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The number of available affordable housing units in Lebanon County versus the demand for them is a long-term issue that shows no signs of abating anytime soon.

But now, three local nonprofit groups, along with Community Homes of Lebanon County, have plans to help alleviate that situation.

The effort, which is being led by Community Homes, is in the final stages of a $5.1 million plan to begin construction of 23 affordable housing units along East Canal Street between 6th and 7th avenues in North Lebanon Township.

Their plan, it was noted at Thursday’s county commissioners meeting, would lower the three nonprofits’ waiting lists of more than 100 county individuals who want a home of their own, according to Charles Rush, chief executive officer of Community Homes.

“These three other nonprofits, Calvary Chapel, Lebanon Rescue Mission and LCCM (Lebanon County Christian Ministries), I asked them the question, ‘Overall, year to year, how many people in your various programs could use housing like this?’” Rush told the commissioners. “And they each responded back to me and are telling me that their need today totals about 105 households a year. So these 23 units are less than 22 percent of their need, and that is just with them and not the community at large.”

The commissioners voted to approve, after lengthy discussion concerning costs, Rush’s request for a $500,000 no-interest loan via Act 137 funding to help cover some of the projected costs.

Act 137, which is also known as The Optional Affordable Housing Funds Act, allows counties to raise additional revenues to be used for affordable housing needs by increasing the fees charged for the recording of deeds and mortgages.

Commissioners William Ames and chairman Robert Phillips, while stating overwhelming support for the project, also expressed their concerns about the average cost for the nine two-bedroom and 14 one-bedroom units. The average cost is projected to be $222,000 per unit, according to Rush, which is about $100,000 more per unit than what affordable housing typically costs in Lebanon County.

Phillips said the overall cost of the project and individual price per unit gave him “sticker shock.”

“It gave all of us sticker shock,” Rush said, in answering the two commissioners’ cost concerns. “When we did an initial pro forma earlier this year and then updated it in July, we saw, for example, overall for the entire project, a 20-percent increase in construction materials that was a little bit over $600,000 in increased costs. … When we did the two units up on Maple Street, because we owned the land and the utilities, we did it for about $122,000 per dwelling but this is a little over $222,000 per unit. The difference is raw land, no utilities and the volatility of construction costs.”

Rush noted that the difference in the first pro forma conducted earlier in the year and the one completed in July saw the projected costs increase by over $1 million, but he added that “we will do everything we can to drop that per unit cost as this project rolls out.”

Given the high cost to do this project, this will be the first time in Lebanon County that an affordable housing project will be built and occupied through the total use of private funding, according to Rush.

“This is something new with this project that we’ve never done before and that we’ve never been noted for doing and that’s fundraising,” said Rush. “Lots of money used to be available at the state and federal levels and that doesn’t happen anymore, so we’re taking a slightly different approach to this.”

Community Homes, which is serving as project lead and will be owner and manager of the units, will conduct a three-year capital campaign to raise approximately $1.8 million, which will account for 35 percent of the total funding requirement for the project, with another 44 percent of funding being provided through grants from a federal home loan bank based in Pittsburgh totaling $2.25 million, according to Rush.

“This is unique from the standpoint that there is a tremendous amount of private sourcing of the funds to do this,” noted Rush. “It is simply the reality that we don’t have places to go with any credible chances of success at either the federal or state level for funding for this project.”

The handicap-accessible units will also contain front and back porches along with mandated storm water management drainage. Phase one of three for the project is slated to begin in 2022.

In separate but related items, the commissioners took action on several issues pertaining to the construction of the 911 Center in North Cornwall Township. They voted to approve the subdivision and land development improvement and financial security agreement as well as the stormwater management/best management practices operation and maintenance agreement for the center.

In other county business, the commissioners:

  • Approved a request by Children and Youth Services to participate in a statewide child welfare database so that information can be shared with other counties across the commonwealth.
  • Voted to accept two hotel tax grant funding requests in the amount of $10,000 for Jonestown Borough for renovations to the George H. Kaufman Park, and $2,500 for the Lebanon Valley Conservancy to advertise their 10-mile charity run Tower to Town in 2022.
  • Issued a proclamation recognizing the 125th anniversary of the Lebanon chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which was founded locally on Aug. 8, 1896.

The commissioners also issued a proclamation recognizing and thanking Roman Shahay for 17 years of service as the director of The Renovo Center, the county-owned intermediate care facility that provides a home-like environment with 24-hour services to about 25 individuals with severe or profound intellectual disabilities.

In accepting the proclamation, Shahay said the reality of retirement, which begins tomorrow, was “an emotional event” and that he was going to miss his “home away from home.” The commissioners thanked him for his dedicated commitment to the work of the center.

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James Mentzer

James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; and Lancaster...