Community Action Lehigh Valley gains Wells Fargo grant

Community Action Lehigh Valley has received a $100,000 grant from Wells Fargo. 

The grant will go to help the local anti-poverty nonprofit support its counseling, financial coaching, housing, small business, and neighborhood revitalization programs. 

In addition, Community Action Lehigh Valley Executive Director Dawn Godshall was recognized at Musikfest for the nonprofit’s work to improve the quality of life for Lehigh Valley residents. 

Godshall called the Wells Fargo grant “transformative.” It is part of a 6-year, $300,000 grant from Wells Fargo through the Pennsylvania Neighborhood Partnership Program (PA NPP) aimed at empowering Community Action Lehigh Valley to drive the region’s economic progress. 

“Wells Fargo’s commitment to community enrichment is exactly the kind of partnership that helps Community Action to do the great work that we do,” Godshall said in a statement. 

Community Action’s areas of impact, including business start-up, aligns with Wells Fargo’s community impact and philanthropic focus areas. 

Wells Fargo Greater Pennsylvania Regional Branch Network Executive Laura Haffner noted Community Action’s work to advance economic opportunity in the Lehigh Valley.

“As the Bank of Doing, Wells Fargo takes action to put people and communities first and has long supported Community Action Lehigh Valley,” Haffner said. “And ‘doing’ goes far beyond the investments we make. It is the sum of the impact we have when we work together to tackle societal challenges. Community Action gets this – they make our community stronger, and we are proud to support them in their efforts.”

Pa. unemployment claims decrease

Pennsylvania ranks 39th among states in which unemployment claims were lower than in the previous week, according to updated rankings by WalletHub. 

Regarding the change in unemployment claims last week versus the previous week, Pennsylvania’s numbers decreased 20.4%. Regarding the change in unemployment claims last week versus the same week pre-pandemic, Pennsylvania’s claims were down 4.1%. 

Pennsylvania ranks 47th nationally in unemployment claims per 100,000 people in the labor force. 

Amid the slowing of inflation, new unemployment claims decreased 3% week-over-week on July 17. South Carolina ranks No. 1 on the list, followed by Kentucky at No. 2 and Mississippi at No. 3. Arkansas (4), Alabama (5), Michigan (6), Missouri (7), Maine (8), Maryland (9), and Wisconsin (10) completed the top 10. 

The bottom 10 consisted of No. 42 Hawaii, District of Columbia (43), Oregon (44), Massachusetts (45), West Virginia (46), Utah (47), California (48), Colorado (49), Ohio (50), and Vermont (51). 

Except for Colorado and Vermont, each state boasted unemployment claims last week that were lower than in the previous week. Every state also had unemployment claims last week that were lower than in the same week pre-pandemic (2019) except for West Virginia, Hawaii, Tennessee, Nebraska, Idaho, California, Nevada, Texas, Connecticut, Georgia, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Indiana, Minnesota, Colorado, Utah, Vermont, and Ohio. 

Vermont, Ohio, and Massachusetts were among the 29 states whose unemployment claims last week were worse than the same week last year. 

WalletHub Analyst Jill Gonzalez said record low unemployment figures should not be expected to continue much longer. 

“The Federal Reserve rate hikes have already started a slowing of inflation, which in turn will cause unemployment numbers to increase,” Gonzalez said in a release. “The hikes, coupled with the chances of a recession in the next 12 months at over 70 percent, are two leading causes of why we will see record-low unemployment come to an end sooner rather than later.” 

Gonzalez said certain job types are still seeing higher levels of unemployment currently. 

“For instance, construction jobs have very high unemployment numbers right now due to building activity slowdown, with higher interest rates lowering demand for new individual housing,” said Gonzalez. “Farming, fishing, and forestry jobs are also seeing high unemployment, which has more to do with technological advances and less about the current economy or pandemic recovery.”

More than $110,000 in unclaimed property returned to Northampton

Christmas came early to 217 Northampton County residents who received a combined total of more than $110,000 in unclaimed property from the state.

Pennsylvania Treasurer Stacy Garrity and Northampton County Executive Lamont G. McClure announced the news Tuesday.

