Montco Commissioners Give-and-Take with Pottstown Residents

This past Monday night Montgomery County Commissioners and the higher-ups in several County agencies were on hand at Montgomery County Community College in Pottstown to talk about what they’ve done since taking office and to answer questions and hear residents’ concerns.

Evan Brandt’s article in yesterday’s Mercury provides a nice summary. Public employee pensions, the state of Route 422, the potential for gerrymandering, the ongoing challenges of revitalization, the concentration of social services and the people they serve, and the effects of the concentration of housing vouchers in Pottstown were all up for discussion. The Commissioners were well-prepared and promised to provide follow-up information to numerous citizens.

One of the brightest moments of the meeting came when Shanae Roberts, the President of the West Campus student body announced the figures for the amount of community service provided by the College over the past four years. It was encouraging to see a young person at the meeting, participating in the give-and-take of democracy! Ms. Roberts reported the following:

Between 2008-2012, MCCC has reached out to the community with 3,695 volunteers putting in more than 33,700 hours with 117 partnering opportunities. This amounted to over $100,529 in monetary donations. In 2012 the College had the highest number of volunteers to date with over 918 volunteers contributing 15,500 hours of service to 28 partner organizations, including the Norristown Police Athletic League, Olivet Boys and Girls Club, Miller Keystone & American Red Cross Blood Drives, and Project Linues. An estimated $38,300 in monetary donations was raised.

Not only is the West Campus proving to be an important revitalization partner as it rehabilitates and re-uses historic buildings in town, but there is also a strong culture of developing and sustaining connections in the community. Thanks to MCCC for hosting this meeting, which had a very strong turnout, perhaps an indication of a new core constituency that believes in a better Pottstown and is impatient for change.

First Suburbs meeting: Help make Pottstown’s voice be heard

The Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project is holding a public meeting Thursday, April 14 at 7:30 pm with Housing and Urban Development Region III Administrator Jane Vincent to call for fairness in regional housing policy.

The Statement of Purpose on their website declares:

“The Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project is a regional coalition of community leaders from developed suburbs that have joined together to harness their communities’ power by directly engaging citizens to affect policies and practices that will lead to the stabilization and revitalization of their communities.”

The First Suburbs Project has galvanized communities in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties. Pottstown is a member of this coalition and will be taking a bus to the meeting, which will be held at the JP Mascaro and Sons Building in Audobon. To get on the bus, which will leave Borough Hall at 6:30 pm, call the Borough at 610-970-6511.

To read some prior blog posts about the challenges facing Pottstown and other First Suburbs, check out the following links:

Community Gardens & First Suburbs – the start of a (long) conversation

First Suburbs: Affordable Housing Notes from NJ

First Suburbs – Challenges of Rental Housing

First Suburbs, Keim Street Bridge & Keystone Blvd. Extension

Public input wanted on District’s Task Force on Facilities

Note: Sorry to be kind of quiet lately. I’ve been “snowed under” with school work. Should be coming up for air again in a couple of days! SR

Last spring School Board President Rick Huss announced the formation of the Board President’s Task Force on Facilities and appointed James Bush to lead the effort. The mission of the Task Force is to visit, collect data and analyze all of the Pottstown School District’s facilities, including the Annex and Administration Building, without preconceptions, in order to make informed, educationally-sound and fiscally-responsible recommendations to the School Board about the future of the elementary schools.

So far, the Task Force has visited all the elementary schools. Last Monday night (Jan. 24th) I had the opportunity to tour the high school and learn more about the Task Force and how they’re approaching their mission.

First, the Task Force itself is a large and diverse group. Second, they’ve got very big binders filled with details and reports about the capacity, weaknesses and costs of each building in the district. I regret not having made it to any of the elementary schools, but all of the agendas, meeting summaries and some reports are available here on the District’s website. Third, I learned that Pottstown has a really amazing high school. The building is light, clean and modern, having been updated and expanded in 2001. Its diverse programming prepares students along the whole educational continuum with life skills, technical and academic training that will get them to the next level that’s appropriate for them.

