At a time when Montgomery County residents are being evicted from their home at a rate of 22 per day, Health Spark Foundation CEO Emma Hertz wondered aloud:
“How did we get here?”
On Monday morning at Bryn Mawr College, over 200 advocates, elected officials, and non-profit professionals gathered for a convening hosted by the Health Spark Foundation called “Meeting the Moment: Taking Action on Affordable Housing & Homelessness in Montgomery County.”
Before participants could engage on strategy and potential solutions, Hertz and other speakers (including all three county commissioners and Kayleigh Silver, an administrator for the county’s Housing & Community Development) laid out sobering figures:
Montco has the third highest rate of evictions in Pennsylvania.
74,000 residents live above the poverty line but struggle to afford housing (not eligible for most public benefits).
Racial disparities in housing: 60% of the unhoused population is Black, while the total Black population is 20% in the county.
20% of homeowners are cost-burdened (spending more than 30% of their gross income on housing).
Highlighting both the need and tremendous work of staff, Commissioner Neil Makhija pointed out that over the course of 10 years, Your Way Home helped 8,000 people out of homelessness.
The pandemic-era Emergency Rent & Utility Program disbursed $115 million in Montco, staving off evictions from 2020-23.
During her remarks, Commissioner Jamila Winder noted how her family benefited from the opportunities of moving to East Norriton when she was younger, while acknowledging that attaining similar footing today for new families is difficult. Speaking about housing priorities for her first full term in office, Winder pledged: “I promise, this is on the top of my list.”
Commissioner Tom DiBello, the lone Republican on the board, spoke about working collaboratively and collectively to “get stuff done.”
For that to happen, policymakers at the local and state levels will need to convince a sometimes vocal minority that boosting housing opportunities for all income levels is in their best interest, too. Mark Boorse, director of program development at Access Services, touched upon the NIMBY mentality and competing narratives during his panel remarks.
One group says we need to help ‘these people’, while the other group asks what we are doing about ‘these people’, Boorse said. Speaking of tent encampments, he added that there is something wrong with a social contract that says, “You need to hide,” and if we find you, we will tell you that you can’t be here.
Quoting from the poet Jacqueline Jiang during her opening remarks, Hertz said, “We decide who we love and how we show it.”
Emma Hertz, CEO of Health Spark Foundation.
Budgets are sometimes called moral documents. While the commissioners’ spending plan for 2024 has already been approved, they received a round of applause for allocating $5 million in general fund dollars for homelessness and food insecurity initiatives back in December.
In a related development, Chair and Vice Chair Winder and Makhija formed 12 advisory committees on various policy initiatives. Dubbed Moving Montco Forward, affordable housing & homelessness is one of those committees (chaired by Hertz and Kim Krauter). Mike Hays of Montco 30% is a member. Reports highlighting recommended actions are due to the commissioners by late February.