The $110,388.13 returned to the county includes claims ranging in value from $0.01 to $22,558.58. The oldest dates to 1986, while the most recent is from 2019. Examples of unclaimed property are funds from accounts payable checks, uncashed checks, bank drafts, cashier’s checks, claims payment checks, credit balances, insurance policies and the content of forgotten safe deposit boxes.

“Since taking office, I’ve had the chance to visit Easton and Bethlehem, and I know that the residents of Northampton County work hard and want to know that every taxpayer dollar is being used wisely,” Garrity said in a release. “I’m glad to safeguard unclaimed property, but our goal is always to return it to the rightful owners.”

McClure added: “We are pleased that $110,000 of unclaimed property is being returned to Northampton County residents. We wish to express our sincere gratitude.”

Garrity has returned more than $15.6 million to 57 local governments since taking office. Overall, Treasury wants to return more than $4.5 billion in unclaimed property to its rightful owners. About one in 10 Pennsylvanians is owed an average of around $1,600 in unclaimed property.

Treasury keeps tangible unclaimed property for about three years before it is auctioned, the release noted. Auction proceeds are kept in perpetuity for owners to claim. Military decorations and memorabilia are never auctioned.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Student housing properties near Lehigh University sell for $29.5M

A large off-campus student housing portfolio serving Lehigh University students and others has been sold for $29.5 million, Global Real Estate Advisors announced Monday.

The buyer is a national student housing operator with off-campus housing communities in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, Rhode Island and South Carolina. No more details were given.

The portfolio consists of 45 modern apartment units (117 bedrooms), 62 single-family houses (266 bedrooms) and one street-level commercial space. Each property is within a short walk of the university. Lehigh’s strategic plan for the next decade calls for increasing enrollment, attracting new faculty, expanding research and constructing new facilities, a release said.

Ken Wellar, founding partner of GREA, said, “Over the past few years there has been tremendous growth in the Lehigh Valley, which continues to attract out-of-town investors.”

Luke DeLuca, managing director of GREA, added: “All of the properties are situated in the South Side section of Bethlehem in some of the most sought-after locations by students living off campus and are within close proximity to one another for ease of management.”

He said the geography of the area poses major barriers to entry for any new development projects, creating even more demand for the portfolio. “In addition, city ordinances make it challenging to convert properties into student housing unless they are within a certain zone or have already been grandfathered into the system.”

GREA, which has 12 offices, including one in Philadelphia, posted a combined sales volume of more than $10 billion from 2020-2022.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Apartment rents and vacancy rates rising in Allentown

May rents in the Allentown metro area were higher than in April but still slightly less than a year ago, as they continue to settle from a pandemic high.

Vacancy is also rising, though it still isn’t close to pre-pandemic levels.

According to the latest national rent report from Apartment List, Allentown rents rose 2.6% last month. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,158; for a two-bedroom unit, it was $1,507.

The overall median rent of $1,454 is 0.2% less than it was in May 2022 and 30.2% more than before the pandemic.

Nationally, Apartment List’s rent index grew 0.5% over the course of May. This is the fourth straight monthly increase in rent prices, the report said, but “rent growth is flattening out at a time of year when it’s normally picking up steam. Rent growth this year is coming in slower than average, and even though prices are trending up again, a combination of sluggish demand and increasing supply is keeping prices in check.”

Year-over-year rent growth is at 0.9%, its lowest level since March 2021. It’s well below the 2.8% pre-pandemic average rate from 2018 to 2019 and “could possibly even dip into slightly negative territory in the months ahead,” the report noted.

On the vacancy side, Apartment List’s national vacancy index has been climbing since bottoming out at 4.1% in October 2021, in the midst of COVID-19.

From last September through May, it rose an average of 21 basis points a month and is at 7% in the most recent rent report. That’s higher than the pre-pandemic vacancy rate average of 6.6% from 2018 to 2019.

In the Allentown metro area, the vacancy rate was 4.33% in May. That compares with a pandemic low of 1.64% in September 2021 and a pre-pandemic high of 6.67% in December 2019.

Apartment List predicts that the vacancy rate will continue to climb nationally.

New apartment construction is recovering from pandemic-related disruptions, the report said, and there are now more multifamily units under construction than at any point since 1970. “As this new inventory continues to hit the market over the course of the year, we are now entering a phase in which property owners are beginning to compete for renters to fill their units, a marked change from the prevailing conditions of the past two years, in which renters have been competing for a limited supply of available inventory.”

