The Lancaster Chamber strives to provide opportunity for local business and community leaders to share their insight and perspective on a variety of current topics.
This Words That Activate Change series is focused on uplifting voices in our community that encourage dialogue, cultivate transformation, offer thought-provoking ideas, and challenge all of us to be better, be stronger, and, most importantly, be advocates for systematic change within both our community and our workforce.
Our sixteenth article is by Mike McKenna, President of Tabor Community Services. Mike has served as the President of Tabor Community Services since October 2018. Over the past 18 months Mike has been leading an effort to merge Tabor and a fellow strong affordable housing services organization, Lancaster Housing Opportunities Partnership, into a new united organization better positioned to provide solutions to the housing challenges in our community and region. During the pandemic, Tabor/LHOP has been instrumental in responding to the dual crises of mounting evictions and strained homeless services. Mike also serves in a volunteer capacity as the President of Lancaster Equity Community Development Corporation, a coalition of organizations and community residents committed to housing and community development initiatives that improve the quality of life for all Lancastrians. He is also the Chair of Lanc Co My Home’s (the county’s homelessness coalition) Housing and Human Services Council. Mike brings years of experience working to mitigate poverty and promote self-sufficiency. Prior to Tabor, he served as Chief Impact/Operations Officer at Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County, where he previously served as Director of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program. He was named Forty under 40 by the Central Penn Business Journal in 2018, and a Baldwin Fellow by the Lancaster County Community Foundation in 2019. He has a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame and a Master of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. Mike and his wife live in the Lititz area with their two young daughters.
Dreaming Of And Striving For A Secure Home For All
By Mike McKenna
During a hard year one of the ways I found solace was time in nature, watching wildlife, especially birds. In winter I love looking for last season’s birds’ nests, marveling at the many kinds of homes perched at the edge of a branch or sometimes right at eye level, like the robin’s nest I must have walked by hundreds of times in a small magnolia next to my driveway. I think about the thousands of years of evolution that led to the creation of these perfect structures for the vulnerable chicks–light but strong and resilient, woven with fibers, or daubed with mud, warm and insulating.
And since housing is never far from mind because of the work that I do, I step back and think, well, when will our species get it right? How much longer until we awaken an instinct to ensure safe and dry and warm housing for everyone in our species?
Indeed, the housing crisis our community faced before the pandemic has been magnified by the economic stress it caused. We’re facing twin crises of looming evictions and foreclosures and the threat of homelessness, and low inventory. Thankfully, there are of course some bright spots in the housing landscape, like the low-to-moderate income homebuyers who are taking advantage of low-interest rates to buy, or the dozens of partners and thousands of donors keeping people housed with rent relief.
At the dawn of 2021, we are buoyed by hope for the future. This year can be so different than those that have come before. We have an invitation—nay, a responsibility—to heal from the many ravages of the pandemic in a way that makes us stronger, to dream of the post-COVID future in a way that uncouples us from an inequitable status quo.
My dream is that we’ll collectively insist upon a safe, dry, and affordable home for everyone in our community. And we’ll affirm that secure, sustainable housing is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of our community when considered from virtually any lens.
Housing is a healthcare issue
When people spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, they often face financial tradeoffs, especially related to food and medical care. When households are forced to double up (often a stepping stone before literal homelessness), communicable diseases like COVID are more likely to spread. Housing is also a mental health issue. One woman who had been living on the street had been reluctant to accept services for many years in part due to a mental health condition; when Tabor’s homeless outreach worker gave her an opportunity to shelter at a hotel, she began opening up and has applied for services that will likely create greater stability for her for years to come.
Housing is a workforce issue
During the pandemic we have rightfully heralded the contributions of essential workers, from health care workers to teachers and postal workers. We could further show our gratitude by actively supporting more housing options for moderate-income workers to live close to their jobs, sometimes in higher-density developments (like our county’s comprehensive plan calls for). Proximity to the workplace is a boon for quality of life for workers and a benefit for employers.
Housing is a racial justice issue
2020 of course laid bare the unequal and inequitable treatment of black and brown Americans relative to that of white Americans, in so many sectors of society, not the least of which is the housing market. My organization was formed in 1968 by courageous Mennonite leaders challenging fellow white Christians who refused to rent to black Lancastrians, and empowering people of all races and incomes to overcome housing challenges. The seeds of that discrimination were laid decades before; the 1933 Home Owners Loan Corporation maps described the neighborhood just south and west of Tabor’s main building in Lancaster City as “hazardous” and goes on to describe it as housing that “holds practically all the aliens and negroes of the city.” These redlined neighborhoods have suffered from the lack of investment wrought by these racist policies, contributing to the staggering wealth gap between black and white Americans still seen today.
I could go on. Housing is an environmental issue (think about lead poisoning in children). Housing is a criminal justice issue (the prison’s re-entry coordinator identifies housing as the number one concern of re-integrating former inmates).
Think about all the time many of us have spent at home since the pandemic altered all of our basic routines. How did it feel? Now imagine how it would feel to not know where you’ll sleep or how you’ll make the next mortgage payment. Some don’t need to imagine since they’ve lived it.
Spring is coming. Soon our backyards and parks will be filled with birdsong again as they go about courting and building their new nests. My sincere hope is that this will be a spring of weaving a strong and resilient foundation for our collective housing future as well. In the words of the late great poet Mary Oliver:
“Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then––open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.”
Catch up on other articles in the series:
Stay tuned for even more perspectives this year as we hear from a variety of local business and community leaders sharing insightful commentary on our society, our community, and our workforce.