Patch up Pennsylvania's housing and house the homeless

We must invest in proven programs to reduce homelessness and blight, argue state senators SHIRLEY KITCHEN and ELDER VOGEL

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As Pennsylvania’s economy struggles to rebound and political divisions make compromise a rarity, it’s important that elected officials prioritize policies that are both effective and bipartisan.

We — a Democrat from North Philadelphia and a Republican from rural Beaver County — believe that expanding Pennsylvania’s State Housing Trust Fund is the perfect opportunity to do so.

Since 2012, the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund has leveraged a total investment of $17 million to help complete roughly 1,700 rehab projects, restorations of blighted properties, new developments and home repairs as well as provide rental assistance, closing costs and more.

Every dollar revolves around local needs and priorities. And it’s all geared toward reducing homelessness, removing blight, creating jobs and revitalizing communities by investing in Pennsylvania’s urgent need for more affordable housing.

But because that investment stems from the commonwealth’s Marcellus Shale impact fee, it’s also only active in the 37 Pennsylvania counties with natural-gas wells. Even in counties where it’s working, like Beaver, so much more is yet to be accomplished.

That’s why we and 17 of our colleagues are sponsoring legislation to expand the State Housing Trust Fund to all communities throughout the state.

Our measure, Senate Bill 1380, wouldn’t create new fees or raise taxes. Rather, it would dedicate up to $25 million of future increases in revenue generated by the realty transfer tax — a tax on real estate transactions — to the state Housing Trust Fund.

In other words, as Pennsylvania’s housing market continues to recover, only transfer-tax revenue above the 2014-2015 budget projection would be dedicated to the trust fund. The increased revenue would be split with the state, with the trust fund amount capped at $25 million a year.

We recognize that this is still a very challenging economic time for families and the commonwealth. It is imperative that we seek fiscally responsible solutions.

Currently, none of the revenue generated by the realty transfer tax is actually re-invested in the housing market. SB 1380 provides an opportunity to change that by upping our investment in a proven, successful program — and one that can have a positive impact in urban, suburban and rural communities in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

The beauty of the trust fund is that it allows local leaders to prioritize initiatives that matter most in their communities, whether that is preventing homelessness, fighting blight or helping homeowners — and to do so in a fiscally responsible way.

By fueling rehab projects, repairs that make existing structures more accessible and blight reduction, the State Housing Trust Fund helps vulnerable residents keep a roof over their heads. That’s much less expensive than allowing them to slip into homelessness or ultimately forcing them into dependence on nursing homes, emergency shelters and prisons.

At the same time, investing in Pennsylvania’s housing market has the power to spur tens of millions of dollars in economic activity, create hundreds of jobs and add millions of dollars to local and state coffers each year, all while increasing the supply of homes within the reach of Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens.

Every $1 million invested in our state’s housing market spurs 20 new jobs and generates as much as $2.3 million in economic activity. Every dollar invested in rehabbing multifamily units, for example, spins off an estimated $2.28. That’s a great return on investment for taxpayers and local communities alike.

We recognize that homelessness and blight are complex issues that demand multi-faceted solutions. The State Housing Trust Fund is a proven one.

Expanding the fund could work in concert with other policies — including the expansion of the Neighborhood Assistance Program and the establishment of a $10 million affordable housing tax credit — to comprise a comprehensive set of demonstrably successful policies to combat homelessness, reduce blight and encourage homeownership.

In fact, state Rep. Tom Killion, R-Delaware County, and 47 co-sponsors from both sides of the political aisle and all corners of the commonwealth have introduced legislation to do just that: House Bill 2241.

Both proposals build on the success of existing programs and generate bipartisan support. Both would increase the resources available to a range of partners — state government, corporations, developers and local communities — seeking to invest in Pennsylvania’s housing market.

Together, they represent a proven strategy for reducing homelessness and blight while also generating substantial economic activity.

State Sen. Shirley Kitchen is a Democrat whose district is in the Philadelphia area. State Sen. Elder Vogel is a Republican representing Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties.

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