Michelle Lynch: Reading apartment project to provide housing for homeless veterans

·5 min read

May 23—This story was updated on Monday, May 23, 2022: The Berks County Redevelopment Authority's nonprofit has paid since their purchase and will continue to pay all city real estate taxes on the properties.

Homelessness has long been a problem for military veterans in Berks County, said Ken Lebron, director of the county department of veterans affairs.

The number of homeless veterans in Berks varies from day to day, he said, as does their living arrangements.

The veterans' taskforce of the Berks County Coalition to End Homelessness is tracking 24 veterans.

But it is a misconception to think all are living on the street, Lebron said.

Homelessness falls on a spectrum with a range of living conditions, he said. These vary from sleeping in a car or tent to couch surfing with friends or family to staying in a shelter.

That means each of the identified veterans will have different housing needs.

"More options, resources and opportunities are always going to be better for a person who is homeless," he said.

Thanks to a collaborative project underway, some of the county's homeless veterans may soon have a better place to live.

Twelve single-bedroom and studio apartments at 615-619 Walnut St. are undergoing renovations by the Berks County Redevelopment Authority and will be designated for veterans who would otherwise be homeless.

The completed facility will be managed by Opportunity House.

Funding for the $2.1 million project will come primarily from the county, said Kenneth L. Pick, authority director.

He did not elaborate, saying only that the funds will be drawn from a number of resources.

Pick said as COVID-19 hit, construction costs began escalating and the authority encountered a shortfall, so he turned to the city for help with the project.

City Council recently approved a $360,000 contribution toward the project.

The city's share will come from Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act or, CARES Act, funds.

The act, passed by Congress in 2020, allotted $2.2 trillion to provide fast and direct economic aid to reduce the impacts of the pandemic.

The commitment will help draw down an excess of $1.8 million in CARES funds designated for Reading, Frank Denbowski, Mayor Eddie Moran's chief of staff and interim city manager, said at a recent City Council meeting.

It's use it or lose it, Denbowski said, noting the funds must be spent by July 2023.

Veterans, many of whom are on a fixed income, have been especially hard hit by the fallout of COVID-19, LeBron said.

Since the pandemic began, housing has become increasingly scarce and costly, he said.

Modesto Fiume, president of Opportunity House, agrees.

"There's a great need for housing in general and veterans in particular," he said, noting an ongoing lack of quality, affordable housing throughout the county. "It impacts the community as a whole, but specifically with veterans, they need a place to go, and they are limited by fixed incomes."

Some, too, are battling emotional or medical issues or have other needs that can be impediments to housing, he said.

"We're trying to focus on taking care of our veterans with this particular project," he said.

The nonprofit, which runs a shelter at 430 N. Second St., has partnered with the redevelopment authority on many projects, Fiume said, and this one was a natural fit.

The county redevelopment authority will retain ownership of the property and will be responsible for all rehabilitation and maintenance.

"We're simply going to go in there and help them identify the clients, the veterans, to live there," Fiume said, "and have an office there to provide the onsite case management support as may be needed."

The apartments will be rented to single veterans as long-term housing.

"As a community, we've moved away from the transitional housing, short-term solution," he said, noting there is still a role for that. "But this particular project will be permanent housing for those veterans, as long as they choose to live there."

Pick said several potential sites were considered and rejected before the vacant and deteriorating Walnut Street properties became available.

The three buildings, though unoccupied, already had 12 apartments, he said, and there is room for an onsite office, something Opportunity House wanted.

The interior of the buildings was gutted down to the framing. They will be fully rehabilitated inside and out to meet code and ADA requirements.

Because they are in the Penn's Common Historic District, Pick said, extra care will be taken to restore exterior features.

City zoning variances also are needed for the minimum area requirements for 10 of the 12 apartments and the number of studio units.

A special exception and modification of parking requirements also is needed, due to pre-existing conditions.

There is space behind the buildings to provide several parking spaces for disabled tenants, but not enough to meet the zoning requirements, Thomas Dachowski, housing director for the county redevelopment authority, said at a recent hearing of the city zoning board.

The nearest public parking garage at Poplar and Walnut streets is only about 100 feet beyond that permitted for off-site parking, he said, and the authority is working with the Reading Parking Authority on renting the required spaces.

City Councilors feared the properties were removed from the tax rolls last year when they were bought by the nonprofit arm of the county redevelopment authority.

However, Pick said, the county redevelopment authority's nonprofit has been committed to paying all real estate taxes on the properties since their purchase.

Pending all necessary permits and paperwork, Pick said, the project should be finished next year.

"It will make housing attainable and affordable for veterans who would otherwise be homeless," LeBron said. "It's a great opportunity to help ensure we can reach as many veterans, who may be living in a sensitive situation, as possible."