If shelter is a basic human need, then all citizens should have a right to fair housing. In a capitalist society, fair housing means affordable housing.

Over the past 50 some years, Community Homes of Lebanon County has been doing some great things locally, some of which Lebanon residents are aware of, and some of which they are not. But everything Community Homes of Lebanon County does is based on that idea of fair and affordable housing for all.

Locally, Community Homes of Lebanon County is known for six senior-living complexes it owns and operates – Willow Terrace, Poplar Terrace, Maple Terrace, Oak Terrace and Hill Terrace in Lebanon, and Tulpehocken Terrace in Myerstown – and for helping county residents over 62 years of age find affordable housing. But over the last few years, the local nonprofit has begun to expand its services to aid a wider demographic.

Charlie Rush stands in front of a model unit for the proposed Canal Affordable Housing project. (Jeff Falk)

“At one point of my career, I would’ve said our mission was about helping senior people only,” said Charlie Rush, Community Homes of Lebanon County’s CEO over the past 19 years. “But I’m going to go back to Jesus and what he told us to do, ‘Love God with your whole heart, and love your neighbor as yourself’.”

“Community Homes of Lebanon is trying to reach out to other age groups,” Rush added. “We’re here to help people the best we can. I think if you talked to our residents, they’d say how helpful our staff is. We try to treat people we come in contact with as our own family.”

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Currently, Community Homes of Lebanon County’s six properties provide 287 apartments and unites for local seniors and younger adults with disabilities in need. There are another estimated 555 local residents on Community Homes’ waiting list for housing whose rent is determined by income.

Part of Community Homes of Lebanon County’s ongoing success can be attributed to its cooperative partnership with other local non-profits and social-service providers like Lebanon County Area Agency on Aging, United Way of Lebanon County, AGAPE Family Shelter, Lebanon County Christian Ministries, and the Lebanon Rescue Mission.

“They are just average people,” said Rush of the residents. “They are former employees of businesses that don’t exist anymore. They worked hard all of their lives, but they could never save anything for retirement. Many just don’t have a lot, financially. These are folks who have needs that we don’t even think about.”

“Recently, we helped a lady move into one of our buildings,” added Rush. “She’s 80 and she’s a lifelong Lebanon resident. She took care of her parents before they passed. Her income is slightly less than $800 per month. Do that math. She’s moving into one of our places because her current landlord hasn’t maintained her place. Her apartment has no heat and it has no working toilet. She’s paying most of her income for rent. Now, she’s not going to pay no more than 30 percent of her income for rent. Why do we do it? Because there are people in this world who don’t have good choices.”

Much of Community Homes of Lebanon County’s work is funded by federal and state grants, and some by donations from local businesses and individuals. Recently, the Wenger Foundation donated $25,000 to the Community Homes of Lebanon County’s cause.

Rose Walmer, Wenger Foundation President, presents Charlie Rush, CEO Community Homes of Lebanon County, with a $25,000 donation toward Community Homes Capital Campaign. (Photo provided by Skylimit Marketing)

“Shelter comes right after food and water, and if you don’t have those three, you’re not going to survive,” said Rush. “Shelter is a very basic human need. And when it comes to the priority of human needs, shelter is absolutely vital. About ten percent of the population of Lebanon County is at poverty level or below. I think that statistic has been out there for quite awhile. I don’t know if it’s any more now than it was, but I don’t think it’s any less. If it wasn’t for organizations like Community Homes, there’d be a lot of disenfranchised people out there.”

“Years ago, if you wanted to do something like we’re doing, you went to the federal government or the state government,” continued Rush. “There was money floating around out there. Our journey will continue by reaching out to the community. For the sake of the community, we need to pay attention to this. We’re going to have to do some of this on our own. I hope that’s where Community Homes will continue to thrive. It’s for all age groups and all abilities.”

Community Homes of Lebanon County was founded in 1968, by two dozen faith-based and civic-minded organizations who saw the need for affordable local housing. At that time, Community Homes of Lebanon County was granted the status of a Community Housing Development Organization.

In 1972, the 100-apartment Willow Terrace, located at the corner of Eighth and Willow Streets in Lebanon, became the first senior-living complex built by Community Homes of Lebanon County.

Willow Terrace was Community Homes of Lebanon County’s first senior living complex. (Jeff Falk)

“If you start talking about the terrace buildings, there seems to be recognition locally,” said Rush, a 70-year-old resident of West Hempfield Township in Lancaster County. “But when you use the name of our parent organization, people say, ‘What’s that? I never knew those buildings were part of Community Homes.’ It seems like we’re trying to take care of people and we’re not worried about name recognition. There is a quiet need out there. I think we need to be talking about it more.”

“Community Homes began when a group of people got together and looked around, and said, ‘We don’t have enough good housing that people can afford’,” Rush continued. “Over the years, we’ve supplied well over 10,000 years of affordable housing. Right now, there’s almost a six-year waiting list of people who need affordable housing. That’s how many people aren’t being helped at this time. There are a lot out there.”

About ten years ago, Community Homes of Lebanon County expanded its mission by partnering with Albright Life Care Services and Welsh Mountain Dental Services on South Ninth Street in Lebanon to serve ‘people who live in the community but need a little extra help’. More recently, Community Homes set up a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Oak Terrace, which has administered close to 600 doses to about 300 people to date.

Now, Community Homes of Lebanon County is launching a capital campaign to raise $1 million to help fund the proposed $4 million, 23-unit Canal Affordable Housing Project, on 2.4 acres of land on Canal Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in North Lebanon Township. Depending upon the success of the capital campaign, construction on the project could begin as soon as the early months of 2022.

“I think we’re beholden to the greater Lebanon community,” said Rush. “What we’ve started looking at is how we can provide services for more folks. We’ve tried to add services to help people lead a better life. Now, we’re focusing on families, younger people and disabled people.

“There is nothing that can compare with helping your fellow men and women,” concluded Rush. “In many ways, this is the best job I’ve had in my life. The satisfaction I get from helping people who are a little less blessed than me, there’s nothing like it.”

For Community Homes of Lebanon County, home is truly where the heart is.

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Jeff Falk is a seasoned journalist based in Lebanon, PA. He's a graduate of Cedar Crest High School, Penn State University, and a lifelong resident of Lebanon, born and raised. Currently, he is a feature writer for Engle Publishing in Lancaster, the editor of LebCoSports.com, sports director at WLBR...