This story is from Young, Unhoused and Unseen, a podcast production from WHYY News and Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting.
Delaware County officials are grappling with a housing crisis marked by a growing number of unhoused people, rising eviction rates and soaring housing prices as they approach a year of concerted efforts to find solutions.
A group of county officials and local stakeholders offered recommendations — which include establishing Delco’s first eviction diversion program, increasing shelter space and encouraging municipalities to reform zoning ordinances that spur affordable housing.
The Delaware County Housing Coalition convened Wednesday night at the county Government Center in Media for a presentation on how to address its worsening housing crisis.
“We wanted to look at how we tackle these three topics and look at collaborations and partnerships, items that we might not have been thinking of, groups we weren’t bringing to the table to really help us expand the resources and Delaware County,” Delco Council Chair Dr. Monica Taylor said to an audience of 30 residents, local officials and outside partners.
The ultimate goal is policy change, so each group came up with three action items for local and county officials to take on.
Delaware County Department of Human Services Director Sandra Garrison delivered the presentation on behalf of the unhoused subgroup, and she said their goal is to have a county where homelessness is rare, brief and nonrecurring.
Garrison said the unhoused sub-group engaged with an outside consultant to assess county services and potential weak points. She provided a few high-level observations.
“The first one was that the need for stable housing and shelter is increasing. I don’t think I need to say that to any of the folks sitting in this room who do this work on a daily basis,” Garrison said. “We all know that we know the need is increasing drastically. We know the resources are shrinking at the same time.”
The assessment also found that the staff and partners who provide services for the unhoused are passionate and dedicated — but they are hampered by being understaffed, overworked and frustrated. The consultant also determined that housing services in Delaware County have not received adequate amounts of funding and staffing.
“When I first came over to human services in 2010, our human services development fund was cut drastically. That funded a lot of the services for the unhoused population. One of the things that has helped us back in 2012 [is] we became a block grant county so we could shift the funding as needed among the various categories so that has been helpful, but we’ve never gotten to that point of the funding we had with the human services development fund,” Garrison said.
After compiling a comprehensive list of objectives and organizing those into about a dozen categories, the group refined their focus for the county into three priorities: enhancing shelter and housing capacity, bolstering outreach and coordinated reentry, and expanding services to its residents.
“We looked at exploring and acquiring buildings that aren’t being used within the county for temporary housing … There’s closed schools, closed hospitals and so forth that we could do more like a non-congregate shelter type program and also transitional housing,” Garrison said.
Garrison said the county is also exploring alternative housing options such as tiny houses, a co-housing program and a recovery house model. With a new land bank in the toolbox, the county is also examining that as an option to increase the low-income housing supply.
The average Delco renter needs to work 1.4 full-time jobs to afford a 2-bedroom apartment
According to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, 20 renter households face an eviction filing in Delaware County. When compared to the rest of the Commonwealth, Delco has the fourth-highest eviction filings. Municipalities such as Glenolden, Upper Darby, Brookhaven and Lansdowne had a higher filing rate in 2023 than the county average.
Commanded by the Foundation for Delaware County’s Housing Opportunities Program for Equity (HOPE), the rental housing working group relied heavily on data in search of solutions for the more than 177,000 residents in rental housing.
Jordan Casey, director of HOPE, said many are at risk of losing their living quarters because the market is becoming “increasingly untenable.”
“The stark reality painted by our county data shows the county has an aging housing stock with 81% of the houses and apartments being built before 1978 and 60% of the county’s housing stock was built before 1960,” Casey said. “An aging housing inventory has greater potential risk associated with various physical hazards within the property.”
Despite the aging inventory, Delco rental costs are higher than ever before.
“In order to afford a two-bedroom unit in Delaware County at what is considered the fair market rate of $1,470, one would need to make an hourly wage of $28.27 or the equivalent of an annual wage of $58,800,” Casey said. “If you are making them minimum wage, which is still a paltry $7.25, you would need to work 3.9 — we can call it four — full-time jobs to afford that rent. Thankfully, the average Delaware County renter makes more than minimum wage at $20.13 an hour. However, even at that wage, one would still need to work 1.4 full-time jobs to afford a two-bedroom unit at fair market prices.”
