Lehigh received an $850,000 grant from the federal government for the Alley House Program. The prototypes above were developed by the Small Cities Lab for an exhibition in May 2022. (Courtesy of Wes Hiatt)

Alley House Program receives federal grant


Lehigh University received an $850,000 grant from the federal government for its newest initiative, the Alley House Program.

The Alley House Program is a collaborative effort between Lehigh, Community Action Lehigh Valley, the City of Bethlehem and New Bethany, Inc. that seeks to find a practical solution to the current housing crisis in Bethlehem. 

The rental vacancy rate in Bethlehem is approximately 2%, which represents a critical lack of available housing, according to Bethlehem’s City Housing Needs Assessment and Strategic Plan. It states a 6-7% vacancy rate is considered economically healthy. 

Wes Hiatt, a professor of architecture, has overseen the development of this program for the past two years and shaped the project alongside co-director Karen Pooley, a political science professor. 

“Listening with a beginners’ mindset was a very important first step,” Hiatt said. “I had about a year of just listening to people and trying to understand folks on the ground and in the community, asking what are the pressure points in terms of housing, where can this happen, what’s been done before?”

With both the grant of $850,000 and another research-focused grant of $196,722 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Hiatt said those working on the Alley House Program are aiming to build the first pilot house within the next year.

Margaret Mancusi-Ungaro, ‘24, is an architecture student and a part  of the Small Cities Lab. 

The Small Cities Lab, a research-focused interdisciplinary lab that applies the knowledge of Lehigh students and faculty to work on projects in the community, will work with the Alley House Program as one of the program’s first projects.

“What we are proposing is what’s legally called an accessory dwelling unit, which is a secondary housing unit on a lot that has a primary residence,” Mancusi-Ungaro said. “It’s like another house on the same lot that is used as a rental property.”

Mancusi-Ungaro said the program seeks to begin by building one prototype house that will influence the current zoning ordinances in the city to allow for the construction of an additional residence on one plot of land. 

This is one part of the city’s larger plan to solve the housing crisis.

Hiatt said pilot houses will be constructed in an area of West Bethlehem, chosen by the City of Bethlehem for its existing density, the current existence of alley houses and its mixture of incomes.

If the pilot is successful, the program will have room to expand beyond West Bethlehem.

“If we’re thinking about impact, it extends beyond Bethlehem as well,” Hiatt said. “Other cities in the Lehigh Valley are looking to Bethlehem and this program to understand how this housing solution could be implemented where they are.”

Hiatt said units built through the Alley House Program will be available at affordable rates for anyone who meets the income qualifications of the program based on their funding sources. However, units built after the change in zoning regulations may be built privately and rented at market rates. 

“If a community partner like the city has this challenge of affordable housing, they would know that the Small Cities Lab is a place they could bring that particular challenge,” Pooley said.

This project is one of the first of its kind and represents aspects of community collaboration and interdisciplinary studies, coupled with a hands-on approach by all involved, particularly the students. 

Mancusi-Ungaro said there is a lot of work that will go into this project, but the importance of it is exciting and inspirational. 

“It’s so nice to know that when I graduate from this university, I will have made a very tangible impact on someone’s life and I will participate in this thing that is bigger than I am.”

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