Karen Heller: Facing a 'tenure problem' in public housing

PHA Director Michael P. Kelly. "How do you make families stronger to get them out of public housing?" he asks. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

More than a year ago, Michael Kelly landed arguably the hardest job in town: helming the Philadelphia Housing Authority in the aftermath of Carl Greene.

A three-decade housing veteran with tours in New York, Washington, and New Orleans, Kelly specializes in the recovery of troubled agencies, but PHA was in a class by itself. Greene, the autocratic executive paid more than the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, left in the wake of multiple sexual harassment complaints.

"Unfortunately," says Kelly, an architect and urban planner, PHA "has a stigma right now of being the poster child of all that's wrong" with public housing. The authority, almost entirely funded by the federal government and historically controlled by the city, is in federal receivership, just extended another year so investigators can continue multiple probes.

Public housing, Kelly says, "is a program that has very few friends in high places." The middle class is hurting, especially after the mortgage crisis, while many politicians campaign for smaller government.

But demand is extraordinary. Among the nation's largest cities, Philadelphia has the highest percentage of residents in poverty.

Almost one-sixth of city residents are waiting for housing assistance.

Through authority-managed units and Section 8 vouchers for renters' assistance, PHA serves 80,000 households, many with annual incomes between $12,000 and $18,000. "Though on any given night in public housing," Kelly says, "we know those numbers swell with brothers and sisters, and ex-offenders getting out, easily 20,000 more residents."

Qualifying for housing assistance isn't easy and there's a massive waiting list - where folks can spend years - of more than 100,000 households, about 260,000 residents.

People can spend their entire lives in public housing, which requires tenants to pay a third of their income in rent. Only 12 percent of residents are employed. Seniors constitute almost a fifth of the tenants in PHA-run properties; the disabled, a quarter of all voucher recipients. At one meeting, I heard folks proudly announce they were third-generation PHA residents. Isn't the goal to get people solvent and successful enough to transition out?

"Families will, on their own, chose to leave public housing because the dollar value will buy them something that's a better location or closer to the school," Kelly says, though he admits there's "a tenure problem. It's an interesting kind of dilemma. On one level, it's good there's no stigma about living in public housing, that people feel safe and supported."

Raising generations in public housing dependent on other government assistance "speaks to the permanency of the underclass. We have terrible graduation rates." People become trapped in the government net.

"This is really not about housing, it's about poverty. It's about education and jobs, and the direct relation between all these things," Kelly says. "Housing becomes a production by-product of that. When we talked about foreclosures, public housing didn't come up, but they're related. The relationship and revitalization of a neighborhood is how we fix the housing crisis."

To critics of public housing, Kelly argues "low-income people aren't just going to go away. They're going to be some place," he says. "We're providing healthy housing for a population that, if that service was not provided, would contribute to homelessness, which would contribute to a larger social malaise and specifically impact on emergency response systems, the public safety systems, the health systems. You actually, as a taxpayer, would be paying for this in another form."

You would, he argues, pay more.

Housing becomes an investment and security in warding off more dangerous social and economic costs that decimate the city's growth and vitality. "How do you make families stronger to get them out of public housing?" Kelly asks, one of the daunting tasks he and the authority are charged with tackling.


Contact Karen Heller at kheller@phillynews.com or 215-854-2586. Follow her on Twitter @kheller.