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Westmoreland County’s redevelopment authority and land bank tackle affordability and accessibility

August 10, 2017


Rehabbed home for sale by the Westmoreland County Land Bank. The county’s land bank and redevelopment authority are working together to provide affordable, accessible homes for Westmoreland County residents. (Credit: Westmoreland County Land Bank)

Westmoreland County, located southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has an active redevelopment authority and a land bank. It also has a large, and growing, aging population and a housing affordability problem. A new grant award will make it possible for the redevelopment authority and land bank to help with those challenges.

The Redevelopment Authority of the County of Westmoreland was recently awarded $175,000 from the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund to “rehabilitate single-family homes for low-income families in Westmoreland County,” and a portion of that money was awarded to the Westmoreland County Land Bank.

The grant, matched with county funding, serves a dual purpose: 1) it will allow the Redevelopment Authority (RDA) to make accessibility modifications to 30+ homes for permanently disabled, low-income Westmoreland County residents, and 2) it will provide further support to the Land Bank’s homeownership program, with funding to rehab two to three blighted homes for low- to moderate-income families.

Westmoreland County’s redevelopment authority created the land bank, and the two entities work toward a common purpose of stabilizing neighborhoods. While the RDA administers federal dollars for eliminating blight, the Land Bank acquires and maintains the actual vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties with the goal of returning them to productive use. That means the RDA and the Land Bank found themselves in the unique position to help directly meet the need for accessible, affordable housing.

As a requirement of the grant, thirty percent of funding will be used towards installing chair lifts and ramps. Accessibility was prioritized as a reuse strategy when a countywide housing study identified this as a key need. The size of the county’s aging population exceeds the national rate.

“[Previously], the authority used to make entire home accessibility modifications for existing residents to keep them in their homes, especially senior residents,” said April Kopas, executive director at the RDA and Land Bank. “This work was done using federal dollars; however, the program ceased 10 years ago due to lack of funding.”

She continued, “Nonetheless, we still get calls on a weekly basis from people that need similar assistance, and that’s why we are looking to relaunch a similar program, but on a much smaller scale.”

Key to the success of the RDA’s accessibility work will be the partnerships formed with social service agencies. The advisory board for the program includes the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the Westmoreland County Area Agency on Aging. With this diverse collaboration, the Redevelopment Authority can take a more comprehensive approach to addressing affordability and mobility issues and connect residents to social services.

For example, if an elderly resident applied for accessibility modifications from the RDA, the RDA would only be able to install a chair lift and/or ramp, but could also refer that resident to the Westmoreland County Area Agency on Aging for additional resources, and possibly, additional home modifications. Similarly, the converse could happen if someone with a disabled child approached the Agency on Aging for assistance with a chair lift, but because the child did not meet the agency’s age criteria, was instead referred to the RDA’s program.

“It’s not just about focusing only on the physical attribute,” said Kopas, “but about partnering with others and utilizing resources to help the people inside the home.”

Though the RDA’s work is starting small, Kopas hopes to secure buy-in from other human service agencies, as well as the private sector and volunteers. She sees the program as a way to mobilize similar efforts, and raise awareness of the need for safe, accessible housing.

“Each year, I’d like to increase the number of households served,” Kopas stated. “Not necessarily resurrect the former [home rehabilitation program] since funds are not available in the same capacity that is needed, but I would want to continue partnering with other groups to address home mobility issues that have been much needed for years. Otherwise, there will be residents that are not able to fully use their homes.”

For more information, please visit the Redevelopment Authority of the County of Westmoreland and the Westmoreland County Land Bank.

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