Living in Bethlehem all her life, 27-year-old Amy Brensinger grew with the city as it transformed from Bethlehem Steel to the booming market it is today. She watched her parents struggle with employment, both working for Bethlehem Steel before being laid off. Her mother stayed at home, while her father became the manager of a racquetball club for 13 years until it closed.
When Brensinger was in high school, her mother returned to work as a lunch lady and her father worked as a high school hall monitor. They were poor, but at least they owned their house.
Now, Brensinger relies on her job as a server to pay rent, earning $3.50 an hour—“the most any server gets paid” compared to the minimum wage of $2.83.
“A server—it’s very unpredictable, and I would say that I don’t have job security, either,” she said. “If I were to get injured or something like that, I would just be replaced.”
With improvements in the South Side, Brensinger said the priority has shifted to recruiting wealthier residents, rather than improving affordability for low-income individuals.
The growing markets targeting middle- to upper-class residents threaten the condition of Bethlehem’s low-income population through price increases and gentrification.
“…I think…the potential concern that some folks have expressed is the impact of overall development and changing neighborhoods on prices in an area,” said Anna Smith, director of Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem.
New expensive restaurants and businesses in Bethlehem are not catered toward low-income residents. Luxury apartments stand in sharp contrast with the historic community.
Smith said there are fears among residents of “Who’s this for? This isn’t for me,” and “They’re making more money. Is my landlord going to want to rent to them instead of me?”
Brensinger said Five10 Flats, the newly constructed luxury apartments on Third Street, are “extremely expensive” and unaffordable for many people, not just low-income.
Even renting her house for the past four years, she had to adjust to increases in property taxes in Bethlehem that raised her rent. Brensinger was denied when she first tried to rent because she didn’t claim her tips at her job, so her wages were not recorded.
Though she graduated from Northampton Community College with a degree specializing in insurance, her education didn’t necessarily affect her income. She said a position offered at an insurance company paid $15 an hour with no commission.
“I wouldn’t be able to afford to live at all, but that’s using my degree, and I think eventually in the company, I would work my way up and be able to make money to survive,” Brensinger said.
However, she does think that a degree would be helpful for people in the long-term.
Pamela Lewis, manager of Community Partnerships at New Bethany Ministries, said not everyone wants to go to college or a trade school, but there may be consequences.
“There are going to be people that just work, and they’re not even allowed to do that because they don’t get paid enough…and therefore, they don’t deserve to have a place to live,” she said.
Smith said low-income individuals won’t have the time or energy to go back to school because they’re worried about having enough money to eat or pay rent.
Brensinger knows how it feels to not have enough money — at one point, she couldn’t afford rent, even with a roommate. She was forced to find a third roommate and borrow money from her parents.
Her father returned to employment at Bethlehem Steel, though he is nearing retirement. Both he and Brensinger’s brother work at Lehigh Valley Forge, the only portion of the steel manufacturer still in operation.
“Instead of focusing on the people who have lived here our whole lives and making it more affordable for us to continue living here, (Bethlehem) is focusing on bringing in people with more money to live here,” Brensinger said.