Bethlehem City Council voted to hire the consulting group Michael Baker International to address the housing shortage and increasing homeless population locally.
Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith said the housing shortage in Bethlehem is a crisis.
“I would categorize the current situation as not only a housing shortage, but as a true housing crisis because we have people that cannot afford housing,” Crampsie Smith said. “We also have a good number of people who are paying well over 30 percent of their income for housing, which leads them to be cost burdened. So, I think we’re in a real crisis state.”
Councilwoman Wandalyn Enix said she knows many people who are struggling to buy homes due to this housing shortage.
She said one of these individuals is an elderly woman who is currently living in a friend’s basement until her application for a federally funded housing program is seen. Enix said it could be two years until this woman’s application is addressed.
“This is a woman who has worked all of her life,” Enix said. “All she wants is a reasonable apartment, but unfortunately this could take at least 24 months, and in the meantime she is living in somebody’s basement. This just should not be happening.”
Enix said the Lehigh Valley needs anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 new homes so people can either work here or live here, according to a study.
Crampsie Smith expressed concerns about city council’s decision to to hire a consulting group to address these problems.
She said consultants cost a lot of money, and she has dealt with issues regarding consultants in the past.
“Isn’t it better to put that money to direct service rather than consultants?” Crampsie Smith said. “If we have other options, we might ask other experts in the area who can advise us on the best practices as far as a proposal.”
Michael Baker International does various types of consulting. According to their website, the firm’s practices include infrastructure, such as bridges and highways, as well as planning and environmental services.
Crampsie Smith said she thinks this variety could be an issue for the goal that the city council is trying to achieve.
“When I looked at the website, I saw that they do a lot of consulting,” she said. “I think we’re better off with a consulting firm that totally specializes in homelessness and housing because that’s their specialty and they’re going to know what the best practices are.”
Crampsie Smith said an effective strategy to address the housing shortage and homelessness crisis could be through the continuation of city council’s Housing Task Force, which was established last year.
Smith and Enix both said it is important to establish a permanent homeless shelter in the area.
During a recent city council meeting, Enix spoke of individuals and families she knew who had no place to stay during the winter months due to only being able to stay at the homeless shelter for three months.
Ashley Sciora, Lehigh’s assistant director of programming and outreach at the Center for Community Engagement, said there are many ways people can help address these issues.
“The huge thing that I would always recommend is advocacy,” Sciora said. “We all have voices that we can use in the local state and federal government in order to help promote different resources and solutions to address homeless populations.”
Sciora said another way to help is by working with local shelters, which she said are always in need of supplies.
Although the housing crisis is a significant problem nationally and in the Bethlehem area, Crampsie Smith said she is hopeful for the future.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but I’m very optimistic because everybody on the council is prioritizing affordable housing,” Crampsie Smith said. “I think we’re going to start seeing some changes but it is a process that can’t be done overnight.”