South Side Housing Struggles: Mold, Absentee Landlords, and Lack of Contractors

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Rain and severe weather have a significant impact on the South Side’s aging housing stock, according to Anna Smith, the Director of the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem (CADCB) and Emily Folenta, Senior Planner of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley. This issue coupled with absentee landlords failing to respond and fix the homes in a timely manner has a harmful impact on South Side residents’ quality of life. During periods of heavy rainfall, it is very common for the CADCB to hear South Side residents talk about major leaks and issues they face in the homes that they rent. In some cases, the leaks have led to both ceiling collapses and serious mold issues.

In general, 70% of the South Side housing stock was built before 1970 and 43% was constructed before 1940 (CADCB). Having an older housing stock makes it more expensive for homeowners to fix these problems when they arise, especially lower-income homeowners that may lack the funds to maintain their properties. Often, absentee landlords do not want to invest in property as making the necessary improvements would decrease their revenue.

Overall, 48.3% of the South Side housing stock is renter-occupied, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2013-2017). The responsibility of repairing homes rests on the landlords and homeowners. Many renters end up having to live in homes with major leaks and severe mold issues for long periods of time as they wait for their absentee landlords to fix these problems. The landlords that fail to maintain their properties efficiently and effectively are not taking responsibility for how these issues harm the renters’ quality of life or how mold can pose significant health risks. In addition, Anna Smith states that “the shortage of contractors in the Lehigh Valley makes it difficult for responsible landlords to fix these problems in a timely manner.” In the past year, CADCB has worked to expand its Start Your Business classes to include “contractor business support.” The CADCB gears the Start Your Business classes towards community entrepreneurs that want to start a business in south Bethlehem. The program is 16 weeks long and teaches entrepreneurs business skills, connects them to other business owners, provides one-on-one assistance, and helps them with budgeting and planning. The CADCB’s new addition of “contractor business support” aims to assist contractors who are prospective business owners to start their own businesses. The aim of this is to increase the supply of contractors in the Lehigh Valley and particularly in Bethlehem.

Graph of the age of the South Side’s housing stock. Created by Ally Kornberger using Tableau.

From a psychological perspective, housing is a major component of quality of life. In American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, housing is a basic human need that we must satisfy in order to satisfy our other needs. Maslow’s hierarchy contains five tiers that focus on humans’ basic needs, psychological needs, and self-fulfillment needs. If people in the south Bethlehem community cannot afford housing or live in inadequate housing conditions, then they cannot fulfill other basic needs, including proper clothing and nutritious food.

Looking at the demographic and economic landscapes of the South Side helps us to understand how the South Side’s aging housing stock is vulnerable to severe weather events. The city of Bethlehem’s poverty rate is 17.9% and the median income is $53,504, which is lower than the state of Pennsylvania’s median income, according to the American Community Survey. Thirty percent of south Bethlehem residents live below the poverty level (that number increases to 38% for children and youth under 18). In Pennsylvania, the percentage is 12.5% and in Northampton County, that percentage is 10.2%. All census tracts in south Bethlehem are considered by the U.S. Census Bureau as “poverty areas,” the Census defines as “census tracts or block numbering areas where at least 20 percent of residents are below the poverty level.” Those living in poverty on the South Side will not have funds available to fix their rental properties when landlords fail to do so. For South Side homeowners making the median income in Bethlehem, it also may be difficult to come up with funds for maintenance and weatherproofing of homes if they are paying off mortgages.

While the income of Bethlehem residents is lower than the state median, this gap is even greater in south Bethlehem. According to the ACS 5-Year Estimates (2013-2017), the median household income of $53,504 for the City of Bethlehem considerably lags behind that of the state ($59,195) and Northampton County ($66,066). Furthermore, the household median income for south Bethlehem’s five census tracts is only $36,213 (109), $28,200 (110), $23,750 (111), $31,530 (112), and $47,350 (113); the average median income in the five census tracts is $36,175.

The struggle to afford housing is not surprising given that HUD listed the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton Metropolitan Statistical Area in 2019 as $1,129 for a 2-bedroom unit. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition report titled “Out of Reach 2019,” the income needed to afford the FMR for a 2-bedroom unit is $45,160. The hourly wage needed to afford a 2-bedroom apartment at that FMR is $21.71. A head of household would have to work three full-time jobs at minimum wage to afford a 2-bedroom FMR apartment. This measure illustrates the gap between a wage which provides the “minimum level of income required for individuals and families to pay for basic living expenses” and not being able to afford appropriate housing let alone other necessities, including proper clothing and nutritious food.

The impacts of severe weather on the South Side’s housing stock, the failure of landlords to respond to housing issues in a timely manner, and the shortage of contractors in the Lehigh Valley, are collectively placing added strains on the community and creating cost and health burdens. It is important that residents’ are aware of their landlords’ responsibilities. North Penn Legal Service’s Self-Help Handbook for Tenants provides an overview of topics such as fair housing and rental rights. Landlords are responsible for providing a home or apartment that is safe and sanitary. Mold and other home issues present unsafe and unsanitary conditions that landlords must fix in a timely manner. These issues will only continue to intensify in the future if we fail to take action. North Penn Legal Services also provides assistance with landlord-tenant disputes and offers landlord-tenant workshops. Tenants can reach North Penn Legal Services at (610) 317-8757.

As a community, we must think creatively and proactively about how we can solve these challenges to provide our residents with the best quality of life. Some ideas might be for the city to conduct more frequent and stringent inspections on properties, or to create incentive programs for landlords to fix properties, putting improving residents’ quality of life at the forefront of its plan of action.

One comment Add yours
  1. This is an important story, and I’m glad to see it covered in some depth.

    I agree with a number of the assumptions, but unless I missed something, they aren’t really substantiated in the story:

    — ‘Having an older housing stock makes it more expensive for homeowners to fix these problems…’ While the older housing stock may make these problems more likely to occur, I’m not sure they are more expensive to fix — and they are not more expensive for’ especially lower-income homeowners that may lack the funds to maintain their properties.’

    — ‘Often, absentee landlords do not want to invest in property as making the necessary improvements would decrease their revenue…’ This seems obvious — but did you talk to any absentee landlords or their maintenance companies about this, or is it just an assumption?

    — While it may tend to be true that ‘people in the south Bethlehem community cannot afford housing or live in inadequate housing conditions…’, it does not necessarily follow that this means ‘they cannot fulfill other basic needs, including proper clothing and nutritious food.’ (Maybe they put food above rent.)

    — The captions on the graph are not clear or legible, even when enlarged.

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