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Bethlehem council opens door to help city employees buy houses

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Nov 08 2012 05:15:47 AM CST
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

Some city workers will soon be eligible for financial aid if they buy a home in certain parts of Bethlehem and meet certain qualifications.

After about an hour or so of horse trading, city council unanimously agreed Wednesday night to establish a pilot Employer Assisted Housing program with $15,000 of Community Development Block Grant money.

Even after a compromise was reached on the amount of money to fund the program, which is part of Bethlehem's $1 million-plus CDBG budget for 2013, not everyone was ready to put out the welcome mat, including some council members who voted for it.

However, the harshest words came from some city residents who wanted the money to be earmarked for other endeavors, specifically the proposed half-million dollar renovation project at the Bethlehem Area Public Library's South Side branch.

Before the vote, Stephen Antalics called the assisted housing program "a form of payola" and "flat-out patronage." After the vote, Dana Grubb faulted council for not finding out specifics about how the program will work. "I thought blind faith was a rock group," he said to council. "You know nothing about this program. You gave somebody a blank check. ... Public funding for public employees, there's something wrong with that. This was not one of council's finest hours."

After the meeting, council president Eric Evans said he will request the city's director of community and economic development, Joe Kelly, to draft a memo that provides specifics about the program requested by council members and the public. Kelly will be administering the program.

Originally, a council committee recommended $30,000 be spent on the assisted housing program, which will help pay closing costs for city workers with low to moderate incomes who are willing to buy and improve homes in blighted areas.

Last month, the amount was sliced to $25,000, and Wednesday night it appeared for a time that the program might be doomed -- until council member Karen Dolan, Mayor John Callahan and community activist Alan Jennings defended it.

Dolan said the program was "a victim of a weak, almost non-existent public education campaign," adding that it's a proven way to improve a neighborhood. "It steers people with stable jobs and who are young into neighborhoods that need them," she said.

Callahan said two of Bethlehem's largest employers -- St. Luke's Hospital and Lehigh University -- have similar programs for their workers, and that if Bethlehem had one, too, it would help him encourage the 11 new companies, who have brought 2,400 jobs to the city's South Side over the last few years, to do the same. "I felt it was important that we should try to lead by example," Callahan said.

"A lot of people have been working hard to mischaracterize this program from the beginning, but I still believe in it," he noted.

Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, said the program is "an important offset" to the foreclosure crisis of the last four years, which has turned many owner- occupied homes into rental properties and de-stabilized neighborhoods.

In trimming the program's funding from $25,000 to $15,000, council increased by $5,000 the amounts budgeted for Southside parks and playgrounds (now $80,000) and drug surveillance overtime (now $15,000).

Council decided to keep its grant to the library renovation project at $10,000, after library executive director Janet Fricker informed members that the Sands casino is going to help raise the final $50,000 to $70,000 needed for the renovations by sponsoring another fashion show sometime next year.

"We understand the city is facing fiscal difficulties," Fricker said.
"We appreciate [the $10,000] very much."

Liza Holzinger, the library's director of development, said $30,000 was raised at a fashion show last February in the Sands mall. ""They think they can raise $50,000 with this [next] one," she said.

The renovations at the library are first since it opened 82 years ago.