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‘It’s Going to Change Lives in Our Community’: Leaders Describe Impact of ARP Funding in Bethlehem | WDIY Local News

Senator Bob Casey speaks at a podium.
Mayor J. William Reynolds
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey speaks about the American Rescue Plan during a conference at Bethlehem City Hall on Jan. 6.

Pennsylvania lawmakers and local community leaders recently gathered in Bethlehem to talk about the impact of the American Rescue Plan. WDIY’s Sarit Laschinsky has more.

At a recent news conference, Bethlehem Mayor J. William Reynolds talked about the impact of the American Rescue Plan – the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus bill passed in March 2021 – and how the city planned to use its share of the money.

He thanked U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Susan Wild for their roles in helping to get the plan passed, and spoke about its transformative potential.

“The American Rescue Plan is going to change lives, and it’s going to change lives in our community,” Reynolds said, “and Bethlehem is never going to be the same place again.”

Reynolds said policy benefits related to the American Rescue Plan will be felt in 2023 and beyond, and will help determine Bethlehem’s future as a city.

“We’re talking about how we can address our housing crisis; how we can address food insecurity; how is it that we’re able to invest more in public education; how can we attract and retain employees to our cities and into public service that are being valued, and that understand that we’re going to keep our promises,” he said.

“Most of all, it comes down to how are we going to build a city for everyone.”

One of the major points of discussion made during the conference was addressing homelessness and the housing crisis.

Marc Rittle, Executive Director of the nonprofit New Bethany Ministries said according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, homelessness is going down. But, he said this trend has passed over Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley.

He said locally, 2022 saw a 36% increase in the number of unhoused people since the start of the pandemic, and a 47% increase in the number of unhoused families.

“So we know the way to solve homelessness is to get people into homes – right? I mean, this is the obvious solution,” he said.

Rittle recognized New Bethany’s housing staff, who he said helped distribute $11 million in housing assistance funding in the Bethlehem area since the start of the pandemic.

He also announced that the nonprofit is expanding and remodeling its residential programming.

“Instead of dorm-room style shared housing, our current housing model, we are planning to build efficiency, apartment-style units on our South Side Bethlehem campus, with the help of neighborhood partners and the American Rescue Plan.” He said.

The project received $2 million through the recently-signed Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023. Rittle said the plan is to acquire an additional property to increase the amount of safe housing for vulnerable populations – like single women, families with children, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“So this is long-term temporary housing, to give a place for people to stay for one year, two years, however long it takes while searching for the right job, transportation, child care, and ultimately – a new home,” he explained.

Reynolds said the price of a single-family home in Bethlehem has increased 52% in the last three years while the price of a one-bedroom apartment has increased 57% in that same period of time, and he called the situation a crisis.

“We understand that; people talk about that throughout our community," Reynolds said, “and we are dedicating dollars for the first time on this level…what it allows us to do is be a market participant.”

He said the new federal funding allows the city to be more active and aggressive in tackling issues going forward, and noted that Bethlehem is putting $3 million toward a community recovery fund and $2 million toward a homelessness initiative, which he said is only the first step.

“We’re not going to stop until we’re able to do our part in the city of Bethlehem, and put together a regional coalition to battle homelessness,” Reynolds said.

“And it’s something that not everybody agrees on, as far as a priority, but rest assured – we’re not going to stop until we make progress there.”

Reynolds said Bethlehem’s approach to spending ARPA funding is balancing short-term recovery with long-term needs,

He said the federal money allows Bethlehem to aggressively pay off debt, and frees up funds to be spent elsewhere on permanent community and infrastructure investments over the next several years.

“So every year we can guarantee the fact that there’s going to be a line item in the city budget because of ARPA, that’s going to…allow us to be able to get money out to our community organizations,” Reynolds said as part of his presentation.

“By 2026, thanks to ARPA, we will have paid off almost $95 million in debt. Our revenue and our debt is going to be flipped.”

Casey, who was in attendance, said Bethlehem has received over $34 million in ARPA funding, and he said Reynolds touched on an aspect of the American Rescue Plan that is less often-talked about – its impact on communities

“This story, this story of Bethlehem, is not simply a story about the American Rescue Plan,” Casey said. “Of course, it’s a story about community coming together…to build a stronger city, a better city, a city that’s well positioned for the future.”

Casey said it is “long overdue” that the federal government work with cities to make substantial investments. and questioned why these positive impacts – and the American Rescue Plan itself – received pushback and criticism from some lawmakers.

“But for the life of me, I can’t understand why there’s been so much criticism, so much hot air spewed by Washington politicians,” Casey said. “I won’t say exactly who they are, but you get a sense of who they are.”

He said the impacts from ARPA and its initiatives have already become apparent and, as an example, and pointed to the temporary expansion of the child tax credit, which he said reduced child poverty across the country by 40% over a six-month period and benefitted 85% of children in Pennsylvania.

“Why is that a bad idea in Washington,” he asked. “Why is that a bad idea?

“Finally, Washington said, ‘we’re going to use the tax code,’” Casey added, “not like it’s been used for 40 years just to reward big corporations and very wealthy Americans. That’s the story of the last 40 years, I don’t like saying that, but I think that’s the truth.”

He also pointed to how the tax credit benefitted families in the region.

“Lehigh County, 70,000 children benefitted, were eligible for that enhanced credit…and their families by extension,” Casey said. “In Northampton County, 52,000 children. Just in two counties, that’s more than 120,000 children. That’s a good thing.”

In closing, Casey said Bethlehem is demonstrating how to use ARPA funding efficiently and effectively to make investments for the future, from housing to fiscal security. He said that the American Rescue Plan should perhaps be an inspiration to do more for communities around the state and the country.

“It’s about time we invested in families and communities,” Casey said, “and I think the American Rescue Plan was a clarion call to do more of that.”

(Original air-date: 1/10/23)

Sarit "Siri" Laschinsky was WDIY's News and Public Affairs Director until 2023.
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