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Northeastern Pennsylvania legislative roundup for April 4th

Pennsylvania State Senator John Blake holds affordable housing forum
Pennsylvania State Senator John Blake holds affordable housing forum
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Blake tackles affordable housing, State House passes bill to reintroduce Governor’s Schools, Yudichak announces $4 Million grant

Senator John Blake

State Senator John Blake (D-Lackawanna County) hosted an affordable housing forum which featured expert panelists from six organizations that work to help people find homes they can pay for and live in for many years. With a shortage of more than 200,000 available and affordable rental units statewide, more residents abandoning homes that have become unaffordable, and the escalating price of homeownership, Blake joined housing experts this week to discuss reasonable initiatives to expand the supply of adequate and affordable housing.

“There is an affordable housing crisis that has been exacerbated by the recent economic recession and persisting stagnant wages, high property taxes and other rising costs of living,” Blake said during his opening of the forum. “Foreclosures, distressed homeownership, blight and poverty continue to work together to make this problem worse but I believe there are answers, and I believe this forum will make a difference in finding them.”

The forum was held before a sold-out Swartz Center on Marywood University’s campus The experts and Sen. Blake discussed the affordable housing spectrum, the housing needs for domestic violence survivors, challenges to making more affordable homes available, and unfortunately, the failure of the commonwealth to fund a state program that was signed into law in 2010.

Blake, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, introduced Senate Bill 216 a year ago to finally provide revenue for the Statewide Housing Trust Fund. That fund was approved in 2010 as Act 105 but it has yet to receive a revenue stream.

SB 216 would finally deliver dollars to the Statewide Housing Trust Fund. That revenue, however, would not come from Pennsylvania’s general fund budget. Blake’s forum included Nichole Bennett, United Neighborhood Centers’ director of program analysis and data quality; Athena Aardweg, Self-Determination Housing Project’s Region 4 housing coordinator; Peg Ruddy, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center; Jesse Ergott, president and CEO, NeighborWorks NEPA; Michael Hanley, United Neighborhood Centers’ executive director; Bryce Maretzki, Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency’s director of strategic planning and policy; and Cindy Daley, policy director for the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance.

Blake’s proposal would give counties the option to participate in the trust fund and generate revenue to deliver more affordable housing through fees paid when certain writs are recorded in their Recorder of Deeds offices. In 2011, more than 800,000 of these writs were filed in county offices throughout Pennsylvania.

The senator’s proposed legislation would not allow counties to increase the fees on the recording of mortgages or deeds but it would permit nominal increases in fees for things like the recording of easements, declaration of plans, and rights of way.

“We must work to deliver an adequate supply of affordable housing to ensure health, safety and dignity for all of our citizens and particularly for people with disability. Homeownership is the essential builder of wealth in America and investing in quality housing is critical to growing our regional economy,” Blake said. “My bill is but one idea of many that we are considering.”

Counties that choose to participate in the trust fund program would be able to retain 25 percent of the revenue generated for affordable housing projects; the remainder would be delivered to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency to pay for the debt service on any trust fund bond issue.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported in a study released earlier this year that the average wage needed to pay for a two-bedroom home was $18.92 an hour. That’s more than two-and-a-half times Pennsylvania’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage, Blake said.

State Representative Karen Boback

State Representative Karen Boback (R-Luzerne, Wyoming, Columbia Counties) said she was so proud this week to announce that the House passed House Bill 2074, which she authored. The bill would re-establish the Pennsylvania Governor’s Schools of Excellence. That program was discontinued a few years ago.

Under the Governor’s Schools of Excellence Program, students were selected to attend a multi-week, tuition-free, summer enrichment program at a college or university in Pennsylvania. Countless students benefited from the program over its existence.

Boback's plan calls for the program to be administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The department would establish the Governor’s Schools at host sites throughout the Commonwealth in fields of study determined by the department. The department would also have the ability to establish schools focusing on a wide variety of subjects, in order to keep track with the educational demands of today’s students.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

State Senator John Yudichak

State Senator. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne/Carbon) today joined Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Secretary Ellen Ferretti, local legislators and officials from the North Branch Land Trust and Earth Conservancy at the trailhead to the Mocanaqua Loop Trail to announce a $4 million grant that will expand the Lackawanna State Forest to include Mocanaqua Mountain.

“The Mocanaqua Mountain land that this grant will preserve is some of the most pristine land in Northeastern Pennsylvania and I am thrilled to see the state investing to protect and conserve these treasured forest lands of Conyngham and Newport Townships,” Yudichak said. “The partnership forged by DCNR, the North Branch Land Trust and the Earth Conservancy is a shining example of how, through conservation, government can live up to the words of former Gov. Gifford Pinchot and do 'the greatest good to the greatest number of people for the longest time.'”

The state invested $4 million in Keystone Land Trust and Oil and Gas Lease funding through DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program to purchase the land. The North Branch Land Trust facilitated the purchase from Earth Conservancy, which agreed to sell the 3,000 acre Mocanaqua land tract in Conyngham and Newport Townships at half its worth.Yudichak noted that the North Branch Land Trust now has over 15,000 acres under its stewardship and has become the region's premier land trust.

The DCNR grant is part of the state's Enhance Penn's Woods initiative that will fund an estimated 200 projects with a $200 million investment in repairing and improving Pennsylvania's state forests.

State Rep. Gerard Mullery (D-Luzerne) also participated in the news conference. Yudichak also thanked state Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne) for her great work on environmental and conservation issues.