One really interesting aspect of the high school’s physical plant is that Pottstown Community TV uses 4,800 square feet of space there and pays $1,000/month to the School District to do so. PCTV is owned and operated by the Borough through a contract with Mark Pollock. The lease arrangement is a pretty sweet deal compared to the going rates for commercial/ retail space on High Street or in the region. While this local programming is certainly a benefit to Pottstown and the larger region that it reaches, PCTV’s activities are completely separate from the high school’s operations. From what we were told on the tour, PCTV does not benefit any students, involve any students, or have anything to do with the educational mission of the District. On the one hand, regardless of where PCTV is located, at this time it is a taxpayer-subsidized operation, whose current contract was a sticking point in Borough Council’s recent budget talks. One might ask, “Does it really matter if it’s coming from Borough taxes or School taxes?” On the other hand, now is the time to re-think its location in a school, where the educational mandate is clear and every option for cost savings must be considered.

It was stated at the meeting that the District currently uses a total of 12,534 square feet for administration. I would expect that the possible availability of 4,800 square feet for administration or the re-configuring of students/classrooms would be on the table in discussions this spring.

The President’s Task Force on Facilities meetings are open to anyone and allow for public comment and questions. The next one is on February 7th at the Middle School. I urge everyone to get out to the meetings that will continue through the spring and to get up to speed on what has already been reviewed, so that there will be a critical mass of informed citizens ready to take part in the discussions that are on the horizon. No less than the quality education of Pottstown’s youth and the financial future of the town are at stake.~

Feb. 2, 2011. Please note this comment and clarification received from Superintendent Dr. Reed Lindley:

“Seems that the statment “involves no students, not connected to the educational mission,” is somewhat of an overstatement. PCTV recently received a grant from the Health and Wellness Foundation to work collaboratively with the High School in the development of a live AM “cooking show.” While the details are still being finalized, this project is directly connected to the educational mission, and would involve students from more than one academic/career program at the High School.”

Joint School Board & Borough Council Meeting this Monday

This Monday, Dec. 20th, there will be a joint School Board & Borough Council Meeting at 7:30pm at the Pottstown Middle School in the 2nd floor LGI room.

The agenda will include an update to the community on the PAID partnership, a presentation about a Community Land Trust for Pottstown, and tax assessments. I will be part of the group that is doing the Community Land Trust presentation.

A community land trust (CLT) is a nonprofit model that offers flexibility for engaging in housing, neighborhood stabilization and economic development activities that are appropriate for a particular area. A few notable features of CLTs are:

  • setting & implementing goals with community input
  • having CLT homeowners & other community reps. on its board
  • undertaking an active acquisition program
  • selling buildings at affordable prices while the CLT retains ownership of the land beneath the buildings
  • being stewards of the land and neighborhoods
  • increasing homeownership
  • preventing foreclosures

While most CLTs have as their main goal the creation of permanently affordable, owner-occupied housing in places where housing prices are high or escalating, a CLT for Pottstown would undertake a broader range of activities such as community gardens and economic development initiatives to help bring back market-rate activity.

With input from the community,  a CLT for Pottstown would undertake activities in a targeted way to slow the negative fiscal spiral and coax the market back. Many aspects of this approach have been recommended in study after study.

I’m certainly looking forward to carrying on this conversation & to hear questions and observations from the larger community about how this could work. Hope you can make it Monday night!

Added after original post:

Here’s a link to the Pottstown CLT website.

It’s at

It’s a work-in-progress. A PowerPoint presentation will be posted there after the Monday meeting.


Inequitable distribution of housing vouchers in Montgomery County

The debate about how to best house the less fortunate has many facets and many layers. Below is my response posted earlier today to an opinion piece at The Mercury, written by Elizabeth G. Hersh, Executive Director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. My comments were posted under the name “Number5.”

“This is a long-winded version of brussell’s last paragraph!

The whole point of the First Suburbs project is to bring attention to the fiscal & underlying policy inequities among various municipalities that exist side-by-side or within close proximity to each other in a region. While I agree with Ms. Hersh in many respects, I fear that her defense of the voucher program loses sight of this very basic premise.

There are many good purposes served by the Housing Choice Voucher Program. I am a staunch supporter of its compassionate intent and believe we must be vigilant against negative stereotyping of individuals. But, like many other public programs & policies, if the voucher program is implemented inequitably, much of its good can be undone or result in unintended consequences to communities.

If I am reading Ms. Hersh’s numbers correctly, 4% of all of Montgomery County’s rental units have tenants who are voucher holders, and 12-15% of all of Pottstown’s and Norristown’s rental units have tenants who are voucher holders. Therefore, Pottstown and Norristown have 3-4 times the CONCENTRATION of voucher holders than the county as a whole. The county’s low-income residents ARE concentrated in the county’s urban areas. That is not a “negative stereotype.” That is reality, and it is unacceptable public policy. Not only is it not good for a community’s fiscal health, it is not good for the low-income people themselves, particularly the children, who benefit from being educated among a socio-economic diversity of peers. In what ways do voucher holders truly have a CHOICE to live in a suburban community?

