By Kelvin A. Jeremiah
The surge of growth and prosperity in many Center City neighborhoods is having little impact on Philadelphia's 400,000 families living below the poverty line.
Struggling daily to meet basic needs, a Philadelphia family must earn $45,400 annually to afford a two-bedroom apartment, according to a 2014 report issued by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. However, the 2015 average annual income of Philadelphia Housing Authority's (PHA) current and wait-listed families remained at $15,300.
Income disparity is not the only barrier facing Philadelphians. There is a drastic shortage - about 131,000 units - of affordable housing available to families making at or below 50 percent of the median annual income in the region, according to a 2015 Federal Reserve Bank report.
Recognizing the urgency to connect low-income families to the economic mainstream, PHA and the city have reinvigorated the housing authority, weeding out the corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse that plagued it in recent years. This transformation has allowed the agency to focus on what is important: developing and implementing comprehensive self-sufficiency initiatives focused on housing and business development, education, and job training.
These solutions cannot happen at only the local level. To be successful, our national public housing policy needs to be reenvisioned by considering fundamental questions: What is public housing? How is it best financed? How can accountability be ensured in the development and management of public housing, and among its participants?
Public housing: This program should not be the "housing of last resort." Inclusive designs, weaving affordable housing into neighborhood economic development plans, which mirror local housing and demographics, not only help erase race and class boundaries, but further serve the interests of the overall community. Accessible parks, community spaces, and public transportation options are critical to elevate public housing from blighted neighborhoods ridden with poverty and crime into communities of choice.
Financing: Innovation and creativity are crucial to financing new public housing developments in times of dwindling resources. Reliable, outcome-driven initiatives must be aggressively prioritized to build partnerships with public, private, and philanthropic organizations. Strategic investment addresses the shortage of quality housing stock and lack of employment opportunities. What can be done?
Construction labor costs could be drastically reduced by developing agreements through a statutory exception to the prevailing wage that remains aligned with fair, legal compensation. Choice Neighborhood Initiatives, Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, and the now-dormant HOPE VI Programs address distressed conditions of older properties while catalyzing neighborhood-wide reinvestment. Additionally, policymaker support and collaboration at all levels of government promote affordable development.
Accountability: Methods of upholding accountability for residents, service providers, management, and governmental bureaucracies lack consistency. For public housing to serve as a transitional resource for families in need, targeted approaches linking assistance with demonstrated personal responsibility are essential. Strategies to foster accountability include:
Provide agencies with funding to administer community service requirements
Implement appropriate eligibility and admissions work requirements
Establish caps on total government assistance amounts
Solving the affordable housing crisis is not impossible, but it requires difficult decision-making and honest discourse about the dynamics of race and class. There must be a clear understanding that, as a society, we have a fundamental obligation to help those who cannot help themselves, while enforcing the idea that government assistance is meant to serve as short-term support, rather than a lifelong crutch.
In many communities, the public housing system has fostered dependency and intergenerational poverty through reliance upon the government, in turn creating a reluctance to build independence and fostering a fear of losing a "safety net" support. We must hold men and women capable of earning a living responsible for playing a key role in their own advancement.
With the examination and implementation of rational and holistic approaches, PHA and Philadelphia can create communities of choice that benefit entire neighborhoods, while providing tools for transition and accountability that responsibly direct public housing residents out of reliance on assistance systems.
Kelvin A. Jeremiah is president and CEO of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Kelvin.Jeremiah@pha.phila.gov