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”
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
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,"
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 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
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
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
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."
Click here to go home