I would also be curious to know how the “nearly half” of elderly/disabled voucher holders are distributed geographically throughout the county. Are they in the urban and suburban areas in roughly equal concentrations?

The phrase, “yes, making sure that all communities bear an equal responsibility for helping our less fortunate neighbors” is added in the last paragraph almost as an afterthought, when that is actually one of the main premises of the First Suburbs project. I have nothing but respect for Ms. Hersh and other affordable housing advocates and providers for their commitment and passion, but summary statistics can be misleading. Critical analysis will help us find more equitable AND compassionate solutions.

Sue Repko
Positively!Pottstown ”

(First Suburbs link added here.)

Rental ordinance up for vote

Although I’m having loads of fun working on the parks series, I have missed talking about public policy and revitalization issues. Actually, I have REALLY missed it. I should be able to get back into the mix a bit more because Rosemary Keane will be leading the way through the parks for the next couple weeks. Below is a copy of a comment sent a few minutes ago to the Mercury regarding their article on the new rental regulation ordinance coming before Council on Tuesday night. Personally, it’s hard for me to be on the outside of all this. Pottstown has so much potential, and I believe it is on its way to seeing better days, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

Has anyone – other than Council, I presume – seen the new ordinance? Is it on the Borough’s website? Don’t you all have mandated notice provisions that would let people see a proposed ordinance 2-4 weeks before it’s voted on? Even if it’s not required by law, it seems like that would be a good practice to put into effect.

When this issue came up this summer, I advocated looking at the existing rules to see if they could simply be enforced, rather than introducing new regs, since everyone acknowledges that enforcement is at the heart of the problems. Will this new ordinance come with a re-vamped, rapid response enforcement system that is administratively tight?

I have heard buzz about the new ordinance and the landlord threats to sue the Borough en masse. On the flip side, property owners are threatening to sue other property owners. Again, PROCESS MATTERS. Why was there not a public process before getting this to a vote? Where is the leadership to bring people to the table to solve their own mutual problems? Each side knows what the stumbling blocks are on their end. Why can’t they face each other across a table in Borough Hall and come to some mutual solution? Why does it seem that people are afraid to talk to each other or that they are cut out of the problem-solving by their own government?

This is symptomatic of what the ULI report noted as a major hindrance to change – people not working together. There has to be a new way of doing things. Now. Or you will never get over the major hurdles in front of you.


Process in the public sphere: It matters.

Last night Council unanimously pledged support for a low-income rental housing tax credit application tied to a 55-unit senior housing development on Borough land near the riverfront. In a kind of post-game analysis, here I step back from the project itself to talk a bit about process.

1) Ideally, a town would have adopted land use and economic development plans that spell out what they want in each area of their town. Then, when any authorized municipal representative is talking to any developers about that area, they are on the same page with what the community planned and agreed to.

2) Ideally, if a town is looking to develop land that it owns, it would put out a Request for Proposals and seek competitive proposals/bids. The RFP and this process would all be public. There would be no private conversations with any developers during this process.

3) Opening the bids: here’s where it gets sticky. In most places, negotiations involving land transactions and real estate development by governmental entities are not subject to right-to-know laws. All parties need to know that they can work out the financial end of a deal without the press & the public breathing down their necks. Confidentiality is paramount. Here’s where you have to have faith in your elected officials to agree to what’s in the best interests of the community and select the top bidder(s) accordingly.

4) If there are no clear frontrunners, in an ideal world, the top 2-3 bids/plans would be publicly presented and community input would be sought at that point.

Four necessary components:
• community-approved land use & economic development plans
• a clear & transparent RFP process
• time and timelines
• community input on selected proposals

Obviously, none of this protocol was followed in this case, which really is not unusual in many small towns and even larger towns where no one’s paying attention. Or where there’s an entrenched way of doing things: This is how we’ve always done it. But it has the whiff of a back-room deal that was foisted on the public pretty late in the game. All I’m saying is, there’s another way to do things, where leaders and the community are engaged in more meaningful ways througout the entire process.

Imagine this: 55 units of low-income, senior rental housing in the middle of a comprehensive waterfront plan that includes a few hundred upscale condos, commercial development and recreational uses. Then the low-income housing is a mere blip in the middle of that; no big deal. You wouldn’t have heard a peep outta me!

Imagine this: There are multiple economic development initiatives underway across town that involve County funding, and this housing is a trade-off in some way in the context of a larger plan that may not even specifically include the waterfront. That could be fine too. Trade-offs – compromise – that’s how things get done.

It’s the fact that you’re leading the way, selling off your own land, with no vision or plan, for what? Low-income rentals? That doesn’t compute.

My frustration comes out of the Borough not being in charge of its own destiny in the first place – not having a clue what the community wants, not having an economic development leader on your team, not doing your due diligence, not making people answer your questions straight-up, not demanding a printed handout of the project proposal & parameters — basically, not asserting yourself. And then being forced to settle. Settle for whoever shows up. It doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t.

Unearth your vision – plan – strategize – set goals – implement with a vengeance.

Low- vs. Moderate-Income Housing: Know what you’re voting on (the short version)

A vote in favor of the income-restricted, rental housing project proposed by the Partnership for Income Restricted Housing Leadership (PIRHL) on Borough-owned land is a vote for additional low-income rental housing for Pottstown.

– There is only one tax credit program deadline coming up at the PA Housing Finance Agency and it is Nov. 5th for the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC), which spurs the development of LOW INCOME RENTAL HOUSING.

Jeffrey Paxson, vice president of development for PIRHL, has confirmed to a third party that they are applying for tax credits from the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, which is administered by the PA Housing Finance Agency.

– Rents in the $500-800 range for 1 & 2-bedrooms in Montgomery County are considered low income NOT moderate income.

– Section 8 certificate holders can NOT be denied housing in a LIHTC project.

That is all.

Low vs. Moderate-income Housing: Know what you’re voting on

Thanks to bikerowen, whose comment at the Mercury opinion page today caused me to make a phone call to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (717.780.3800).

I have heard that the Partnership for Income Restricted Housing Leadership (PIRHL), the developer of the proposed age-restricted, rental project near the river, has never directly answered the question in public, “What tax credit program is this?” Could it be that it is the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program and the name is not very attractive, especially for Pottstown’s efforts to change its image? It includes the term “Low Income” in its name because that’s who it serves. I am not aware of any moderate- or middle-income tax credit programs and would be glad to hear about them if they exist.

Here’s a program definition from an overview at the Pennsylvania Housing Agency’s website: “The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program (“Tax Credit Program”) is a federal program created by the 1986 Tax Reform Act and amended pursuant to several subsequent Budget Reconciliation Acts. The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (“Agency”) is the Commonwealth agency responsible for the administration of the Tax Credit Program. The purpose of the Tax Credit Program is to assist in the creation and preservation of affordable housing for low-income households.” (my emphasis added)

Preliminary applications for the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program are due on or before Nov. 5, 2010. (The only deadline coming up for a tax credit application.) If the Preliminary Application is approved by the Agency, applicants may submit a full Underwriting Application for Tax Credit consideration on or before March 1, 2011. On the Agency’s Program Notices page, under the Multifamily Rental Housing Programs section, click on the Draft Housing Allocation Plan link to see the programs and guidelines for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency Allocation Plan for Year 2011, Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. (The Agency is using the Draft Plan until the final approval of the plan at its October meeting.)

The income and rent limits that apply to this program appear in this chart. Scroll down to Montgomery County.

The Montgomery County figures on this chart present a discrepancy among the $500-$800 estimated rents; the 60% of median income, which is what has been reported; and/or the one- and two-bedroom units being proposed.

One- and two-bedroom rents in the $500-$800 range coincide with persons at the 40-50% of median income levels. By virtually all affordable housing standards, this is considered “low income,” not “moderate income.” 60% of median income is the maximum allowed under the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. I believe you get more tax credits if you elect to peg your rents below 50% of median rather than 60% of median.

According to the chart, if these 1- and 2-bedroom units are pegged for “moderate-income” seniors, you’d be looking at 60% of median income and the rents would be in the range of $800-$1000.

So, which is it?
1- and 2- bedroom low-income rentals at $500-$800
1- and 2-bedroom moderate-income rentals at $800-$1,000

Please note on Page 7 of the Tax Credit Program General Overview Requirements that, “A prospective tenant may not be denied admission into a Tax Credit property because of holding a voucher or certificate of eligibility under Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937; if they are otherwise eligible.”