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

PA taking new measures in bipartisan fight against blight

Pennsylvania is stepping up its fight against blight and doing so in bipartisan fashion. 

The state House Housing and Community Development Committee unanimously approved last week a bill sponsored by Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Merski, D-Erie, to help municipalities fight blight. House Bill 225 would allow local governments to cooperate with one another to address blight and establish a fund to support enforcement efforts. 

HB 225 heads to the House chamber for consideration. 

Merski said in a statement that Gov. Josh Shapiro has proposed revitalizing communities via new projects, and those investments can transform Pennsylvania communities. 

“But we need to lay the groundwork by eliminating the blighted, abandoned properties that invite crime and deter investment,” said Merski. “My bill would allow communities to join forces in fighting blight and would bolster those efforts by providing the additional resources needed to enforce code violations.” 

To fund new code enforcement programs and the hiring of enforcement officers, HB 255 would create a grant program administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development. 

From blight to housing 

 Sen. Dave Argall, R-Carbon/Luzerne/Schuylkill, received an award from the Association of Community Development Corporations for transforming blighted buildings into housing. 

Argall credited the bipartisan work of government and volunteers for revitalizing Pennsylvania communities by ridding them of decaying and derelict buildings. 

“One of the biggest issues we face is the need to transform more blighted properties into new housing,” he said. 

Argall’s legislation this year to increase funding for demolition earned bipartisan approval by the Senate Urban and Housing Committee. In 2016 he sponsored Act 152, legislation allowing counties to raise money for demolition programs. The program enlists 25 counties and has raised millions of dollars to tear down hundreds of blighted buildings. In 2022, Argall introduced legislation to make the demolition programs permanent. 

Argall’s work to combat blight includes creating housing for seniors from a blighted building and an empty lot; demolishing the shell of a burned-out factory and converting it into 36 housing units for seniors; restoring the upper floors of vacant buildings into housing units; and transforming unused upper floors of buildings into apartment units.

Home sales nationally break 12-month high

Could the real estate market be changing course again?

In February, existing-home sales across the country reversed a yearlong slide, registering the largest monthly percentage increase since July 2020, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Month-over-month sales – completed existing-house transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops – rose in all four major U.S. regions. Year over year, all regions posted declines.

Total existing-home sales skyrocketed 14.5% from January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.58 million in February. They plummeted 22.6% (down from 5.92 million in February 2022) year over year.

“Conscious of changing mortgage rates, home buyers are taking advantage of any rate declines,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said in a release. “Moreover, we’re seeing stronger sales gains in areas where home prices are decreasing and the local economies are adding jobs.”

Total housing inventory registered at the end of February was 980,000 units, same as January and up 15.3% from a year ago (850,000). Unsold inventory sits at a 2.6-month supply at the current sales pace, down 10.3% from January but up from 1.7 months in February 2022.

“Inventory levels are still at historic lows,” Yun added. “Consequently, multiple offers are returning on a good number of properties.”

The median existing-home price for all housing types in January was $363,000, a decline of 0.2% from February 2022 ($363,700). This ends a record streak of 131 consecutive months of year-over-year increases.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Comcast further expanding network into Berks County

Comcast is expanding its fiber network to more than 5,000 residents and businesses in Amity Township. This is on top of a previously announced Berks County expansion into Exeter and St. Lawrence townships to 8,300-plus households and businesses.

The telecommunications conglomerate has started providing its full suite of services, including Xfinity residential broadband speeds up to 1.2 gigabits per second and Comcast Business speeds up to 100 Gbps, to its first new customers in Exeter Township.

Comcast is scheduled to complete the projects in Exeter and St. Lawrence this year and in Amity in early 2024. This is the company’s latest investment in central and eastern Pennsylvania.

“We are proud to further our investment in Berks County,” Dan Bonelli, senior vice president of Comcast’s Freedom Region, which is based in Pennsylvania, said in a release. “Through our network expansion work in Amity, Exeter and St. Lawrence Townships, we’re able to bring our reliable network to more homes and businesses and provide them with fast, reliable and secure Internet that keeps them connected.”

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Lehigh Valley renters becoming cost burdened

The Lehigh Valley’s median renter qualifies as cost burdened when it comes to housing these days, as affordability plummets. Households are considered cost burdened when they spend more than 30% of their income on rent, mortgage and other housing needs.

