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Some communities are pushing back on an effort by a Lehigh Valley lawmaker to fix the affordable housing crisis

Critics say two bills in the Pennsylvania Legislature intended to increase affordable housing in the state would impose on local control and cause problems for some communities. Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ
Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ
Critics say two bills in the Pennsylvania Legislature intended to increase affordable housing in the state would impose on local control and cause problems for some communities. Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ

Jeffery Ayers has lived in Moore Township for more than 60 years. He has seen the Northampton County community grow, but it mostly remains a patchwork of farms and small villages.

As chair of the Moore Township Zoning Board, he’s well aware of the growing development in the Lehigh Valley and is sympathetic to the region’s housing shortage. However, he considers the township to be unique, with its own features and problems to solve.

And while rural townships are certainly different from Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton or suburban townships such as Whitehall, Lower Macungie and Forks, even they each have their own unique aspects.

“Every municipality is different,” said Ayers, who has been on the zoning board for more than 15 years.

That’s why Ayers is not happy with legislation to change zoning laws that is making its way through the state House of Representatives. Two bills are sponsored by Rep. Josh Siegel, D-Lehigh.

House Bill 2045 would allow multifamily housing by right on land zoned for single family housing. Meanwhile, HB 1976 would legalize by-right housing in areas currently zoned office or commercial.

Both bills were referred to the Rules Committee in early June.

“All I’m trying to do is make a community, make all of our municipalities, all of them just more friendly for people, more walkable, more enjoyable, more affordable,” Siegel said.

The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors has come out in opposition to both bills because it says they would take zoning decisions out of the hands of townships.

“Under the guise of ‘affordable housing,’ this legislation would force communities to accept a developer’s building scheme conforming to Harrisburg-mandated density,” the organization wrote last week. “These bills override any local land use authority, dictating that multi-family housing can be built ‘by right’ anywhere that is currently zoned commercial or zoned for single-family homes.”

The association said the options listed in the bills are already available to municipalities and many use them without a statewide mandate.

What the legislation would do

Siegel said the idea is to address the housing shortage in the Lehigh Valley and the rest of the state.

According to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, the region is short 9,000 units, a number that is expected to increase by 1,300 per year. More than half of renters and 25% of homeowners are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs.

“We have three choices,” Siegel said. “One is we can continue to build as we have, which is more suburban sprawl, more subdivisions and single family homes further away from jobs and opportunity, and those homes will be exceedingly expensive. They will cost more to maintain. Individual taxpayers will pay more over time. We will use up our open space and our farmland faster than we can possibly preserve it. We can build new housing, we can basically shut the door and we can make the Lehigh Valley so expensive and so cost prohibitive that we become like San Francisco, where you know, if you don’t have a million dollars, you can’t afford a house.”

The legislation, Siegel said, will address some of the more restrictive housing practices that have driven up costs. Developers would be encouraged to build where there’s existing housing density.

“They’re trying to argue that it will add density where people don’t want it and the reality is I’m trying to put density on top of existing density,” Siegel said. “I’m trying to concentrate on people where there’s already infrastructure, where there’s already roads and water systems, and not add new costs for taxpayers.”

Market factors would eventually determine whether something is built.

“This is by-right development, which means the developer can do it without having to seek zoning, but there still has to be demand and infrastructure and underlying capacity,” Siegel said. “Look where the housing is being built. It’s being built in South Whitehall, it’s being built in the Macungies. It’s being built in Allentown to some extent as well, not necessarily single-family homes or traditional homes, but the housing is being built in the communities where there’s market demand.”

Despite opposition from groups such as the township supervisors association, supporters of the legislation cross the political spectrum, including the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, developer trade groups, affordable housing advocates and smart growth backers.

However, Ayers said a ‘one size fits all’ law for zoning would not work in places such as Moore. He said community members, regardless of political affiliation, work together to make it a better place.

“Because what will work in Upper Macungie, it won’t work here,” he said. “That’s why you should leave it in the hands of the people that go to the meetings on a monthly basis, who know what these problems are, listen to the residents about what’s going on and develop a long-term strategy about how we all know.

“I’m a Democrat. I also know that without growth, you have a stagnant economy,” he said. “But I don’t believe a rush to develop land is the answer because you usually end up with more messes than what you began with.”

‘Just add to the problem’

Ayers remains suspicious that developers would be empowered to develop land but leave townships holding a bill.

“I have been on the zoning boards for 15 years, and I’ve been the chairman for the past five or six,” Ayers said. “The one thing that I have learned, if you look up under state law, developers do not have the responsibility to do off-site improvements, which means if they come in and they buy 200 acres of land and they put in 50 homes, they’re not required by law to do anything with an intersection that’s a half-mile down the road, even though everybody knows that it’s going to cause a traffic nightmare.

“High-density housing would just add to that problem,” he said. “I’ve seen it time and time again, with other communities where developers come in, put in all these homes, and then there’s a traffic nightmare. And it takes PennDOT a while to do something.”

He pointed to another example: There’s also a lack of public water and sewer in Moore; water is drawn from an aquifer.

“They’re going to tap into the aquifer to supply water for all these townhouses and if the aquifer runs dry, the surrounding neighbors have no legal recourse,” Ayers said. “If it runs dry, it runs dry. They can’t go after the developer.”

Dave Sanko, executive director of the township supervisors association, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the bills would be a gift to developers.

“It’s not unusual that builders and Realtors don’t want there to be any rules,” Sanko told the newspaper. “They want to be able to do whatever they want. But that’s not what drives the cost of housing.”

What can be done?

Ayers said a simple solution is to build smaller, cheaper homes.

“I understand Mr. Siegel’s issue with the housing shortage,” Ayres said. “To me the problem is not the housing shortage, it’s that they’ve been building the wrong types of houses. For probably 20 years, they’ve been building these little castles. Years ago, the average home was maybe 1,500-1,700 square feet and then it goes to 2,000. Then it goes to 2,500. And it’s up to 3,000. Homes that are out there are so expensive, because they’re so big. If they would just scale back the size of the homes and make them more affordable, you wouldn’t have a housing crisis.”

That’s easier said than done, as more expensive, bigger houses, also known as “McMansions,” bring a bigger profit.

“For the first-time homebuyer, you’re seeing McMansions because [developers] have to build those in order to make a profit at the end of the day, because of the cost and expenditures that they’re making,” Realtor Jack Gross, president and CEO of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Cassion Realty, told 첥Ƶ in 2023. “So that’s one thing that’s affecting first-time homebuyers and the affordability index.”

Siegel said municipal opposition to easing zoning restrictions is contributing to higher home prices.

“I think if you are a proponent of farmland preservation, open space preservation, lowering the cost of housing for our young folks who we educate in the Lehigh Valley — and actually want to make sure that they can afford to live here when they graduate high school and college — or you’re a senior that wants to downsize,” Siegel said, “the municipal opposition to these bills is directly contributing to more expensive housing prices. It is pricing families out of the Lehigh Valley and it’s making the Valley a place that only the wealthiest of wealthy can afford.”

But as the legislation moves forward, Ayers said borough and township officials from across the state will continue to dig in.

“I just don’t think this Mr. Siegel is in tune to what this is all about,” he said. “He’s trying to address the problem and I think he’s going to make a big mistake trying to force me to do this because I’m telling you right now the people in Moore Township are upset with this. They don’t want high density housing out here.”

Morning 첥Ƶ reporter Evan Jones can be reached at ejones@mcall.com.

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