By Thomas H. Earle

Despite the glimmer of Center City, Philadelphia remains one of the poorest big cities in America. One of the tragedies of that circumstance is the lack of decent homes for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. We can do so much more about this crisis, especially with a new mayor who has made fighting poverty his priority.

The waiting lists for this kind of housing are overwhelming and, in the case of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, closed. Yet the need continues to grow. We have almost 100,000 people who are low-income seniors or people with disabilities. Continuing to ignore the situation will result in a long-term economic cost to the city and the state.

In addition, there are 115 people at Philadelphia Nursing Home who would be able to move out tomorrow if not for the lack of affordable housing. We can serve three seniors or people with disabilities in a community setting for every one that lives in a nursing facility - in this case a facility owned and operated by the city.

Why is the affordable and disabled housing community so underserved? It's every bit as important as job creation and education in a Philadelphia antipoverty package.

Unfortunately, the city has lacked a strategy for housing development that addresses all income levels, and this vacuum has been filled by unchecked gentrification. This means that Philadelphia has longtime residents - including people with disabilities and seniors in neighborhoods across the city - who are unable to afford to stay where they are.

These increasing housing costs in recent years have compelled the city to look to innovative ways, like the Housing Trust Fund and the Land Bank, to begin to tackle this issue. There is no quick solution, but these recently created tools can provide hope if we take full advantage of them.

The Housing Trust Fund now provides $12 million per year toward affordable housing. The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities (PCAC) is working with members of City Council to at least double that number to $24 million to further address the current needs. Just as a point of comparison, Washington, D.C., this year increased its annual housing trust fund investment to $100 million.

The Land Bank, which provides a mechanism to handle the acquisition, maintenance, and sale or transfer of the more than 10,000 vacant properties the city owns, is now in its second year. Yet the strategic plan currently does not include specific goals to address the housing needs of low-income people. These goals were required in the law that created the bank. City Council controls how that land gets used so, if the proper steps are taken, the city can free up more land to develop affordable housing options.

The Trust Fund and Land Bank are examples of what can and must be done if affordable housing is to be a priority for our city under its new mayor, Jim Kenney. City Council President Darrell Clarke and other Council members have committed to working with the PCAC toward doubling the annual housing trust fund investment. However, the question, as always, is where that money comes from.

We could find the needed funding by simply moving everyone out of Philadelphia Nursing Home and into community settings. But even without that, we don't need a tax increase. What we need is a shift in where certain taxes are directed.

Kenney can be a leader on this commonsense issue. Dealing with safe, affordable housing for low-income and disabled people in Philadelphia is an integral part of truly reducing poverty while making us an economically stronger city.

Thomas H. Earle is a Philadelphia lawyer and member of the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities.