Commentary: Housing security can break Philly's cycle of poverty

By Mitchell Little

Substandard housing is not just a result of poverty: it is a main driver of persistent, intergenerational poverty - especially for single-parent families headed by women of color. This is the central thesis of Matthew Desmond's book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Although his research is based in Milwaukee, similar stories abound in Philadelphia. An ever-aging housing stock and rising rents are squeezing poor families even more.

Median rents in the city are $1,425 for a one-bedroom, $1,600 for two. But a family of four living in poverty (earning below $24,300 annually) can only afford to pay about $700 per month in rent. A family living in deep poverty (earning below $12,150) can only afford to pay about $350 per month. Public housing units and housing vouchers are an obvious solution, but the demand for these resources dwarfs the supply.

Waiting lists at the Philadelphia Housing Authority are often closed, and it can take 10 years or more to rise to the top. While PHA annually serves about 33,000 households, there are at least 99,000 renter households in Philadelphia that are earning below $20,000 and in desperate need of these resources.

The stark reality is that there aren't many affordable, or even acceptable, housing options for families living near the poverty line. Even if these families do find low-cost places to live, the rentals could very well be in disrepair. Leaking roofs, broken windows, rodents, nonfunctioning heaters or stoves, peeling paint, exposed wiring, and other unsafe conditions are common in below-market rental units across the city.

Leaks and water damage can cause or exacerbate asthma and other respiratory problems. Poor housing quality can cause emotional harm to children and contribute to truancy, missed school, and poorer school performance. It can also compromise job performance, leading to loss of employment and triggering a vicious cycle that traps families into longer spells of poverty.

By law, landlords are legally obligated to meet basic standards of safety and habitability. But many very low-income tenants feel they can't complain to the landlord, let alone to authorities, for fear of retaliation. Reporting a leaking roof could result in having no roof at all.

This is a crisis; dealing with it takes a range of strategies.

Increasing housing security is one of the five core goals of Shared Prosperity Philadelphia, the city's comprehensive antipoverty effort launched in 2013 by the Mayor's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity. The Housing Security Working Group, a collaborative of public agencies, private nonprofit organizations, and housing advocates, was created as part of this endeavor. Our mission is to identify and implement innovative and cost-effective strategies to increase the amount of decent housing at the low end of the private rental housing market.

Our plan includes researching and implementing national best practices; launching a public education campaign for both landlords and tenants; collaborating with key systems that impact the city's rental housing stock, such as the Departments of Public Health and Licenses and Inspections, and local housing agencies; and providing technical assistance and other supports to help landlords comply with housing regulations.

Over the next year, the Working Group will host events and reach out to concerned partners from the public and private sector who can help us move these efforts forward. Together, we will work to identify the strategies and the resources needed to make a difference.

Philadelphia remains the poorest of the nation's 10 largest cities and a lack of affordable rental housing is one of the reasons. Housing security for all Philadelphians is a necessary down payment on breaking the cycle of poverty.

Mitchell Little is executive director of the Mayor's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity. Mitchell.Little@phila.gov