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Philadelphia’s Affordable Housing Coalition

By Rafi Rom

8/27/04

Upside Down World

Veronica Howard has lived on the 1800 block of 8th Street in Philadelphia her whole life. Once in a thriving, North Philadelphia neighborhood, her house is now the only one still habitable on her side of the street. Her block is a common site in a city with 25,000 to 60,000 so-called “abandoned” houses.

The stress from not knowing if and when her house will be torn down has greatly impacted her health. "I don't sleep good at night, and don't enjoy life anymore." Ms. Howard, 59 years old, blames the eventual plan for demolition for causing a stroke she had in November of last year.

She turned to the Philadelphia Affordable Housing Coalition (PAHC), a grassroots coalition dedicated to increasing housing opportunities, for support. PAHC, which sprung into action in the fall of 2000, has dedicated its energies to countering the erosion of everyone's fundamental right to housing. The city’s dirth of affordable housing is not just a crisis. As Habeebah Ali--longtime Philadelphia housing activist and formerly homeless mom--explained, its “a weapon of mass destruction" targetting the poor. Groups involved with PAHC, like the Kennsington Welfare Rights Union, Disabled in Action, Women's Community Revitalization Project, among others, are largely composed of Philadelphians who have been directly affected by free market policies that have made it virtually impossible for low-income families to find and maintain decent housing in Philadelphia.

Like hundreds of other low-income Philadelphians who have little or no affordable housing options, Ms. Howard has since become seriously involved in the cause and is now a dedicated volunteer. "I'm a fighter, and will continue to fight to stay in my neighborhood," Ms. Howard said.

The cornerstone of PAHC is a trust fund, which would secure a dedicated amount of money every year for the city to increase the amount of affordable housing available. Tired of seeing funds for affordable housing dwindle, PAHC is mobilizing its members around this plan, in which the city would invest $20 million annually, instead of solely relying on dwindling federal dollars and contractors more interested in making a profit than providing decent housing. Of the $20 million, $13 million would go towards the construction of new housing, the rest for housing preservation and to help prevent homelessness (according to advocacy groups there are 10s of thousands of homeless in the city, and around 7,000 in the shelters at given time). To Ms. Howard, the trust fund may be one answer to the housing problems low-income Philadelphians face. "The trust fund would give us a chance to repair our property, bring it up to their standards," she said.

The trust fund would also help address another endemic problem in Philadelphia: the lack of accessible AND affordable housing for people with disabilities. According to "Closing the Gap," written by Amy Hillier and Dennis Culhane of the Cartographic Modeling Laboratory of U Penn, 151,250 Philadelphians are physically disabled. Liberty Resources, a non-profit organization that assists disabled people in their homes, conducted a survey in which 70% of those with disabilities feel "trapped" in their homes at least some of the time. Jummy Shroader, an organizer since 1989 for Disabled in Action, has seen the housing situation get worse for disabled people. A trust fund would provide more resources for modifying houses, which in turn would allow disabled people the opportunity to live normal lives, with less barriers, he said. To housing advocates, $20 million from four revenue sources is only a drop in the bucket compared to the housing crisis Philadelphia currently faces. For decades, low-income Philadelphians have been the victims of soaring housing costs, predatory lending, and demolition for commercial purposes, issues which have been largely ignored-and in many instances encouraged by the city. Nora Lichtash, Director of WCRP, said, "People think Philadelphia is affordable, but it's not. People don't think there is an affordable housing crisis. Very rarely do people get how serious the problem is."

Federal guidelines state that housing is considered affordable if all of the monthly costs do not exceed 30% of the "area median income." Although the area median income for the region is around $60,000 a year, there are over 206,000 Philadelphia households with incomes of less than $20,000 a year. Half that number pay more than 50% of their income in housing costs. It has become impossible for a low-income family to find any affordable housing, unless they received Section 8 housing voucher. The waiting lists for federally subsidized housing has been closed for years, and Bush has proposed cutting the amount currently available by 25,000.

