A picture of HealthSpark's President and CEO, Emma Hertz standing at a podium, giving her opening remarks.

Taking a Look Back: Opening Remarks from Meeting the Moment

We have an opportunity to change our community’s trajectory because of what you all are asking for- a moment of unity and vision, of deep investment and aligned action.

On February 12th, 2024, HealthSpark Foundation hosted a Community of Practice on the homelessness and lack of affordable housing crises in our community. We received simultaneous notes of appreciation and requests to read the opening remarks that our President and CEO, Emma Hertz gave that day. We are now publishing them, and offer them as a reminder that efforts must persist in addressing these critical crises.

"Good morning and welcome, thank you for joining us today for this important conversation. I’m Emma Hertz, President/CEO at HealthSpark Foundation, we are the host for today’s event. HealthSpark Foundation is a private, independent philanthropic foundation, and our mission is to invest in nonprofits, coalitions, and networks supporting a healthier and more just Montgomery County.

We believe that housing is a foundation of both community and individual health. When children, families, and individuals have safe and stable housing, they’re able to grow in their education and careers, take care of their physical and mental well-being, and contribute to the vitality of their neighborhood. And, when communities have an abundance of diverse, safe housing, they become a places where people put down roots, invest in their schools and streets, and build a sense of neighborliness.

So for our foundation, investing in healthy, safe, and affordable housing is paramount to our mission. 

For the last decade, we’ve been working with community partners to build a strong service system that supports people when they lose their housing. With our community partners, including nonprofits, the county, other philanthropies, and many others, we’ve made significant strides to building a more coordinated system for people experiencing homelessness to access services and supports, called Your Way Home. Together we’ve built programs like street outreach and street medicine, rapid rehousing, the Eviction Prevention and Intervention Coalition, and Code Blue shelters. These programs have been an incredible help to the community in times of need- such as the Emergency Rent and Utility Coalition, composed of 6 organizations coming together during the pandemic, that distributed over $115 million in funds directly to households in need. That is incredible, and a testament to their hard work and dedication.

And yet, and yet- despite the best efforts and literal blood, sweat, and tears of the provider community, the progress to achieve a vision of housing stability for all has encountered major setbacks. Setbacks to the point where we are facing both a homelessness and an affordable housing crisis in Montgomery County.

Recent data shows that one-third of Montgomery County residents can’t afford their home- that’s inclusive of both renters and homeowners. 74,000 households live above the poverty line but earn below what it actually costs to live in Montgomery County. 74,000 households choosing between paying their rent or mortgage and paying for medicine, food, childcare, a car repair. The largest growing cohort of housing unstable households are those earning between $45,000 and $75,000 annually- that’s the traditional middle class.

Historically affordable communities like Schwenksville, Hatfield, and Lower Pottsgrove have seen rents and home prices increase exponentially- over 200% since 2019 in some cases. Increases well over inflation and far outpacing the growth rate of a healthy housing market. Across the county, local businesses that drive our economy and critical services that that keep us safe are unable to hire workers because those workers- those middle-class workers like EMT’s, and teachers, librarians, grocery store workers, nurses- are unable to find
housing that fits with their income.

Montgomery County now has the third highest rate of evictions of any county in the state of Pennsylvania. We’re now recording 22 evictions per day.

Extreme housing instability and homelessness are growing incredibly rapidly, to the point where the homeless crisis response system- which was under-resourced to begin with- is now completely overwhelmed.

In one of the wealthiest counties in the state, we’ve reached a point where handing out a tent is often the best we can do when someone loses their home. How does that happen? When we’ve worked so hard and invested so much, how does that happen?

The housing and homeless crises we’re facing today are the result of decades of policy choices that have treated basic human needs- like housing, healthcare, and education- as commodities that only certain people should be able to afford. Policy choices that have systemically denied Black households in particular land, wealth, and economic opportunity.

We’ve treated poverty and homelessness as moral failings of an individual or a
community, rather than as the natural result of racist, classist policy decisions made over hundreds of years. We’ve invested more money into criminalizing poverty and creating band-aid solutions- like temporary shelter and temporary housing- than we have into the infrastructure and investments needed to create communities that actually have safe, affordable housing; livable wages; and equal access to educational and
economic opportunity. And, even despite the persistence of this issue over the last few decades, we’ve lacked the political will to act with the urgency and level of investment that these crises demand.

