NORRISTOWN — A little rain didn’t keep people from coming out to rally for more affordable housing options in Montgomery County.
Hosted by the Montco 30% Project, the event was initially scheduled for early April but Inclement weather forced the rally’s postponement to the last weekend of the month, and organizer Mike Hays insisted it’d go on rain or shine.
Despite the “light drizzle” on a Saturday afternoon, more than 70 people attended the April 29 event that took place steps of the Montgomery County Courthouse in downtown Norristown.
“It was great really to gather and to share stories and to just kind of prepare for the work ahead,” Hays said in an interview with MediaNews Group. “What can be accomplished at the county level, in the state level and … organize just a solid overall first step.”
Established back in February, the Montco 30% Project was borne out of a Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development-run public meeting concerning federal funding available to Bridgeport and Norristown for disaster relief related to the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
Hays and co-founder Deborah Brown stressed the need to find ways to support those trying to find affordable housing options after the September 2021 storm caused devastating damage to much of the area’s affordable housing stock.
Hays previously observed how the COVID-19 pandemic strained people’s resources, having lasting effects, through his work for state Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist.’s office. He recalled taking phone calls from constituents having trouble throughout the public health crisis.
When planning the organization’s inaugural rally, Hays and Brown strived to cultivate a solid lineup of speakers consisting of elected officials at the local and state levels, advocates as well as others experiencing difficulty finding housing.
He was pleased by the participation of several elected officials with ties to Montgomery County, including Norristown Councilwoman Lauren Hughes, and State Rep. Greg Scott, D-54th Dist.
“It’s inspiring to try to bring together the different stakeholders and with the grassroots folks there which is really the most important part of course. I think the sky’s the limit, honestly,” Hays said.
Funding through Montgomery County’s Emergency Rent & Utility Assistance program lapsed last month. Expressing concerns for potential evictions, organizers cited 1,918 evictions across Pennsylvania from March 5 to March 12, and 224,940 since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Hays recalled staggering statistics relayed during the rally from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab Project Director and Professional Specialist Carl Gershenson. Montgomery County recorded 700 statistics in March and an overall eviction rate of “seven per 100 renters.” Additionally, rent increases reportedly increased by 25 percent in the county seat.
“One of the more troubling parts about the data that he pointed out was that our county is trending upwards, whereas in the City of Philadelphia, they are trending downwards, and he said one of the reasons that’s happening is because the City of Philadelphia still has programs in place to try to help those who are facing evictions, mainly through like a legal counsel program, and they also have some funds available still,” Hays said.
“So we’re faced I think with an uphill battle really when you look at some of these numbers,” he went on to say.
Looking ahead, Hays said he and Brown hope to grow the Montco 30% Project and increase outreach efforts with area residents in need. He encouraged people to attend upcoming meetings where Ida-related funding opportunities will be the expected focus of discussions. In addition to forthcoming rallies, Hays said he’d like to plan a Labor Day picnic and hold “open mic” occasions at several locations across Montgomery County where residents can share their personal experiences with affordable housing.
But Hays said this first rally showed him the real interest and will of the people to continue making this issue a priority.
“I think the greatest takeaway for me is that there is a desire for change and a desire to put in the work, and volunteer, and to roll up our sleeves, but there’s a desire for that more than what I thought existed, and … what I hope … one of the things that comes out of this rally, and the work that we’re doing is that the two commissioners who are elected this fall,” he said. “I think that they really have an amazing opportunity to not only shine a spotlight on this issue, which I think they already are now but to really put into place the programs and the funding to make a difference in the lives of people.”
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