forced the poor out, but because we've lifted them up and helped make them part of a healthier middle class community.

Jobs can do so much of that work and are probably ultimately more within our power to affect than convincing the state and county to pay us to house and educate their poor.

Recognizing the importance of jobs, watching borough council wrestle Monday night with the very real dilemma of taking a chance on a company, an unknown, versus losing tax revenue, a known, shows the difficulty of the choices we face.

So how to we attract jobs to Pottstown?
Giving tax breaks to a business has always been a risky affair and we are right to be cautious.

But consider the alternative.

Letting that deal collapse will very likely be the trigger that forces 84 Lumber into challenging its assessment.

If I owned that property, it's what I would do.

Then we will lose almost the same amount of revenue we lose through the Keystone Opportunity Zone deal council approved Monday, but have nothing to show for it but an empty building on a dead-end street.

It's good, I think, that we hashed out these issues in public, so the public knows the challenges with which the borough (and school district) must contend and the difficulties of the choice our leaders face.

If, as a result, council feels it should have more information before agreeing to another such deal on any of the few Keystone Opportunity Zone parcels that remain, then the time to work out those requirements is now, not three months into the process.

Let's remember there are other KOZ parcels in Pottstown that did work -- those on the former Mrs. Smith's Pies site on the north side of South Street, which are still working and still employing people in Pottstown.

Not only did the KOZ tool KEEP an EXISTING  business, and its jobs, here in town, but they worked out payment in lieu of tax arrangements with some similarities to those undertaken for Heritage Coach Co.

So let's mark this discussion as a point of progress on a difficult road toward attracting more jobs to Pottstown.

We need to recognize that almost anything that results in more jobs in this community is ultimately a plus, because of how many areas of life a living wage touches.

We should ask ourselves, why should we ask a business to take a chance on Pottstown if we are not willing to take a chance on them?

Will the workers at Heritage Coach and its tenants live in Pottstown? Maybe.

Should we require them to live in Pottstown? Probably not.

I put it to you that it be better to make Pottstown a place they WANT to live.

* * *

For those of you just finding this, here are links to the previous four posts:

  1. Saturday, March 9
  2. Sunday, March 10,
  3. Monday, March 11
  4. Tuesday, March 12


  1. We all talk about jobs. We have a gold mine in Pottstown that could be slipping through our fingers. I am referring to the vocational and tech ed departments in the Pottstown school district. I work for a local machine shop, and getting skilled workers is a challenge. Also, I don't know about others, but plumbers, electricians and carpenters don't come cheap, and they are worth what they charge. I also fault the district in this. Every where I go, schools brag about their high college placement rates. I then read about the college graduates who can't find jobs in their fields to pay for the student loans they took out to get this education. Where I am going with all this is the only reason to live in Pottstown is to go to school in Pottstown. You don't need to live here to work or shop here. When my dad passed away, we sold his house to settle his estate. I ws thinking about moving to North Coventry wher he lived, but I knew I would have a hard time selling my house in Pottstown. I was told this by 3 real estate agents. The North Coventry house sold specifically because the buyers did not want to send their kids to Pottstown. Bottom lie, improve the schools improve the town.

    1. Mike,
      Thanks for commenting.
      Given the added burdens brought by low-income housing and the diminished revenue from the diminished tax base that housing helps drive, what's your best suggestion for improving them?

  2. As you know, this has been happening over a long period of time. Our town zoning laws need to be more favorable to the homeowner and business. last year i received a codes violation for peeling paint on my shutters, but a neighbor has 4 dogs, falling down gutters, etc. and nothing is done. Our company wants to expand, but the zoning has been revised, and we can't. So we are thinking of moving. We changed the High Street traffic pattern to be more pedestrian friendly. Trees were planted to improve town living. How is that working for us? It was thought that Rt 422 would bring more middle income commuters to town. They seem to live anywhere but Pottstown. I want to move out of town because in my neighborhood it's like living in a dog pound. I still go back to the schools. People need to say" I want my kids to go to Pottstown for a quality education so that's where I'm living". A comment was made Monday night at the council meeting. When the discussion was on the KOP zone and giving a new business a tax break, someone said, what about the current businesses, do they get a break? Good point. And now I read about our crime stastics, where does it stop? We need uniform enforcement of our current laws, a revised tax code, and the best schools we can have.

    1. Mike,
      I'm not disputing any of that.
      But I don't think changing who gets code violations creates the quality education you've mentioned.

      I'm not seeing a specific suggestion for creating that quality education under the current conditions.

      You're giving me "what" we should do, not "how."

      What would a "revised tax code" look like?
      Is it legal?
      How would it make the "best schools we can have?"

      Seriously, I'm not being snarky. Any suggestions is welcome.

  3. i'm sorry Evan, I guess I can't. Some opinions are best kept to myself.

    1. Mike,

      I'm not trying to stifle your opinion, just trying to steer the conversation toward a productive result that move us forward.

  4. I understand Evan. I'm just frustrated.