Fight blight with Whole Home Repairs

Among Pennsylvania’s many distinctions, the commonwealth has one of the nation’s oldest housing stocks — half of all homes in the state were built before 1959. These old buildings are brimming with architectural character, but redbrick rowhomes and majestic Victorians require lots of maintenance and can be difficult to retrofit to modern sustainable standards. Some residences have dangerous amounts of mold or leadwhich can cause health issues for occupants.

The high cost of updating these homes can cause displacement, demolition, and blight, which destabilizes families and can lead to a broader set of issues in neighborhoods. According to a recent poll of Pennsylvania voters from Data for Progress, a third of respondents said they could not afford their energy bills, and half said they would struggle to afford a critical repair. A quarter have outstanding critical repairs because they can’t pay for them.

In response, State Sen. Nikil Saval has assembled a bipartisan coalition behind a new initiative called Whole Home Repairs, at tackling these problems.

The goal is to have the state government absorb some of the cost of home maintenance, a move that would help residents avoid displacement, reduce their energy costs, and stabilize communities in danger from falling into blight and abandonment.

The bill would offer home repair grants of up to $50,000, create resources to ease access to assistance programs, and invest in workforce development to ensure an adequate supply of laborers who know how to work on these distinctive and occasionally temperamental buildings.

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Unlike Basic Systems Repair, a similar city program, these grants would extend beyond homeowners and help renters as well. Some landlords would also be eligible for home repair grants, provided they did not raise rents significantly after accepting the funds. This provision not only will help renters access safer and healthier housing, it will also help protect the state’s stock of existing affordable rental housing, something that is increasing difficult to obtain because of growing demand and lack of supply.

Reducing energy costs, another aim of the bill, is an especially important priority for Philadelphia, a city that ranks fourth for energy burdens to low-income households. While there are existing programs like the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program and the Philadelphia Gas Works’ Home Comfort Programsometimes physical defects in the home prevent efficiency upgrades from being done safely.

If a home has mold, a leaking roof, or knob-and-tube electrical wiringit can make weatherization unsafe, keeping occupants from accessing the energy cost reductions that they are otherwise eligible to receive. Saval’s bill would also establish administrative support to help property owners navigate these complex programs.

It is encouraging to see that Saval has assembled a broad and bipartisan coalition in support of the bill. State Sen. David Argall, a conservative Republican who represents rural communities in Berks and Schuylkill County, has signed on to support the bill. Argall, the chair of the statewide Blight Task Force, recently told WHYY that blight is an issue where “it doesn’t matter whether it’s big or small. If the coal mine closed, if the steel mill closed, if the major, important employer left town, that town is going to have some challenges.”

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Argall, who often opposes big spending, may be an unexpected ally of a bill supported by leftist groups like Sunrise Movement Philadelphia and the Philadelphia chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, but he’s not alone. Polling from Data for Progress shows that the bill has wide support among Pennsylvanianseven with rural voters and Republicans.

It’s essential that the Pennsylvania legislature follow through by ratifying Saval’s bill as a part of this year’s budget, and start moving on these necessary improvements to comfort and sustainability.

Inadequate housing affects Pennsylvanians from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and in many rural towns in between. The Whole Homes Repair Act is a step toward keeping everyone safer.