At least 17 Lancaster city residents on North Plum Street were forced from condemned homes on Aug. 8. “The city condemned the seven odd-numbered houses from 523 to 535 N. Plum St. after inspectors discovered a possible sinkhole at 529 N. Plum St. and related structural issues,” LNP’s Tim Stuhldreher wrote Thursday. And while Jeff Hawkes wrote earlier that “the city was tapping an emergency housing fund managed by Community Action Partnership to place residents in a hotel,” those funds are likely finite, and the displaced residents face daunting questions about their properties and their futures.
While the North Plum Street situation is still unfolding, it has already been harrowing for those who resided in the condemned homes.
Hawkes originally noted that some of the residents — a mix of renters and homeowners — “were evacuated as a precaution and (those homes) may need minimal or no repairs.” But the house at the midpoint of the seven structures was found to have a basement that has dropped 7 inches into a potential sinkhole — a serious issue that warrants a thorough assessment of all adjacent buildings.
Thus, the city’s reaction to this safety issue is the correct one, even as it has plunged the affected residents into a world of uncertainty.
“I’m upset about the whole situation,” one displaced tenant told Hawkes. Another, Jose Colon, came home from a 12-hour work shift on Aug. 8 and was told he had to leave shortly; Colon’s fiancée added that she was “in shock and frustrated.”
And another of the displaced, homeowner Chanon Brinson, told Stuhldreher, “I am homeless. ... We are surfing on someone’s couch.”
Our heart goes out to all of them. These residents are depending upon the kindness of others right now for a place to live. That kindness may be coming from friends, family members or from city officials coordinating with emergency social programs.
“We will make sure they have a place to stay,” Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace said.
We hope it’s not long before the North Plum Street homes can be properly assessed and, if possible, made structurally safe enough for residents to return.
But the bigger issue raised here — one we keep returning to — is the need for more safe and affordable housing, and not just in Lancaster city.
There remains a shortage of affordable housing in Lancaster County. We have plenty of single-family housing developments. What we don’t have is sufficient affordable rental housing. That applies to both the city and to rural parts of the county in the vicinity of large employers.
“Like businesses, roads and utilities, housing for working families who have jobs is an essential part of the infrastructure of a community,” Ray D’Agostino, CEO of the nonprofit Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership, told LNP in 2017. “As real estate professionals in Lancaster County will tell you, our scarcity of housing options is a growing concern.”
And yet we have seen too many projects that would bring affordable housing stymied in recent years. That’s not smart growth. And it’s not the way to attract more industry or desirable employers.
We appreciate the vision of Mayor Sorace on affordable housing, and that she understands the need to be realistic while working toward that goal. When she spoke to the LNP Editorial Board earlier this year about the resentment over high-end housing and commercial development, she called it “another pernicious false choice”: You’re either for economic development, or you’re for affordable housing.
Instead, she said it’s possible to support both, and we agree. One idea — and we hope it’s not just wishful thinking — advocated by some residents is to turn the shuttered UPMC Pinnacle Lancaster hospital into affordable housing. That’s up to UPMC, of course, but “the city has told the Pittsburgh-based health giant it wants input on how the property is marketed, to help ensure a new use or uses that the city and neighbors will be happy with,” Stuhldreher reported in May.
So we’re keeping our fingers crossed on that front.
Hawkes wrote recently about James Cowhey, who is retiring as executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission at the end of the month. More than a decade ago, Cowhey called the affordable housing crisis one of our greatest challenges.
And that challenge remains, he said as he prepares to step down: “There’s been some movement in the production of affordable housing, but it’s still a very tough issue. Affordable units are hard to finance, and sometimes they are opposed. We’re not delivering as many units as we could, although good people are working on that every day. We need to continue.”
We agree. With the recently approved “Places 2040” blueprint, Lancaster County has a plan to create the kinds of housing density it needs to accommodate a growing population while also preserving its unique character and landscapes.
But, as we’ve also noted, “Places 2040” is merely a document — it is not enforceable. Its success requires buy-in from our 60 municipalities.
Our elected local officials hold the key to ensuring that we prioritize more safe and affordable housing in Lancaster city and across the county. We must implore them to make it a reality.