City & State Pennsylvania: Hidey-ho neighbor: GOP backs Dems’ home improvement bill in bipartisan effort to fight blight

This bipartisan home improvement bill, the Whole-Home Repairs Act, isn’t just for show.

The legislation backed by progressive lawmakers and organizations in Philadelphia has already received support from three Republican state senators: Dan Laughlin of Erie County, Dave Argall of Berks County and Pat Browne of Lehigh County.

State Sen. Nikil Saval launched the beginning of campaign week for the Whole-Home Repairs Act Monday morning at Hawthorne Park in Philadelphia. Joined by U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, City Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson, several state legislators and community activists, Saval stressed the importance of funding home repairs and weatherization in urban and rural areas alike.

“We are here today because hundreds of thousands of people across our commonwealth – our constituents, our neighbors, our loved ones – are living in homes that are unsafe because they cannot afford to make repairs, and this is unacceptable,” Saval said. “The Whole-Home Repairs Act is a bipartisan bill that creates a one-stop-shop for home repairs and weatherization while building out our workforce and adding new, family-sustaining jobs in a growing field.”

The “one-stop-shop” includes three main initiatives:

  • Funding for repairs and energy efficiency renovations in Pennsylvania homes;
  • Support staff to help people access home repair assistance; and
  • Financial support to boost retention in training and pre-apprenticeship programs.

The legislation would allow for homeowners or landlords to apply for up to $50,000 to repair their homes through the Department of Community and Economic Development. Individual homeowners can apply for grants up to that amount and landlords can apply for repayable loans, which come with restrictions on how much they can charge for rent. While there isn’t a set dollar amount for the bill just yet, Saval said he hopes the legislation will generate serious discussions during coming budget negotiations.

“Right now, our state government is deciding on the annual budget. There are billions of dollars in American Rescue Plan funding from the federal government and a projected surplus of more than $6 billion in state revenue. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a historic investment in our communities,” he said.

Laughlin, one of the three Republican cosponsors, said he liked the bill’s comprehensive approach to the issue but the GOP is still wary of where the funding will come from.

“It makes a lot of sense from the standpoint of these urban areas. The blight is just eating away at our cities. It drags everybody’s property values down.” Laughlin told City & State. “I like the (bill’s) concept, but how do you fund this without hurting some other area of the budget? I think if we figure that out then we can start to roll this out.”

At the press conference Monday, advocates from organizations including Philly Thrive, the Energy Coordinating Agency, POWER Interfaith, Make the Road Pennsylvania, Disabled in Action, and the Sunrise Movement all spoke on how the legislation would help their members stay in their homes.

Shawmar Pitts, a member of the environmental justice group Philly Thrive, said the Whole-Home Repairs Act can not only help those unable to afford basic repairs, but also those being targeted with offers from property developers.

“(Developers) will make an offer, but it’ll be a lump sum of cash. ‘We’ll give you $60,000 or $70,000 for your home,’” he said. “If you’re an elderly person or you’re a low-income person, $70,000 sounds like a million dollars to you … it sounds enticing to take that $70,000, but that’s a false sense of hope.”

Rather than sell your crumbling home for an amount that won’t allow you to afford another mortgage, Pitts said, this bill can help low-income families make the investments in their houses to ensure they can stay there and even pass the property onto the next generation.

Based on an existing program in Philadelphia, known as Built to Last, the Whole-Home Repairs Act can fill in the gaps where other housing assistance programs have fallen short.

“It draws on existing programs to fill in the gaps for some of our most vulnerable communities, particularly those who are facing housing challenges,” Gilmore-Richardson told City & State. “This Whole-Home Act model draws on that adaptive modification program so that we are ensuring individuals who are living in a home with a disability can receive repairs for things like ramps, stairlifts, kitchen and bathroom modifications, and all of that is not readily available with our old housing stock in the city.”

Issues of blight and insufficient housing are increasing problems in counties across the commonwealth, which is why this legislation seems to have caught the attention of Republicans in Harrisburg.

“One of my top priorities is fighting blight. While blighted and decaying buildings can be contagious in a neighborhood, repairing them can also create a ripple effect,” Argall said in a statement. “In large cities like Philadelphia or small rural towns like Mahanoy City, this new funding would help breathe new life into our older communities.”

Despite the history of partisan gridlock in the General Assembly, lawmakers are optimistic that the initial bipartisan support, coupled with Saval’s campaign showcasing the bill around the state this week, can help push this through the legislature and to the governor’s desk.

“We recognize that this has to be done block-by-block and house-by-house,” Evans said. “When the senator talks about traveling the state, that means every county and every township. We have to build it from the bottom up, and it only happens when we work together.”