It is impossible to ignore homelessness and housing affordability challenges in every community in Montgomery County. 

And it is equally impossible to ignore the groundswell of calls to action from leaders like all of you.

For the first time, we are seeing a new cohort of leaders taking up the mantle of calling for renewed investment into addressing these problems. Municipal leaders are asking for help with creating inclusionary zoning laws. Businesses are asking for ways to support creation of workforce housing that meets the needs of their employees. Faith leaders are stepping up to provide shelter and challenging government to provide more sustainable solutions. Law enforcement is recognizing that arrests won’t solve homelessness, only housing in their community will. Elected leaders are crafting legislation in a way we’ve not seen in recent years.

Most notably- we have 250 people showing up today to talk about this issue. 250 people representing nonprofits, county government, municipal government, faith groups, local businesses, realtors, developers, hospitals, emergency services, community planners, philanthropies, advocates and activists, and elected leadership at literally every level of local, state, and federal leadership who want to be here, who understand the necessity of being here, and who want to take part in solutions.

We have an opportunity to change our community’s trajectory because of what you all are asking for- a moment of unity and vision, of deep investment and aligned action.

We have in this room what it takes to Meet the Moment. I believe that we do.

And I know it will include three things:

First, investing adequate, sustainable resources to address our immediate crisis needs as well as the longer-term infrastructure and solutions. Recognizing that many current forms of funding prioritize the crisis response over systemic change- which means we have to unlock new sources of capital to actually fix the problem. That’s why I’m so glad to see my peers in philanthropy here, our elected leadership, our local businesses, and our healthcare systems. All entities that can invest in housing policies in a new, and more coordinated way, and in a way that supports their own mission or bottom line. Good housing policy is good economic policy, it is good health policy, it is good education policy. So glad to see our County Commissioners here today, to thank them for their historic investment of $4 million in General Funds to address housing and homelessness. This is the first time in recent memory that General Funds have been used in this manner, and that is historic.

Second, to meet the moment- it means we need to start mobilizing around policy changes needed at the local, state and federal levels. Our local challenges are inextricable linked to laws and policies set in each municipality, within the County, and within the state and federal government. And many, many laws and policies need to change. We need a cohort of advocates who show up and engage our elected leaders and our neighbors and voters on these policy issues, time and time again, in a coordinated and informed manner. And we need elected leaders and their staff to engage with us- to learn, to listen, and to have the courage to use their voice and vote. I look to the efforts of local groups like the Montco 30% Project and the Collaborative Advocacy Network for bringing a new level of organizing to Montgomery County. These groups are harnessing advocates to show up at town meetings, write in op-eds, testify in public hearings, and keep this issue in the news. They’re building relationships with statewide groups like the Housing Alliance and 10,000 friends, coordinating policy priorities and advocating for those policies. And friends, it is working- the priorities set by CAN and Housing Alliance are reflected directly in Governor Shapiro’s 2024 budget. That is using our influence and our power to create real change.

Third, we need visible, vocal leadership across our communities. Leadership not just from our elected officials, but also from local businesses and major employers, our faith leaders, our school districts, our neighborhood groups, and other community leaders. Now is the time to be present, assertive, and informed about the need for housing. Together, we can lead forward with a new narrative about the role of housing in our communities. Rather than a commodity that only some can afford, housing can and should be viewed as an integral component of every strong, vibrant neighborhood and a healthy, thriving economy. I look to the efforts of communities like Lower Merion, whose leadership and staff have recognized that community development includes making provisions for affordable housing. In the past few years, their council has established a local Trust Fund for development, approved specific affordable housing zones in their community, and invested municipal dollars and land into construction of affordable housing. That is historic, that is leadership, and its that kind of action that we need across our county.

 “In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love,” writes the poet Frank O’Hara.

In this time of crisis, we must individually and collectively decide who we love. When we
come up against tough budget choices, or contentious public hearings, or are faced with the messiness of policy work- we must decide again and again whom we love. I believe that this community has the capacity to love through tough moments because I have seen this community love through tough moments.

HealthSpark is ready to do our part to meet this moment, with love, with humility, and with open arms- and I humbly ask you to join us. Thank you."