In Northampton County, the median housing cost ratio for renters was 30.1% (an estimated 32,729 occupied rental units) while it was 30.7% in Lehigh County (an estimated 48,003 occupied rental units).

Over 19 million U.S. renter households spent more than 30% of their income on housing costs in 2021, according to data from the 2017-2021 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates.

The burden was especially high in some of the nation’s largest counties where housing is pricier or in areas where incomes are low.

The ACS collects a variety of housing cost information for renters (monthly rent and utility bills) and for homeowners (mortgage principal and interest, real estate taxes, homeowner’s insurance, utilities, mobile home costs, second mortgage payments and condominium fees if applicable).

Homeowners in most of the country had a lower median cost burden than renters.

High housing costs can impact the amount of money households are able to save or use for other expenses. The ACS data show that renters were particularly vulnerable to cost burdens.

Part of the reason that rental housing cost is so high, as a percentage of income, is the lack of homes to purchase, combined with higher interest rates.

Loren Keim, president/broker of Century 21 Keim Realtors, wrote in an email: “There’s an old adage that says you are always buying a house, whether you’re buying one for yourself or you’re buying one for your landlord. And rental rates are a function of supply and demand. The current demand is very high, leading to upward pressure on rental rates. These increasing housing costs directly impact how much money households can save and how much disposable income each household has.”

Consumers have to make a decision whether to buy or rent, he said, and the lack of affordability is affecting home sales, too.

“Housing affordability in the Lehigh Valley dropped to the lowest level since I started tracking it in 2005, at only 79,” Keim said.

An index of 100 means median household income is 100% of what is necessary to qualify for a median-priced home under current interest rates. “A higher number means greater affordability. At a level of 79, that means the median household income won’t qualify with current interest rates for the median-priced home. This index has been at or above 100 since we started tracking in January of 2005, and in fact was above 200 at several points between 2011 and 2015.”

“I expect rental rates to continue to rise, although slower than the last 18 months, for several reasons,” Heim said. “In the Lehigh Valley, although there are several multifamily projects in development or under construction, there is still a low vacancy rate, leading to competition for those rental units. Additionally, developers and investment property buyers are paying more for construction and borrowing at higher interest rates to build projects, which drives their costs higher, which is passed onto the tenant.”

Rising rents can be explained by several factors, he said. The costs to maintain apartments, including lawn care, snow removal, landscaping, repairs and renovations, has also jumped. “The cost of utilities, for those landlords paying for utilities, has risen. All this leads to increased landlord cost, which is being passed along to the tenants in the form of higher rental rates.”

Anecdotally, Keim said, this has led some tenants to move farther from the Lehigh Valley into areas like Carbon and Schuylkill counties in order to find lower rents.

Paula Wolf is a freelance writer

Awards for affordable rental housing total more than $92 million

Awards totaling more than $44.2 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credits, more than $20 million in National Housing Trust Funds for the construction of 1,459 affordable multifamily rental units in Pennsylvania, and more than $9 million in PennHOMES funding, were announced by Gov. Tom Wolf Thursday. 

This is the first year the agency is announcing awards for the new Pennsylvania housing tax credit totaling more than $19.3 million in state credits. The federal and state tax credits were approved by the board and administered by the PHFA. 

“The funding we award today will have a significant impact by adding 1,459 affordable rental units once construction is completed,” Wolf said in a statement. “In all communities across the state, affordable housing is in great demand, which is why the allocation of this funding is important for addressing that need.” 

Developments receiving funding will preserve and create an additional 1,518 total rental units, including 1,459 for low-income Pennsylvania residents, with 123 units for people at or below 30 percent of the area median income supported by the National Housing Trust Funds. 

PHFA Executive Director and CEO Robin Wiessmann said tax credits are important as they fill a void in the marketplace for the construction of affordable housing. 

“Even before the pandemic there was clear demand for more rental housing that fits people’s budgets. That demand is even stronger today, and this new round of tax credits, plus the additional funding, are vital for creating and rehabilitating much-needed affordable housing.” 

The 33 multifamily housing developments being awarded for tax credits can be viewed on the PHFA site at https://www.phfa.or/mhp/. Please see the list of tax credit recipients under “News: 2022” and dated 11/10.