Casey said renters must often pay far more than fair market rent as landlords charge more than what the unit should command. Now, Delaware County eviction rates have surpassed pre-pandemic levels, according to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.
At the beginning of their search, the rental housing group held discussions about the symptoms of Delco’s rental issues and the systemic barriers preventing change.
The three priorities the group ended up with were eviction diversion, education, and supply.
“Our first and highest rank priority is a creation of an eviction diversion program to be clear. We are not advocating for an eviction moratorium or a halt to all evictions,” Casey said. “We are advocating for evictions to be rare and occur only in the most unavoidable circumstances.
Casey said they want to accomplish this by providing access to legal assistance, mediation services, financial counseling and “social service wraparound” in a phase-based approach.
In regards to education, the subgroup wants to fuel tenant empowerment while also engaging with landlords and municipalities.
“The supply group has prioritized seven key initiatives aimed at augmenting the affordable housing supply listed here in order of priority: model ordinances, funding a countywide housing market study, a county rental registry, a home repair program for landlords, funding to create an affordable renters insurance policy program, a NIMBY to YIMBY campaign and promotion of a transit-oriented development design and application,” Casey said.
Casey called on Delco Council to bring these efforts online.
“We urge council to support policies that not only address the immediate challenges but also ones that lay the foundation for lasting stability for our residents,” Casey said. “As mentioned earlier this means supporting and revisiting and reforming existing housing ordinances, landlord tenant laws and zoning regulations to ensure they reflect the needs of our communities.”
Delco has the second-highest foreclosure rate in Pennsylvania
Philip Welsh, director of the Delaware County Department of Housing and Community Development, led the homeownership work group.
He said the group identified a handful of concerns and potential areas of improvement such as the administration of the state-funded Whole Home Repair Program and the offering of contractor incentives to spur affordable housing development.
Welsh highlighted three initiatives for the county to focus on: homeownership stabilization, increasing supply and expanding opportunities.
He said by creating a mortgage foreclosure diversion program, officials could make an immediate impact. According to Welsh, Delaware County has the second-highest foreclosure rate in Pennsylvania.
“Delaware County saw a year-over-year 8% increase in filings and a 44% increase in foreclosure starts for 2023,” Welsh said.
Like the rental group, Welsh said there is a definitive need for municipality engagement and alternatives to the single-family housing setup that dominates the suburbs. The county has already applied for funds to conduct a housing needs study.
“The completion of that study will provide the data necessary to promote zoning education including alternatives to single-family only construction and allowance of accessory dwelling units,” Welsh said.
Municipal zoning ordinances were at the forefront of much of the discussion Wednesday night. Media Borough Councilmember Joi Washington, who was in attendance, said she would like to apply the lessons to Everybody’s Hometown.
Media recently adopted a hybrid form-based code to change its Euclidean — or traditional — zoning arrangement for residential neighborhoods.
“I think zoning and a legal mandate to reform some of these ordinances is, I think, a very important thing for any municipality to take a look at because like we listened to a really good presentation about housing stock and how it’s aging,” Washington said.
Her biggest takeaways, however, were the sky-high eviction rates and the disparity between the eastern half of the county and the west.
Casey told WHYY News this endeavor is more than reviving “brick and mortar.”
“The ‘why now’ is because we should have done it already. We have this housing crisis that we are in — it’s certainly exacerbated by the pandemic. We know this, but it was here before and it was here before 2008 when that crisis happened. The ‘why now’ is because we’ve seen what these available resources and this influx of housing money can do — with the [American Rescue Plan Act] funds with [Emergency Rental Assistance Program]. We’ve seen the impact that can make. We’ve seen how it can stabilize homes,” Casey said.
Editor’s note: The Foundation for Delaware County provides support for WHYY.
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