Faced with an incredible need and ever-shrinking funds, a Lebanon nonprofit is trying a new approach to building housing for those with disabilities.
Community Homes, which has been in Lebanon for over 50 years and owns properties like Poplar Terrace and Maple Terrace, is building two one-story wheel-chair accessible homes on Maple Street.
Executive Director Charles Rush said the need for accessible housing is dire.
“One of the most underserved segments of the larger community is persons with disabilities seeking housing,” Rush said. “It would take 50 years to close the current waiting list we have.”
The demand for housing is compounded by a decline in readily available funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, Rush said.
The project on Maple Street could turn into a model Community Homes uses in the future, Rush said: If all goes well, it could be the impetus for a 23-unit project on Canal Street in North Lebanon Township.
No funding, but great need
When Community Homes started in the 1970s, HUD would cover almost 100 percent of appropriate affordable housing projects, Rush said.
Section 8 subsidies would then help drive the rent down, meaning the housing was more affordable to build and to rent. Nowadays, Rush said it is virtually impossible for Community Homes to get funding at the federal level, and a long-shot at the state level.
“We can’t go to Uncle HUD or the PHFA,” Rush said, referring to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. “The funds just aren’t there.”
At the same time funding is harder to come by, the need for accessible housing is not matching the availability, Rush said. According to a 2014 report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, only 26 percent of all assisted rental units have three or more accessbility features, like extra-wide doors and hallways or no-step entryways.
Of the 285 units Community Homes manages, only 16 are designed for those with phsyical disabilities, Rush said. The average stay for the accessible apartments in Poplar Terrace is 10.5 years, so the units don’t turnover quickly.
Bob Hoffman, the project’s architect, said the focus on accessibility has increased in recent years.
“I don’t think that there are probably anymore people that have accessbility issues today, I think that’s always been the case,” Hoffman said. “But I think today we are just much more aware of that .. it just goes to the fact that society really wants to make things equal when it comes to people with disabilities.”
The units will have features like a roll-in shower, a front-loading washer and dryer, and accessible kitchen appliances, Hoffman said.
Project planned for Canal Street
The goal is to use the two units as a pilot project for a 23-unit proposed project on Canal Street in North Lebanon Township.
The $225,000 needed for the two units on Maple Street is coming directly out of Community Homes’ budget, Rush said. They are calling the units “proof of concept” homes, because they think the project will prove they can build housing that is inexpensive, accessible and sustainable.
Community Homes’ board chairman Glenn Wenger said the homes would be built in a neighborhood style in three phases over several years.
The units will have green space between them designed to reduce stormwater runoff, Rush said, and will be a mix of one-and two-bedroom units.
“We’re looking for a way to expand a number of units available in a cost-effect manner to provide affordable housing for elderly and people with disabilities,” Wenger said. “We think we have a plan that will work.”
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