The city government over the years has offered little to ease the shortage of affordable housing in Philadelphia. Philadelphia, unlike many other major cities, relies almost exclusively federal programs for affordable housing. Federal housing agencies are notoriously hostile and ineffective. Mayor John Street has explicitly said that his priority is to attract more middle and upper-middle class homeowners, rather than address the housing crisis for the poor. To the PAHC, building a movement of low-income Philadelphian's and empowering them to react to the city's discriminatory policies is just as important as getting the bill passed. "Poor people in need of housing are leading this campaign," said David Kopish, a community organizer for WCRP. The rank and file who are campaigning for a trust fund stand to benefit most from the proposal, unlike other initiatives by the city government and corporations, which put profit first. Galen Tyler, director of the Kennsington Welfare Rights Union, was a single father who became homeless several years ago when he lost his job and fell behind on the mortgage. As a member of KWRU he's heard hundreds of similar stories. He thinks that earmarking funds for affordable housing is a step in the right direction.

Several major cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Washington D.C., have dedicated housing trust funds. According to Mary Brooks, Trust Fund coordinator at the Center for Community Change (CCC), housing trusts funds across the country have spent nearly $1.5 billion on building and preserving 200,000 units for low-income households. She described Philadelphia's proposal as similar in its funding scheme to many other successful trust funds across the country.

The Philadelphia City Council need not look beyond the state of Pennsylvania for examples of housing trust funds. In 1992, the State Senate passed Act 137, which allowed counties to double real estate - related recording fees, and use the proceeds for a trust fund. The only county prohibited from this option was Philadelphia. To date, 51 out of the 67 counties have established such trust funds. Ms. Sierra noted that all of the counties that have not opted-in are "so small and rural that the paperwork generated would outweigh potential revenue." There is also a national coalition aimed at passing legislation to address the country's housing problems. Over the last couple of decades, the real wage and purchasing power of working people has plummeted, and housing costs have grown considerably. According to the U.S Department of Labor's Consumer Price Index (CPI), housing costs have more than doubled in the last two decades, outpacing all other major categories of spending except health care. A Harvard Business Bulletin from 2000 reports that "demand for affordable housing exceeds the supply by a record 5.3 million units." Activists and politicians alike have advocated for a Nationwide trust fund as well, one that would support local efforts across the country to improve affordable housing.

In 1991, HUD published a report that recommended a "modest" housing trust fund of $25 billion dollars. Affordable housing advocates leaped at the idea and over time built a movement to support it. Senator John Kerry, ranking Democrat on the Senate housing and transportation subcommittee, gave his first public speech endorsing a National Housing Trust Fund in 1999. He proposed that the surplus from the "Mutual Mortage Insurance Fund" be used for such purposes instead of being diverted back to the general treasury. In 2000, Kerry introduced "The National Affordable Housing Trust Fund Act," and had reintroduced it every year since. Similar bills exist in the House and Senate, currently with 213 and 18 co-sponsors respectively. This year, all three Philadelphia area congressmen supported the legislation, while neither senator from the state supported the bill.

What makes a trust fund such an attractive response to the housing crisis is that it effectively provides housing for thousands of low-income families, while strengthening the local economy. Sue Sierra is the policy coordinator for PACDC, who was a principle in drafting the council bill. She believes it makes economic sense to establish a trust fund. She estimates that the city would see in additional 75-125 million a year by investing the 20 million.

Local and state governments often look at how an investment into a certain program would "leverage" money from other sources, like private funds, or even other state and federal dollars that would be otherwise inaccessible. On average, trust funds of leveraged about $9 for every dollar nationwide, which for Philadelphia would be a great boost in economic activity.

