Sure, Philadelphia isn’t as expensive a place to live as New York or Los Angeles. But, with the highest poverty rate of the country’s biggest cities, it can still be very expensive to live here if you’re not making a lot of money. And trying to find affordable housing in Philadelphia can be really frustrating.

Where can you go for help? Many federal, state, and local public or subsidized housing programs have long waiting lists or are currently closed to new applicants. And, although there are free online search tools and nonprofit resources available, such as housing counseling and free workshops, they can be hard to find.

So we’ve gathered them all in one place. In this guide, we’ve broken down what affordable housing is, where you can look for it, and what programs exist in Philly to help.

What is affordable housing?

“Affordability” can feel very subjective.

But there is a real definition: The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) standard for being affordable calls for your spending no more than 30% of your income to pay for your rent or mortgage, utilities, and other housing costs. Any more than 30%, and HUD says your household is “cost-burdened,” which means you could struggle with rent or mortgage payments if you lose your job or have medical bills. Among the biggest cities in the U.S., Philadelphia has the highest proportion of cost-burdened households with low-incomes. More than half of all renters spend 30% or more of their income on rent. And if you include homeowners, close to 40% of the city is cost-burdened.

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Affordable housing vs. subsidized housing

Different kinds of housing often get lumped together as “affordable housing,” but it’s important to know the difference.

Affordable housing is generally private housing for lower- to moderate-income tenants that costs no more than 30% of their income.

Public or subsidized housing is housing that is owned and operated or paid for by the government. There are different kinds of subsidized housing, including:

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Philadelphia housing market

Compared with other big cities, Philly is an affordable place to live. But, if you make a low to moderate income, finding housing can be difficult.

Rents in Philly are increasing, and many people simply don’t make enough money to afford the rising costs, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

From January 2021 to January 2022, rent prices increased by 11% in the Philadelphia metro area. And it’s not just Philly: January marked the eighth consecutive month of double-digit growth in rent prices nationwide.

In February 2022, the median cost (half cost more; half cost less) of a two-bedroom rental unit in Philadelphia — including utilities — was $1,274, according to Apartment List. To avoid being cost-burdened, you would need to make at least $50,960 a year.

North and West Philly have the highest numbers of rental units that cost $750 a month or less, which many low- and moderate-income renters can afford. Center City, Northwest, and South Philly remain the areas with the highest rent.

The situation for homeowners is a bit better: 28% of the city’s homeowners are cost-burdened, and the number of low-income people who own homes is high when compared with those in similar big cities.

Subsidized housing programs in Philadelphia

There are several government-operated housing programs in Philly. Some have been at capacity for more than a decade and are not taking new applications. Others you can apply for, and there are also affordable housing search tools available. If you make low to moderate income you could be eligible for some of these programs.

What is low-to-moderate income?

Many programs decide who is eligible for help based on their income, and how it compares to the median income in Philadelphia county (which is $94,500). How much do you need to make to qualify?

Low income means you make 50% of Philly's median income or less.

  • For a family of two, your household income needs to be $37,800 or less
  • For a family of four, your household income needs to be $47,250 or less

Moderate income means you make 80% of Philly's median income or less.

  • For a family of two, your household income needs to be $60,480 or less
  • For a family of four, your household income needs to be $75,600 or less
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How to apply for subsidized housing: HUD, PHA and more

PA Housing Search

PA Housing Search is an online tool run by government agencies that shows you listings of public or subsidized housing units in your area. The housing units listed are government-funded through HUD’s Project-Based Housing, Low Income Housing Tax Credit Housing, and Philadelphia Housing Authority’s public housing programs. You can search by the number of rooms, rent price, accessibility needs, and proximity to mass transit, schools, and hospitals. When you find a place that you’re interested in, call to check whether they are accepting applications.

🌐 pahousingsearch.com. 📞 For help in English or Spanish call 877-428-8844 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday.

HUD Resource Locator

HUD created this tool as a complete directory of all the subsidized housing projects available through government housing programs. If you make low to moderate income, use this tool to find affordable housing units near where you live. The housing units listed are government-funded through HUD’s Project-Based Housing, Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) Housing, and other local public housing programs. When you find a unit that you’re interested in, call to see if they are accepting applications.

🌐 resources.hud.gov, 📞 215-656-0500, ✉️ PA_Webmanager@hud.gov

Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) Senior-Designated and Other Housing Programs

The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) has affordable housing for people with limited income. The main wait-list is closed but there are two exceptions:

You should still expect to wait, but you can apply. Both programs use the same public housing application.

Some tips for applying:

  • To apply, the head of household will need to provide a mailing address and phone number, as well as the Social Security number, date of birth, gender, race, ethnicity, and gross monthly income for all household members. Once you’ve applied, you will get a confirmation in the mail.

  • You have to update your information if anything changes about the number of people in your household, your income, address, or accommodation needs.

  • If you are put on a waiting list, PHA may reach out to you make sure you’re still interested in public housing. If you don’t reply, you could lose your spot on the list.

🌐 Apply online, 📞 by phone at 215-684-4000, or 📍visit the PHA Offices at 2013 Ridge Ave.

PHA’s Project-Based Voucher Program

The Project-Based Voucher Program is a subsidized housing program for privately owned housing. Here’s how it works: PHA makes an agreement with the owners so that eligible tenants have to pay only 30% of their income on rent, and PHA covers the rest. To be eligible, you must make 50% of Philly’s median income or less. For a family of four, that’s $47,250 or under.

If you want to get on a waiting list for this kind of housing, you need to apply directly to a housing development (the owners maintain their own waiting lists).

To apply:

  • Look through PHA’s listings of Project-Based Voucher developments and find places that match your preferences (number of bedrooms, location, eligibility).

  • Contact developments to see whether they are accepting applications. The development’s address, phone number, and website will be listed.

Section 8 and public housing

These subsidized housing programs are currently closed:

  • Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8). HCV is a federally funded rental assistance program through HUD. The program helps people with low income, disabilities, and older adults pay for privately owned and managed housing — mostly of their choice. The waitlist for this program has been closed for more than a decade and is not open to new applicants.

  • PHA’s Public Housing Program. PHA’s public housing program provides low- to moderate-income residents with rental units and rental assistance. PHA owns and operates more than 13,000 rental units in the city where residents can apply to live. The general waitlist for PHA’s Public Housing Program was closed in 2013 and is not accepting new applicants, unless you are a senior citizen or qualify for special programs.

Rental and mortgage assistance

There are free resources that can help. These programs can help you look for housing and also provide other kinds of support, such as financial counseling.

Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA)

PHFA is a state-affiliated agency that provides home ownership and affordable rental services.

  • For homeowners, the program can help you finance your mortgage, find home improvement/repair programs, and more.

  • For renters, the program can help you find affordable housing units and counseling to resolve financial and housing issues.

🌐 phfa.org, 📞 1-855-827-3466

PA 211 Housing Resources

PA 211 is a free resource line operated by the United Way of Pennsylvania that can help you find subsidized housing programs, home purchase and rental services, payment assistance, and more. It’s open 24 hours, 7 days a week to all Pennsylvania residents. Your conversations with PA 211 are confidential and you do not have to provide your name or other personal information. You can request services in more than 180 languages.

🌐 pa211.org/get-help/housing-shelter 📞 Call 211 💬 Text your zip code to 898-211

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.