Housing, food security get huge boost from Chester County’s pandemic funding – Daily Local
Pictured (left to right) Glenda Brion, CEO and Executive Director of Community Warehouse Project of Chester County meets with County Commissioners Josh Maxwell, Marian Moskowitz and Michelle Kichline at the organization’s headquarters in West Chester. Community Warehouse Project is one of a number of recipients of American Rescue Plan Act funds from the County to address housing and food insecurity. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)
WEST CHESTER — Chester County has a robust economy, and it consistently ranks as one of the wealthiest counties not only in Pennsylvania, but in the nation.
Having such a vibrant local economy has obvious benefits, including an unemployment rate that is lower than the statewide average. But economic success comes with a higher cost of living, and that can lead to challenges in securing food and housing for individuals and families that do not benefit from higher earnings.
It also can make it difficult for employers, particularly small businesses, to find employees who can afford to live locally, limiting their potential for growth.
Chester County government received more than $100 million in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, which was designed to mitigate the impacts of the COVID pandemic. The county has been strategically investing these funds in programs designed to help local residents and businesses, including those that focus on affordable housing and food security.
“The first component of the American Rescue Plan Act was to provide a necessary lifeline to people,” said U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th, of Easttown, who voted for the legislation. “Without securing basic needs — housing and food — the other elements of this program would not function.
“ARPA addressed these basic needs for many in our vibrant community,” she added. “Chester County is a great place to live, but it can be quite expensive – particularly for young adults starting out in life, retiring seniors on a fixed income, and veterans who have served our country. ARPA-funded housing expansions will give residents in our community the opportunity to put down roots (here) and continue to live in Chester County, one of the few counties in Pennsylvania that is growing in population.”
Commenting on the priorities for ARPA funding, county commissioners Chairwoman Marian Moskowitz said: “We looked at a wide range of needs across the county to determine how best to allocate our ARPA funds. One area where we consistently received feedback that help was needed was in the realm of affordable housing, so part of our investment strategy with these funds was to ensure that more homes were attainable to those who want to live here.”
Added Commissioner Josh Maxwell: “Food insecurity was another focus for ARPA funding. With inflation, supply chain issues and an increase in unemployment that arose during the pandemic, people were having an even harder time putting food on the table. We wanted to ensure that a portion of these critically important federal funds would help everyone in the county have enough to eat.”
“Housing and food challenges are interrelated, and as we started to recover from the pandemic, we wanted to make sure we were addressing both of these issues as robustly and holistically as we could,” added Commissioner Michelle Kichline. “We also wanted to set our residents up for long-term success, so we made sure to invest in programs that would enable them to get family-sustaining jobs as well.”
The median home sale price in the county is $420,000 — the highest it has ever been, according to statistics. The county’s household median income is $104,000. “When you compare Chester County to the region, it’s alarming how much more expensive it is here for housing,” said Pat Bokovitz, director of the county’s Department of Human Services. “Making affordable housing successful is important — making sure it’s a success both for the community and the family living there is really important.”
One housing project that will be supported by ARPA funding is Willows of Valley Run, located in Caln. The development broke ground in October 2022 and will open with 60 general occupant units. When finished, Willows will have another 60 for a total of 120 affordable housing units.
“Willows is pretty unique,” said Bokovitz. “It is in a great location that is convenient to public transportation, and it is accessible to employment, healthcare, really any type of service, whether they are a senior or family with children. It’s right there, on the bus route and close to Coatesville and Thorndale. There is synergy and thoughtfulness in how the investments in affordable housing, made by the county and the commissioners, connect to other support services. It is important to integrate this into any affordable housing plan.”
In addition to Willows at Valley Run, there are several other large-scale affordable housing projects backed by the county underway, according to Dolores Colligan, director of the county’s Department of Community Development. “To date, we have 111 completed units, 206 approved units in active development, and 105 units pending for a grand total of 422 affordable housing units in the pipeline for Chester County,” she said.
As well as investing in the creation of new affordable housing, the DCD received federal and state funding to administer the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The program helps renters who have fallen behind with rent and utility payments due to the pandemic remain in their homes. Since January 2021, more than 3,000 households have received relief through ERAP, and the county continues to accept applications for households that have a court-ordered eviction notice, utility shut-off notices, or who need security deposits to avoid homelessness because of eviction. (Renters can call 2-1-1 and then use the prompts 2, 2, 2 to get more information on this program.)
