Another post from our night spent Couchsurfing in Lancaster, PA with Sheldon and Naomi, and from our conversation with fellow Americorps alum Amy Stewart and Kerry Aszklar! Below is a transcript of our conversation with Amy about the importance of affordable housing in a smaller community, like Lancaster.
Let us know what you think in the comments!
Tell us about the affordable housing project you are currently working on…who runs it, why it started, what some of the goals are etc.
Currently I am working with the Chestnut Housing Corporation (CHC), a small nonprofit affiliated with East Chestnut St. Mennonite Church in Lancaster, PA. Two of the stated purposes of the congregation are “to equip one another to live peaceably and generously” and “to contribute to the well-being of Lancaster City and the wider world”, and so CHC was begun in 2010 by several members of the congregation who wanted to respond to the call for affordable housing in the city.
CHC’s goal from the beginning was to renovate and rent 10 affordable apartments through donations, volunteer labor, and partnership with Tabor Community Services, a Lancaster nonprofit that teaches residents how to solve housing and financial challenges. The most recent project is renovating an old bar with four units above it at 547/549 E. Chestnut St. This property will bring CHC to meet its goal of 10 affordable apartments.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing the Lancaster community right now?
One of the ongoing challenges is that Lancaster County has one of the highest occupancy rates in the country. This makes housing difficult to find, and drives up the price of rent. This is a very complex problem, with ties to questions of zoning laws, construction and development costs, population growth, land use (Lancaster County is renowned for its farmland), government assistance programs, community responsibility, etc. What CHC is doing is important, but is a drop in the bucket compared to what some have termed a “crisis”.
What is something about affordable housing you wish more people knew?
I simply wish more people knew that affordable housing is a growing issue. That’s the first step in addressing it. For those of us not struggling, it’s really easy to assume everyone else is similarly situated, but that is not the case. According to the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership (LHOP), “72% of Lancaster County households spend 45% of their income on rent and transportation, making it difficult to afford food, medical care and other living essentials”. And it’s not only Lancaster that lacks affordable housing; look, and you’ll find shortages everywhere.
Secondarily, I’d mention that there are lots of nonprofits, governments, and coalitions out there partnering up to confront housing challenges. To name a few locally, we have LHOP, the Lancaster County Coalition to End Homelessness, Tabor Community Services, and the city and county governments. Nationally, there are organizations like United Way and Habitat for Humanity, and there is the National Alliance to End Homelessness with its “Housing First” plan. Effectively responding to the need is going to take a lot of work and a lot of leadership.
How do you think affordable housing can build community?
To take it back a step, the primary question historically has been: do we believe we are a community? If so, what does that look like and are we willing to work for it? I believe that providing affordable housing doesn’t just build community, but is more fundamentally part of what it means to be a community. Affordable housing works to ensure security, stability, and equity. Through fostering health and well-being, making opportunities more accessible, and nurturing self-reliance and education, affordable housing helps provide a piece of a solid foundation from which individuals can reach their full potential and in turn give back to their community.
This article is most recent. Evicted by Matthew Desmond is a worthwhile book about housing security.
2015 article on housing in Lancaster County.
2012 article on housing in Lancaster County.
A publication of LHOP. See page 3 for mention of the Chestnut Housing Corporation. See page 4 for 72% statistic.
What are some of your goals for the future?
My dream is to create a structured direct service organization for adults that would be long-term, full-time, team-based, and residential. I envision working primarily through existing nonprofits focusing on concrete issues such as food access, affordable housing, sustainability, education, and community-building. To this end, I am developing my network and pursuing further education in the realm of public service. I would welcome thoughts and feedback on this lofty aim!
Anything else you’d like to add about Lancaster, yourself, affordable housing, etc. we didn’t ask but you want us to know!
I’d like to add that I graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis, as it has a dear place in my heart. It is a small liberal arts college where we study a prescribed program of classics through reading and discussion. There is also ample opportunity to be involved in extracurricular activities. I would not be who I am or where I am today without the intellectual freedom, invigorating discussions, well-rounded exploration of what it means to be human, and the extracurricular leadership opportunities I experienced at St. John’s.
I most recently spent two years serving in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC, pronounced “N-triple-C”). Based on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and the U.S. military, the mission of NCCC is to strengthen communities and develop leaders through direct, team-based national and community service. Designed for those ages 18-24, members are assigned to one of five campuses across the nation, each responsible for a multi-state area, and then complete a series of months-long projects in partnership with various nonprofits or government organizations. It was a humbling experience to serve in five states in our nation, and I would not trade this experience for anything.