By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — The homes of Chester County epitomize the American dream – four-bedroom colonials situated on sweeping lawns, stately brick residences with peaked roofs and mirrored entryways, even illustrious million-dollar estates in Media.
Yet this is just on side of the story in this affluent southeastern Pennsylvania county.
Like any other county, Chester County has its share of the haves and have-nots — those who live in comfort and those who struggle to say warm in the winter.
Nancy Frame and her coworkers at the Housing Partnership of Chester County try daily to help the have-nots, those people among the 6 percent of county residents who are impoverished and often live in substandard housing.
The agency tries to get money to help the poor update their homes to meet local codes. And they’d like the chance to bring in even more help through a state-federal program designed to help the poor make their homes more energy efficient.
But that job is left to the Housing Development Corp., located in Lancaster County, which administers the weatherization program in Lancaster, Lebanon and Chester counties.
“We thought, ‘we could do this job a whole lot better taking it back to an organization situated in Chester County,’” said Frame, executive director for HPCC.
Frame says HPCC has tried to figure out a way to get control of the program for the past two years, even though HDC has operated Chester County’s funding since 1995. HDC is a property management service, managing some 3,000 housing units in Pennsylvania and running affordable housing and grant programs.
Statewide, there’s 12 weatherization agencies like the Housing Development Corp. that service multiple counties. There are about 30 agencies with a single-county focus.
HPCC wants Chester County to break out from under Housing Development Corp.’s three-county umbrella because, Frame said, HPCC knows the people of Chester County and where the money could do the most good.
The money to fund the weatherization program comes from the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development, doled out to counties that contract with local agencies to run the program.
The weatherization program helps low-income residents update insulation, roofs, windows, heating systems, even energy-efficient refrigerators, all aimed at reducing energy costs.
Frame said HPCC has “gotten nowhere” with with the state in its efforts.
Theresa Elliot, deputy press secretary with DCED, said in an email only that interested parties can state their desire to become an agency at a yearly hearing. This year it was held in May.
But Frame said HPCC checked the department’s website for the hearing date as recommended, but was unable to find a date listed in the Pennsylvania bulletin, missing the opportunity.
But the efforts continue.
“Our goal here from the start, from the time we started asking for support from elected officials is not to point fingers,” said David Dondero, HPCC’s development director. “Our goal is simply to return services to Chester County, and have Chester County be in charge.”
HPCC’s push to run the weatherization program has gained the support of state lawmakers, local politicos and community development officials.
“They’re closest to those people and those communities in need of this kind of support,” said Rep. Warren Kampf, R-Chester, who last winter was among five state representatives who wrote DCED Secretary Alan Walker in support of HPCC’s move.
And it just makes sense, said Pat Bokovitz, director of the Department of Community Development in Chester County.
“We would be in a position to coordinate weatherization services with the housing rehabilitation programs the County currently administers,” Bokovitz said in an email. “As a result, services would be more readily available to Chester County homeowners.”
County commissioners, in a letter to DCED, said local control of the weatherization program would give Chester County contractors and suppliers a better chance of winning the contracts to do the actual weatherization work. The commission also expressed concern about where the funds were going.
“Over the last few years, it has become clear to us that the Housing Development Corporation is not serving Chester County residents at the same level as they are serving Lancaster County residents,” the letter said.
DCED, in response to the letter, said that the department was considering a new formula allocation that “will give a clearer picture of the needs for weatherization service within each county in Pennsylvania.”
A skewed perspective
Frame said Chester County’s picturesque exterior and perceived affluence is just a facade that hides the residents who need help.
“Chester County seems like a wealthy county,” she said. “People don’t realize these low-income programs are needed here, but they are.”
The numbers tell the story.
- Chester County has a median income of around $84,000, according to the latest census data. The county’s population is around 503,000 residents, around 6.2 percent of whom live at or below the poverty level. The county received around $2.1 million in weatherization funds in 2010 and 2011 through HDC, assisting around 631 homes.
- Lancaster County has a median income of around $54,000. Its population is about 523,000, around 9.7 percent of whom live at or below the poverty level. Lancaster County received $4.1 million in weatherization dollars in 2010 and 2010, aiding more than 1,200 homes.
- Lebanon County has a median income of around $52,000. Its population is just over 134,000, about 8.9 percent of whom live at or below the poverty level. HDC spent $710,000 in weatherization projects in 2010 and 2010, affecting 241 homes.