To supplement the projects directly funded by the county, the commissioners have also directed ARPA funds to nonprofit organizations working on housing security to ensure that no one is left behind. Habitat for Humanity of Chester County is one of the organizations that received ARPA funding.
“We have several programs focused on providing affordable housing,” said Chris Wiseman, the organization’s executive director. “The first is, we build new affordable homes, with a focus on folks who are at 70 percent or lower of the of the median income of the county. We’re also the mortgage holder on these homes, so we provide a 30-year mortgage at zero percent interest, which is how we can provide new homes at an affordable rate.”
“To date, we’ve built approximately 175 new homes,” Wiseman added. “A few years ago, we were only building two or three new homes per year, but we’ve been able to expand our capacity to the point where we should be able to build roughly 15 per year going forward.
“We also have a program called Critical Home Repair that assesses the needs of current homeowners and makes repairs to ensure that they can remain in their homes safely. What the ARPA funds will do is dramatically and almost instantly increase our capacity to do more of those critical repairs. And we’re doing them in a location where they are greatly needed in the city of Coatesville,” he said. “We’ve been able to hire staff to ramp up our repair efforts, and as a result of this funding, we believe we should be able to do five to 10 repair projects per month just in Coatesville, in addition to another five to 10 per month countywide.”
Good Samaritan Services compassionately responds to people experiencing poverty and homelessness across five different locations in Chester and Lancaster counties by offering emergency housing, transitional housing, affordable housing, and supportive housing programs. The organization serves between 250 and 300 people every day who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.
ARPA funding also helped Good Samaritan Services expand into Kennett Square, where they are the only organization providing these kinds of services. In 2022, they were given a building that had been a men’s shelter for years, but the building needed a lot of work. Good Samaritan’s portion of the ARPA funds is going to the major renovations that were necessary. It expects to serve between 50 and 75 men a year at that facility, and believe that more than 80 percent of the people it serves will be able to move into independent housing at some point.
“The ARPA grant is really great, it’s a real blessing to us, helping us expand into Kennett Square,” said Nate Hoffer, CEO of the agency. “We truly appreciate our long-standing partnership with the county. Since our inception back in 2002, the county has been very supportive, and this is just the latest instance of helping us expand our services. We’re very, very grateful that they believe in the work that we’re doing.”
It is also using ARPA funds to expand its counseling programs. An in-house counselor now sees participants at the Kennett Square facility, helping them address mental health concerns. “Of the 50 to 75 men that we will serve there every year, we expect that at least half will access the counseling service for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that they might be dealing with,” added Hoffer.
The Chester County Food Bank (CCFB) combats food insecurity in the county through a variety of programs that work to ensure that everyone has access to nutritious food. The Food Bank grows its own food, works with local farmers to procure fresh fruit, vegetables and even honey, and distributes donated food and food it purchases with cash donations.
One program that has benefited from the pandemic funding is the Food Bank’s FreshRXprogram, in which staff works with medical providers across the county who prepare prescriptions for fruits and vegetables, predominantly for individuals who have diabetes or heart disease, that they can redeem via a pre-loaded card. “We have outcomes that show the positive impact of the program of improving the health and well-being of our participants. We are working with our healthcare providers to try to show the true impact of this work in hopes there may be funding to expand the reach and scope,” said Andrea Youndt, the food bank’s leader.
Inflation, particularly with regard to food, has been a major issue throughout the pandemic, and a portion of the ARPA funds will go towards “helping the food bank continue to ensure that the community will have not only what they rely upon in terms of eggs and dairy and protein, but also culturally familiar food, which is very important to all of us,” added Youndt.
The organization is also using funds to create more awareness and a better understanding of why food insecurity is a concern in the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania. The ARPA funding will help form a county Food Alliance that brings together all the key stakeholders in the county to address the root causes of food insecurity. ARPA funding allowed the food bank to hire its first-ever Advocacy and Government Relations Manager dedicated specifically to this work.
“It really comes down to equity,” said Youndt. “Everyone should have the ability to access healthy food and have the choice of what they want to eat. The ARPA funding will continue to allow us to bring to light to the key issues and help us engage the community with the hope that the community will then continue to support (us.)”