Home ownership is one of the cornerstones of the economic well being of a family, and also generates property taxes needed to fund other necessities, such as education. Trust funds would only further secure this dream for more Americans. Reems of studies have also shown that rental assistance programs help low income people step out of poverty by allowing them to allocate their money for other basic needs, like food or clothes, which often are neglected if 50% of a families budget goes solely towards housing.

A housing trust fund would have an extraordinarily large impact on job creation. It takes lots of people to build houses, and even more to provide the materials to build them. Moreover, these are the sort of jobs that over the years have been replaced with low wage service jobs, like working at McDonald's. It is sound fiscal policy for the state to provide funding for sustainable jobs.

The Philadelphia Affordable Housing Coalition adopted the idea of the trust fund as an alternative to Mayor John Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. NTI is Street's signature plan addressing the housing crisis in Philadelphia. The city will demolish city "blight" and sell the land to developers for a song. NTI pledges to knock down 15-18 thousand houses in 5 years. (253 of the selected homes are still occupied), and build an equal number of new units over the same period.

David Kopish said housing activists "quickly realized that NTI was not going to do anything" about the low-income housing crisis in Philadelphia. Costs of demolition and land acquisition were underestimated. Demolition costs, initially estimated at $10,000 per home, are now estimated at $20,000, according to Kopish. The city was razing antiquated "projects," but not building enough replacement homes. Of the new units NTI promises to build, only 3,500 of them would go for less than the market rate. Empty lots and Caterpillar bulldozers now speckle Philadelphia's urban landscape, along with the occasional "Coming soonÂ…Rite Aid!" sign.

On May 24, 2003, the Philadelphia Affordable Housing Coalition held a community meeting at the Quaker Meeting house, in which hundreds of Philadelphians came to hear Deborah McColloch, Director of the City's Office of Housing and Community Development, and Jeannie Blackwell, a prominent member of the City Council (who promised the coalition she would introduce the bill), answer questions about the Trust Fund. After testimony from five people who have personally experienced housing crises, neither politician said they would support a $20 million dollar fund. Right off the bat McCollogh proposed a paltry $1.5 million from NTI, which immediately put her at odds with the audience. Blackwell, who brought her own brute-squad to the meeting to cheer her on, used more rhetorical tricks to duck the issue about whether she would support a trust fund.

Staci Moore, who is co-chair for WCRP's board, was one of those who testified at the hearing. She and her family moved into the Salvation Army Shelter after they were evicted in 1992. Because they were living on a shelter, they were given priority on the long Section 8 waiting list (closed for the last five years), and moved to a house in Northern Liberties a year later. Ms. Moore, who has volunteered for WCRP for the last six years and has seen countless others in worse situations, said she now views that time of her life as a "fairy tale," because she was lucky enough to find housing when so many others in her same situation were not. In another testimony, Nadine Bent, a member of the Tenant Action Group (TAG), recounted how her and her family spent months battling a nasty landlord who allowed raw sewage and feces flies to sit in her lawn.

A week later, Blackwell, who told PAHC and PACDC she would submit their proposal as is, ended up introducing a watered down version. In a memo to the "Housing Advocate Community, Alissa Orduna-Sneed, a staff member of Blackwell's, wrote "We know that organizations have worked very hard on putting together this legislation and may be disappointed in the form that has been introduced," and then ticked off several reasons for the change, all political cop-outs. In June, the bill failed to receive the number of votes needed, after the council's attorneys issued a memo outlining several legal problems with the proposal.

But PAHC and PACDC members plan on reintroducing the plan next October, and are confident that it will ultimately pass. "I can't help being encouraged by how far its gotten," said Sue Sierra of PACDC. Kopish said, "A lot of the time we were trying to work out the exacting wording of the bill. By the time we were ready for action, it was too late." At this point in time PAHC is already gearing up its troops to pressure the City Council to adopt the trust fund during the upcoming term. Nora Lichtash, director of WCRP and long-time housing activist, looks forward to the upcoming battle. “If it could pass that quickly, then we clearly weren't asking for enough."

 

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"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano