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Your View: Effort to stop Bethlehem church’s affordable housing plan is snootiness at its worst

"Oppose High Density Development" signs are seen Saturday, June 22, 2024, along Moreland Avenue in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
“Oppose High Density Development” signs are seen Saturday, June 22, 2024, along Moreland Avenue in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
Alan Jennings
PUBLISHED:

They wait on you at your favorite restaurants. They help raise your children as early childhood education aides. They patrol your streets. They change your parents’ bedpans at the personal care facility. They cut your grass. They are young families trying to get a start and save some money to buy a house.

But they aren’t good enough to live next door to you. Actually, not even next door but across a state road and more than 200 yards away. They see your signs expressing contempt for them, hundreds of households in desperate need, like you were once and your kids are now, for a decent place to live. They need homes they can afford.

For decades, I worked for a powerful nonprofit that brought together all the interest groups, bankers and developers, social workers and civic-minded volunteers. We worked our tails off, innovated, lobbied, begged, cried.

Finally, with so many facing the challenge with few solutions, everyone seems to understand that the housing market is a disaster. Builders are tired of the risks and hassles they endure to develop housing, bank regulations make it harder to do construction financing, townships don’t want “those people” and have made it nearly impossible to develop.

With more demand (I’ve said it before: Jersey’s affordable housing program is called “Pennsylvania”) and stagnant supply, prices have gone through the roof. We need everyone to focus and all the resources possible if we are to beat the marketplace.

Enter the rich folks’ church on Center Street near the intersection with Macada Road. Once among the healthiest churches and most prominent congregations in the region, today, like so many churches, it struggles to survive. Members found a way to operationalize their faith, providing a commodity so desperately needed throughout the region while generating income from that big chunk of valuable land for their congregation.

They have planned, sought community input, consulted with consultants, informed the city of their plans and come up with a viable, sustainable project that will loosen up the wider market if only so slightly. As a churchgoer for most of my life (my family is active at First Presbyterian in Allentown), I heard the word but never understood why so little was being done in the name of Jesus.

That has changed; the faith community has awakened. Three cheers for First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem!

Unfortunately, the ugly old ways of American society, the one crowded with hypocrites who say they aren’t racists or snobs, has reared its head. The doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, bankers and others from the country club set are mad. When you hear these folks argue against the church’s project, their comments drip with snootiness. Never mind that many were once young families, entry-level employees or unskilled workers for whom the minimum wage has never been enough.

Mixed in with yard signs that say, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Not rich like us? Move to the South Side!” or, “You’re Out, We’re In! Nanny nanny poo poo!” are signs threatening to toss the mayor out of city hall.

It is amazing how bluster and desperation trump (appropriate verb!) reason and civility when those who have take on those who have not. Some of these folks have anonymously informed nonprofits that they won’t get their donations anymore. Unbelievable.

The city’s mayor, J. William Reynolds, and his family have had to endure over-the-top tactics that verge on harassment. The opposition has raised some $20,000 to fight these dastardly people who have some nerve, wanting to have a place to live. They have had signs made threatening Willie’s reelection, which is 16 months away. I would remind him that there are not that many families who are upset about this development. There are thousands, though, who fit the market being served by this project.

So, Willie, justice is on your side. So is the math. Don’t waver. City Council, too, needs to stand firm.

Ignore the voices of those who think maintaining their million-dollar equity should be a priority over those families’ need for someplace, anyplace to live. So what, even if you do lose your reelection battle; you will know you made a huge difference in the lives of regular folks who don’t have the money to fight these battles.

Alan L. Jennings of Allentown is the retired executive director of Community Action Lehigh Valley.

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