York College students tackle York City's housing policy history

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

Fifteen York College students, including graduating seniors, recently presented a semesterlong research project about housing policy history in York City to local leaders like Mayor Michael Helfrich.

York College Professor Corey Brooks taught the Housing and Policy in York class in the fall. Students like 2022 graduate Jennifer Hernandez-Vargas, a political science major, compiled individual research projects about different housing policy aspects into a comprehensive presentation.

After studying housing policy and its history in York City, narrowing in on some of the biggest issues, the students got to craft potential solutions, Hernandez-Vargas said.

York Housing Authority will soon begin demolition followed by the rebuilding of public housing units in the area of West College and Brooklyn Avenues in York City, Thursday, May 30, 2019. Reconstruction of new public housing will follow. Dawn J. Sagert photo

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The research project is modeled after a program from the National History Center of D.C. where historians study policy and then present findings to legislatures to help guide them in decision-making processes, Brooks said.

"So the idea was inform policymakers about the history of the policy questions they're considering. And so this course takes that ... but does it on the local level. And so the historical experts, by the end of the semester, are the students in the course," Brooks said.

Each student chose a specific topic under the theme of housing policy to study and wrote an eight- to 10-page paper on it, Hernandez-Vargas said. After individual presentations, the students formed small groups and condensed each person's paper into one presentation. Finally, the class as a whole made a single presentation using each group's contribution.

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Some of the issues they identified were language barriers between renters and landlords, how eminent domain can displace residents or destroy affordable housing, and the historic struggle to legislatively protect renters' rights to habitable dwellings.

Christian Shetter-Gervasi, a public history major set to graduate in May, spoke about housing standards history, government programs and potential solutions to housing issues to the audience with representatives from local groups like Crispus Attucks York and the York County Planning Commission.

Overall, any solutions to housing issues will take a combined effort, he said. While nonprofits in York like Crispus Attucks have had success with combating issues of homelessness or housing, they are limited financially and can't be expected to shoulder the burden of housing issues.

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Nonprofits are often connected with the communities they work in and are attuned to the problems residents face, but they lack the funding that some government agencies have to do large-scale projects. Government agencies or programs sometimes face the opposite problem: They may have the funding but don't know the residents and their daily struggles as intimately as nonprofits do.

"So if we're going to make any effort to really bring up the standard of housing in York City, we can't just rely on nonprofits, because a lot of them don't have the resources necessary to do more than chip away at the problem," Shetter-Gervasi said. "And we can't just write some new standards and hope that it works."

Historically, when nonprofits and government agencies or programs work together, the most changes or improvements to housing situations are achieved. These partnerships date back as late as the 1930s, when the York County Almshouse started working with local nonprofits, said Reagan Licata, one of the presenters.

Updated forms of rent control and better habitability standards were among some of the solutions. While simply asking legislature for these outright isn't feasible, working toward them is, Shetter-Gervasi said. This could be done in a number of ways, like second-generation rent control, which freezes rent to stop it from rising to market price until the current tenant is out and the space is on the market again.

— Reach Noel Miller at NMiller3@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.