The deadly fire in a rowhouse on North 23rd Street wasn’t just about smoke and flames. Twelve people lost their lives in a public housing property, one that is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

The Inquirer asked five Philadelphians — a housing attorney, a young professional, an author, a CEO, and a public policy consultant — to comment on the most pressing housing-related issues in Philadelphia today. Each highlighted actions that city government can take to make housing more safe and affordable.

While many Philadelphians are working on the housing crisis, current efforts are not enough. Their responses indicate an urgent need for government action.

Interviews by Abraham Gutman, Devi Lockwood, and Daniel Pearson.


Require landlords to pass inspections before rentals

Philadelphia is a city with an abundant supply of housing, but many homes are unsafe. To ensure habitability in rental properties, stronger enforcement of the housing code is needed. Housing codes set standards for rental units. It is very difficult — and even more difficult during the pandemic — to get the Department of Licenses and Inspections to send out inspectors to homes when there is a complaint about a potential code violation.

There are definitely not enough inspectors, and residential housing is not the top concern for Licenses and Inspections. This means there is no robust code enforcement and, as we heard after the Fairmount fire, the unit that burned had reportedly met all the requirements under the Philadelphia code. But that doesn’t mean that the home was actually safe. For example, there wasn’t a fire extinguisher — but fire extinguishers aren’t required under Philadelphia’s code.

One way Philadelphia can improve code enforcement is by requiring landlords to pass an inspection before they can get or renew a rental license to rent a property in Philadelphia. I would love to see a policy enacted where property owners can’t get a rental license if they have open code violations. This will require resources, and I understand that there is no money, but we’ve got to find the money — or we are going to keep seeing tragedies like the fire in Fairmount.

Jenna Collins is a housing attorney with Community Legal Services.

Enact rent control

When I drive around North Philly, I see empty lots and abandoned houses. The city could be working with existing contractors and existing labor organizations in the city to flip those properties and turn them into affordable housing — either for Philadelphia Housing Authority tenants or for private tenants.

At the same time, rent control can be an effective way to maintain stability for renters, which would mean people aren’t pushed to worse housing situations because they can’t afford to stay where they are. For instance, in Manayunk, five years ago when I first moved there, you could find a place very easily for under $1,000 a month. If you want to move there today, there are very few properties available at that price point.

I think one thing that the city can do is step in and say, “Hey, we need to set standards here.” We can follow examples of rent control from other cities. Legislators could propose capping rents for a certain type of apartment at a specific dollar amount per square foot — and then only allowing rents to rise a certain amount per year.

Charles F. Stewart is a young professional who lives in Brewerytown.

Legalize more types of affordable housing

One thing we could do to help with Philadelphia’s affordable housing crisis is to legalize many more types of affordable housing. Currently, single-room occupancies (also known as boarding houses), basement apartments, accessory dwelling units (such as a converted garage or a backyard “granny flat”) are banned in many parts of the city. Despite this, people often build them anyway. It’s time to bring these properties up to code. By making these types of housing legal and available, the city could provide a lot of new affordable housing.

To push it even further, both the Kenney administration and Council are very interested in guaranteed basic income — this would allow people to afford the housing that best suits their needs. Additionally, programs like basic systems repair and small landlord working capital loans are underfunded. These programs could be better promoted and better funded by the city.

Diana Lind is an urban policy expert and author of the book Brave New Home analyzing how we live, the inequities that are bound into living situations.

Address the fiscal cliff

We need more housing for the poorest families, and it needs to cost less, because these families lack the income and assets to afford housing. For a lot of people, the most affordable housing is the house where they live right now.

There’s good work happening now to rehabilitate existing buildings. Rebuilding Together Philadelphia does modifications to improve habitability, and allows people to stay in spaces where they live. Renew Restore Repair provides lower than market rate interest loans, which allows people with moderate incomes access to credit to make repairs to the homes where they already live.

We also need to address the fiscal cliff. A lot of our programs cut people off quickly if their salary increases, even modestly. This makes Philadelphians choose between stability and trying to make more money. It is equivalent to a marginal tax rate on these families.

Markita Morris-Louis is the CEO of Compass Working Capital, a financial services nonprofit focused on providing services and resources to low-income women and families.

Rehab boarded-up buildings

Under Kelvin Jeremiah’s watch, the Philadelphia Housing Authority has lost its way. The PHA has an operating budget of nearly $400 million. According to its most recent report to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia, PHA is expected to develop only 182 units in 2022. This number does not begin to meet the needs of low-income residents of this city.

PHA has lost sight of its core mission to preserve and develop affordable housing. New construction can cost as much as $400,000 per unit. Meanwhile, PHA has hundreds of vacant buildings that could be rehabilitated at a fraction of the cost of new construction. In 2011, PHA was placed under a two-year federal receivership by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s time for another HUD intervention. At this point, it’s about accountability.

Faye Anderson is a public policy consultant who works with nonprofit organizations on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, civic technology, and cultural heritage preservation.