The Hampden Township commissioners reversed their position on participating in federal housing and community development grants, choosing to opt in to a program the township previously feared would result in federal over-reach on local zoning laws.
At a special workshop meeting on Friday, commissioners’ president Al Bienstock motioned to “effectively rescind the position we took at our last board meeting” regarding the township’s inclusion in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant system.
The motion passed unanimously from the four attending commissioners — John Thomas, Nathan Silcox, Kenneth Fetrow and Bienstock, with John Gaspich absent.
The vote was a reversal of not only the township’s position from last month, but of the position it took three years ago when Hampden’s commissioners first chose to opt out of HUD’s grant arrangement.
Every three years counties must submit information to HUD to determine their “urban county” designation, which determines how much HUD grant funding will be apportioned to them.
In 2016, Hampden opted out of having its population (listed at 28,044 in the 2010 census) be part of the county’s submission to HUD. Doing so again in 2019 would eliminate Hampden from taking part in the roughly $1.4 million in annual HUD funding the county has available.
Both the Cumberland County commissioners and the county’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which administers the grant funding on the commissioners behalf, warned Hampden officials that it’s residents could lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars for a variety of programs.
The HUD funding includes grants to food banks and homeless shelters, as well as low-interest loans and grants for homeowners, particularly low-income seniors, to rehabilitate their houses.
The township’s rationale for opting out, Bienstock said, was a previous HUD initiative that “effectively said, and I’m just paraphrasing, that HUD took it upon themselves and had the ability, when they felt there was some form of discrimination, which was not clearly defined, to supersede the zoning ordinances of any municipality.”
Bienstock referenced the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing ruling, which the Obama administration promulgated in 2015. The rule prompted backlash from conservative critics.
The Trump administration announced in 2018 it would delay implementation of AFFH, and the 2018 federal budget included language to pre-empt any concerns about the ruling.
None of the HUD funding in the federal budget may be used “to direct a grantee to undertake specific changes to existing zoning laws as part of carrying out the final rule entitled ‘Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing,’” the budget language reads.
When notified by the county of that language, Bienstock said, it was enough for him, and apparently the rest of the commissioners, to be assured that HUD was not going to meddle in the township’s zoning.
“I want to state absolutely, without qualification, that Hampden Township never discriminates,” Bienstock said. “But our concern was that you would have unelected bureaucrats with the ability make assertions that could have impeded the township’s ability to maintain its zoning laws.”
The stated goal of the AFFH initiative under Obama was to reduce barriers — such as lack of access to capital, or exclusionary zoning laws — that created divides between wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods, and poorer, predominantly black ones.
The reaction from Obama’s opponents on the right painted a dire picture of how that would happen.
Writing for the American Enterprise Institute, conservative commentator Mark Perry described AFFH as a “disturbing social engineering project” that “will force local communities around the country to loosen their zoning laws” and “force racial integration on America’s suburban neighborhoods that could be unprecedented in its scope and reach.”
Often cited was HUD’s legal battle with Westchester County, New York. In 2006, the agency asserted that the county failed to enact any of the provisions related to the Fair Housing Act it claimed it was doing in order to receive grant funds. The agency sued to have the funds returned to the federal government if Westchester County couldn’t prove it was making adequate progress toward permitting more affordable housing. A settlement agreement saw Westchester County agree to allow 750 more affordable housing units to be built.
Stanly Kurtz, a writer for the conservative National Review, subsequently advised municipalities to stop accepting HUD funding, citing the Westchester lawsuit as a “dry run” for a more sinister plan that “effectively nullifies municipal boundaries” in order to force “economic integration.”
The AFFH would have made the grant planning process for communities, under the Fair Housing Act, more intensive. But the Westchester County suit also showed that HUD’s key point of concrete leverage over local governments was to take grant funding away.
Cumberland County officials, like others, have questioned the wisdom of jurisdictions like Hampden Township in refusing all grant funding in order to avoid scrutiny.
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HUD has never superseded local zoning laws to fulfill a project on its own accord, or created local zoning laws unilaterally, said Tim Whelan, director of the Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
“To the best of our knowledge, we have never seen that happen,” Whelan said.
As Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler told Hampden officials, the legal authority for municipalities to create zoning laws comes from Pennsylvania’s Municipal Planning Code.
No state or federal authority is codified to act outside the MPC, with the sole exception of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, which can ignore local zoning rules in order to permit public utility infrastructure.
Also, HUD has always had a mechanism in place to ensure that communities that qualify for grants are taking a look at their housing accessibility.
This occurs at least once every five years, when HUD requires the CCHRA to submit a revision of its consolidated plan for housing and community services, Whelan said.
“You explore impediments to fair housing and get suggestions as to how to improve your stock of affordable housing,” Whelan said. “Anything that’s put in those reports is just recommendations, it doesn’t create requirements. It’s done to give communities an idea of what they may want to consider doing as they go forward.”
HUD’s recommendations are included in the county’s comprehensive plan, in a document titled Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing. The document is an important reference for municipalities trying to improve their housing situations, county Planning Director Kirk Stoner said, but HUD has never come in and asked for specific textual changes to local zoning ordinances as a result.
While the debate over the AFFH and other fair housing measures is often couched in racial terms, zoning ordinances are not that explicit.
The classic example of exclusionary zoning is one in which only land that rests in traditionally lower-income, majority-minority areas is zoned for affordable housing such as apartments and town homes, while land in traditionally wealthier areas with larger white populations is restricted to large single-family structures.
It’s doubtful that this would be a specifically racial concern in Hampden Township, which is 82 percent white as of the last U.S. Census report. The township’s largest racial minority is Asians of Indian descent, at 7 percent of the population.
But if the federal government’s goal is to “merge urban and suburban areas,” as Bienstock put it, Hampden does present some challenges.
The majority of the township’s surface area is zoned either R-C (residential country) or R-S (residential suburban), according to the township’s official map.
These designations have restricted most of the township’s residential development to single-family, detached homes on widely spaced lots. Both zones require a minimum lot size of two-thirds of an acre with no less than 150 feet of width at the building line, and maximum lot coverage of 20 percent.
But the township is working to allow for more affordable higher-density options in some areas, Bienstock said. A new mixed-use zoning was created a few years back, and the township is working with a developer on plans for apartment buildings behind the commercial center that houses Ever Grain Brewing Company and the Cork-n-Fork, along the Carlisle Pike leading into Camp Hill.
What the commissioners don’t want, Bienstock said, is to change zoning to allow for higher density adjacent to existing single-family homeowners who may have purchased their homes believing the neighborhood would always be low-density.
“There’s nothing wrong with an apartment building, I grew up in one in New York,” Bienstock said. “But people own property and have certain rights to that property and they shouldn’t be violated.”
Regardless of the steps needed to address it, affordable housing is an increasing concern in the county.
The county’s most recent Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing report from HUD said that, between 2000 and 2012, the county lost 64 percent of it’s rental housing under $500 per month, and 25.7 percent of rentals under $700. Over the same period, inflation-adjusted median income in Cumberland County fell 2.2 percent, but median rents climbed 7 percent.
A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that 66 percent of families in the Harrisburg-Carlisle metro region who made 80 percent or less of the median income were paying over 30 percent of their income in rent during the 2012-16 survey period.
In the 2007-11 data period, that number was 61 percent. The gap between affordable rent and actual rent for this group has widened to $190 per month, the Philadelphia Fed found.