The Lawmaker Pushing for a State Fund to Help Pay for Home Repairs

A proposed bill in Pennsylvania would use the power and budget of the state government to help homeowners and small-time landlords make critical repairs to their properties, in an effort to address the growing challenges of housing affordability and climate change. 

The Whole-Home Repairs Act would create a program to make grants of up to $50,000 to homeowners to pay for repairs, weatherization and energy-efficiency upgrades. It would also provide for loans to landlords who lease units at affordable rates to carry out maintenance and improvements. 

State Sen. Nikil Saval, a Democrat who represents parts of Philadelphia, is the lead sponsor of the bill. He explained that it is designed to supercharge a patchwork of local programs and extend home repair assistance to all parts of the state.

“In many instances with this fund, we’re scaling up existing programs and helping them to function better—the effect of which would be a holistic approach to home maintenance and energy efficiency,” Saval said. 

Part of Broader Push to Solve Housing Problems 

The proposal comes as housing insecurity and unaffordability is a growing problem around the country, and as more state legislatures are seeking to join local governments in proposing solutions. 

Pennsylvania has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, according to Saval’s office. His office also says that “Hundreds of thousands of homes … have moderate to severe physical inadequacies, including leaky roofs or windows, blown fuses or exposed wiring, unreliable heat, or the lack of a flushing toilet.”

But despite these issues, the state has left much of the policymaking on housing to local governments, says Saval, who was elected in 2020. 

“The state just doesn’t do very much right now,” he said. “We don’t have budget hearings on housing, there’s no housing line item in the budget, there’s no department that directly addresses housing.”

In coming up with his bill, Saval said he “wanted to find an issue that resonated across the state.” While housing policy tends to focus more on big cities, like Saval’s district, smaller towns and rural areas, which make up much of Pennsylvania, have deep housing challenges as well. 

“We have a lot of homeowners in both urban and rural areas that struggle to maintain their homes at the level that they need to to stay healthily and happily housed,” said Corianne Payton Scally, a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. 

But assistance for people who already own their homes tends to be at the bottom of “the housing policy pecking order,” Scally noted, with policymakers often instead prioritizing assistance to low-income renters or subsidies to first-time homebuyers. 

Saval says the program he’s proposing could help a range of Pennsylvanians, including children exposed to health risks from mold and lead and seniors looking to age in their homes. 

Housing and Climate Change

Saval has framed his legislation as both climate and housing policy and the measure also aims to fund workforce development in fields related to energy efficiency upgrades. 

Housing and climate challenges are increasingly linked as extreme weather increases, even in places that aren’t among the most vulnerable to dramatic heatwaves and wildfires, Scally said. As events like storms and floods become more frequent and more severe, “not just the habitability of the [individual] home is at risk but the sustainability of the housing stock can be at risk as well,” she added. 

Make the Road Pennsylvania, an advocacy group that represents working class Latino communities, is among dozens of organizations that have joined a coalition in support of Saval’s bill. It was concerns about housing and climate change alike that got the group onboard, according to Armando Jimenez, an organizer with Make the Road based in Allentown. 

The proposal addresses some of the most common issues that the group’s members have. 

“A lot of our members live in houses that are not safe or not livable,” Jimenez said.

“Housing rights and climate justice sort of just came together because when members get flooding in their houses, that’s a housing issue,” he added. “This is a big intersection between housing rights and climate justice.”

Make the Road New York was instrumental in helping to pass a major rent regulation bill in Albany in 2019. But Jimenez said that group operates separately from the Pennsylvania chapter except for some key federal issues, like immigration policy.

Dozens of other housing and environmental groups are supporting the Whole-Home Repairs Act in Pennsylvania.

Bipartisan Support

The bill also has some bipartisan support—increasingly rare in a statehouse largely controlled by Republicans. GOP supporters of the proposal include state Sen. David Argall, who represents Schuylkill County. In an op-ed for the Republican Herald newspaper in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Argall framed the bill as a blight fighting measure. 

“Making this investment now prevents blighted, decaying, rat-infested homes from marring our neighborhoods in the future,” he wrote. 

The bill has been referred to the state Senate’s Urban Affairs and Housing committee, and Saval said he is working to bring it to a vote. But its fate could also be decided as part of the larger budget negotiation, which typically wraps up in June. 

A “maximalist” version of the proposal could allocate up to $1 billion to help repair 10,000 homes a year, Saval said.

The state has a rare budget surplus and, as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has put it, is “frankly swimming in cash right now.” Federal stimulus money could be allocated for some aspects of the repair program. But Saval said he’s hoping to identify a permanent source of funding, even if that means it starts out small. 

“We have the money, the resources, and the political will,” he said. “I believe the idea is popular. We should do it in the next two months.”

pevita pearce

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