Bensalem residents may soon be able to get state assistance to pay for home repairs. This is all thanks to a new program lawmakers passed on Friday as part of the delayed main state budget bill.

Sponsor of the Whole Home Repair Program
Sen. Nikil Saval (D-Philadelphia) via Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus

The program known as the Whole Home Repair Program, was conceived by Sen. Nikil Saval (D-Philadelphia) shortly after taking office in 2020.

“I think there are a number of different initiatives that cut across county and geography that are held in common by lots of different people and are popular,” he said. “We had an intuition that this would be one of them, and it turned out to be true … everyone deserves a safe and healthy home.”

A rare victory for progressive Democrats in the Republican-controlled legislature but also a small sign of bipartisanship.

 

Bipartisanship in PA?

While there was some early support among GOP moderates, a surprise came from conservative Sen. Dave Argall (R-Schuylkill), who chairs the State Government Committee. Argall was eager to have the bill included.

While in Philadelphia the bill is mainly seen as a way of helping homeowners struggling to keep

their homes when it comes to the choice of paying their mortgage or paying for a costly repair. In Argall’s district, the problem is vacant, dilapidated houses. Shenandoah has seen its population plunge from 15,704 in 1950 to an estimated 4,760 according to the last census. The city has seen fires in vacant homes where the only answer has been demolition.

“Any community that has faced economic distress [needs this bill],” Sen. Argall said. “People won’t have to drive far to find this kind of a need.” That kind of cross-state and cross-party appeal, he added, is vanishingly rare in the state Capitol.

Sponsor of the Whole Home Repair Program
Sen. Dave Argall (R-Schuylkill) via legis.state.pa.usp

“In a building with some very bitter partisan divisions, on this one issue at least, we were able to work together,” he said. “It needs to happen more like this.”

A program for low to middle-income homeowners

The Whole Home Repair Program is geared toward lower to middle-income people who are struggling to find the money to pay for costly repairs or in the effort to save money and make their homes more energy-efficient. For some homeowners, the struggle to pay for necessary repairs could mean being forced from their homes.

While less than what Sen. Saval proposed for his bill, $125 million has been allocated this year. An amount that Sen. Saval said he’s “very happy” with.

Saval also sees this bill as a way to tackle energy efficiency. Homes with leaks or drafts aren’t energy-efficient, saddling their owners with high energy bills. However, you can’t weatherize homes with structural issues or leaky roofs, or drafty windows. Homeowners who can’t afford to make the underlying repairs are often out of luck.

Individual homeowners will be eligible for a grant of up to $50,000, and landlords will be able to apply for a repayable loan for up to that same amount. Homeowners are eligible if they earn up to 80% of the median income in their area. Loans would only be available to small landlords and come with restrictions on how much they can charge in rent.

The Whole Home Repair Program will be run under the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development. County agencies or groups that do the housing assistance work within counties will be able to apply for certain amounts of money, and then help property owners apply to get a slice of the funding.

A portion of the funding will be used to add staff at the state and county level to help walk people through the grant or loan process as well as provide workforce training so that more people can get certified to weatherize and upgrade aging houses.

Time will tell if this will be an ongoing program

There is no timeline set in stone for when the Whole Home Repair Program will take effect. Once the budget is signed into law, the Department of Community and Economic Development will need to set up guidelines for the program before counties and other groups can begin applying for funding and allocating it to homeowners.

Meanwhile, the Whole Home Repair Program’s backers are already looking to next year’s budget noting that during recessions years or poor revenue the GOP-controlled state house will often look to cut public programs rather than raising taxes.

Sen. Argall has said, “We’re going to have to fight for this every year”.

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