All of PIRHL’s featured projects at their website have used Low Income Housing Tax Credits or LIHTCs. There shouldn’t be any confusion about the rent ranges for low-income vs. moderate-income, 1- and 2-bedroom rentals in Pottstown, unless The Mercury got it wrong twice. If that’s the case, then please accept my apology and disregard this post.

Having cut my teeth in affordable housing and still considering myself an advocate across the board for the less fortunate in society, I’m not usually on this side of this argument. But Pottstown is bearing more than its fair share of affordable housing in this region.

I know full well that no one ever asked me to be Pottstown’s “advocate,” but I feel strongly that “knowledge is power,” and Pottstown as a whole seems to operate at the mercy of those with more information or knowledge, whatever you want to call it, or to simply not engage with them. I’m simply urging Council and members of the public to ask questions and demand answers. In the meantime, I will keep putting my knowledge out there in service to the public as best I can.

Riverfront proposal: Tough decision

The post that follows was also submitted to The Mercury’s online comments for today’s article, “Senior housing proposed for Pottstown’s riverfront.” Some of the major parameters:
– the Borough would sell a 1.5 acre parcel on Industrial Highway to the developer at fair-market value
– the housing would be for seniors making no more than 62% of the area’s median income
– 55 rental units, all 1-2 bedrooms
– the developer would be getting tax credits to build the project
– the developer would pay property taxes

I sincerely hope Pottstown is in a transition toward becoming a community that works together, has public conversations about its future, and then acts on the vision that results from those conversations. This project proposal comes at a time when the town has not gotten its new system into place. This project is forcing the Borough into a corner because it has a fast-approaching deadline for tax credits. (How are tax credits not a government subsidy? Could anyone provide the name of the specific tax credit program the developer is applying to? Are they LIHTC?) Okay, though, sometimes that’s just the way the ball bounces… you gotta deal with what’s in front of you.

Let’s put this conversation into the context of other, very relevant issues that I heard/read were discussed at the same meeting.

(1) The Norfolk Southern line is not likely to disappear from the waterfront anytime soon. In fact, they will likely be increasing their usage of it. Now you’ve got a huge constraint on any waterfront planning. All the more reason to think through what you want at that gateway.

Typically, people with limited economic choices live on top of highways and railroad tracks. I hope that Council is engaging in dialogue with the railroad about its plans, or I fear for the future of the residential area that is being created in the vicinity. Will the current townhouses become investor-owned 10 years down the line? All the more reason to have an unhurried, public conversation about the future of that area and a plan & strategy to encourage more commercial uses.

For the past six months there’s been a lot of talk about the 44% rental housing stock in Pottstown. How does this project help reverse that particular bottom line? And how much new money will people at the projected income level inject into Pottstown’s economy? Property taxes are one part of the equation. Disposable income of the new residents is another. So is the perception that potential visitors, business and home owners have of Pottstown.

(2) A presentation was made by Main Street Manager Leighton Wildrick for the year-round lighting up of a few blocks of High Street. I wasn’t at the meeting but saw a preview of this when I happened to stop by Leighton’s office last week. This is a brilliant idea on so many levels. Relative to this housing proposal and all the naysayers who keep complaining about an empty High Street: if Leighton & the downtown property owners, arts organizations, a re-tooled Borough website & streamlined approvals are given half a chance, you will see High Street make a comeback. You haven’t even given yourselves a chance.

(3) “… and the PAID group was excited about it.” It would be nice if several members of PAID showed up at the next meeting to speak on the record in support of the project. And the School District, too, if that’s the case. Then, since the County Redevelopment Authority is already behind this proposal, the four entities of the new Pottstown Partnership would essentially be speaking with one voice, evidence of the new system of cooperation and unity in action.

I understand how $60-80K in taxes looks good. It would be nice to see some spreadsheets on the projected tax revenues. If the max. income is 60% of median, how many of those units will actually be rented in the lower end of that range? Would be nice to see a projected distribution of units by income/rent levels. How will property taxes be determined: based on final rent levels, building value, or a payment in lieu of taxes? I hope that’s covered in any sales agreement that might be drawn up.

Yes, you need to increase your tax base. On the other hand, I don’t think the Borough should be hasty in giving up even 1.5 acres because someone else is dragging them along their own timeline. I’ve got no problem with springing into action – based on previously-agreed upon strategies and plans – but rushed approval scenarios always raise a red flag for me. In this case, especially when the Pottstown Partnership is supposed to get started in just a few months, which makes me wonder: Will there be another round of funding for these particular tax credits? If so, when?

The Mayor was right – Council has a tough decision on its hands.

Sue Repko

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