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The pandemic will exacerbate the affordable housing gap. Advocates think Pa. tax credits could help.

The economic fallout from the pandemic is highlighting and worsening a stubborn lack of affordable housing nationwide. Advocates and developers think a state low-income housing tax credit could help.

The homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia is pictured on Wednesday, Sept. 23.
The homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia is pictured on Wednesday, Sept. 23.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Maria Gonzalez knows firsthand that the development of low-income housing can take a while, especially in areas that typically see little investment.

Gonzalez, president of Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises, (HACE), worked for four years to get the federal tax credits she needed to sell to fund much of a $15 million rental development for low-income seniors in North Philadelphia. The federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program is a major driver of the creation and rehabilitation of low-income rental housing nationwide, which means it’s a competitive program.

If HACE, a community development corporation, ever hopes to meet the “great need” for affordable housing in the North Philadelphia communities it serves, Gonzalez said, “we can’t wait that long to develop 50, 60 units at a time.” Many people have lost income because of the pandemic, which is highlighting and worsening the stubborn lack of affordable housing nationwide.

“Especially in many neighborhoods in Philadelphia, there’s certain long-term residents who are at risk of being displaced” as their communities become too expensive, she said. “So we need additional resources to provide affordable housing, so residents can remain living in their neighborhood.”

She and other developers and advocates are placing their hope in a Pennsylvania bill that would create a state version of the federal housing tax credit program to incentivize developers to build and preserve more housing that residents can afford. The Keystone State would join 21 others, including New York, in offering housing tax credits, according to the National Council of State Housing Agencies.

Pennsylvania’s bill passed unanimously in the Senate and is awaiting a vote in the House, which has four more scheduled session days this year. The bill dies if it doesn’t pass the House this year.

In Pennsylvania, for every 100 households that earn 50% of the area median income —$48,300 for a household of four in the Philadelphia region — the state has roughly 68 available housing units that they can afford, according to the nonprofit National Low Income Housing Coalition. That number drops to 59 units in Philadelphia. For every 100 Pennsylvania households that earn 30% of area median income — $29,000 for a Philadelphia family of four — the state has roughly 38 housing units available and affordable. That number drops to 29 units in the city.

» READ MORE: Low incomes make Philadelphia homes less affordable, Pew study finds

Throughout the state, home prices are increasing 1.8 times faster than wages, according to a report by Construction Coverage, a group of technology and finance experts that conducts research for the construction industry. The lack of housing that people can afford is an issue in poorer and wealthier communities alike, said State Sen. Tom Killion (R., Delaware), who introduced the bill. He pointed to communities such as Chester County’s Kennett Square, which is in one of Pennsylvania’s wealthiest counties, but “a lot of workers can’t afford to live in the community where they work.”

To protest Philadelphia’s lack of affordable housing, residents experiencing homelessness formed encampments in North Philadelphia and on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the summer. To end the months-long protest outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s headquarters, the city agreed on Monday to get the 20 residents of the encampment into vacant houses in Strawberry Mansion.

Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, compares the lack of housing for low-income residents to a losing game of musical chairs.

“There isn’t enough affordable housing for the households that need it," she said. "When you lose in that game of musical chairs, what happens is you have to pay too much of your income for rent. If you’re paying too much of your income for rent, you don’t have enough to pay for other basic necessities.”

» READ MORE: City and activists reach an agreement to close the homeless encampment outside PHA headquarters in North Philly

She said state tax credits would help fill funding gaps for developers of low-income housing.

“We really see it would make developments happen a little bit easier and a little quicker, along with other resources,” including the federal Community Development Block Grant Program, the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund, and home repair programs, she said.

Pennrose, a Philadelphia-based developer, helped write the Pennsylvania bill. Pennrose has “significant waiting lists for all our properties,” including lists of hundreds of people in Pennsylvania, said its president, Mark H. Dambly. Selling state housing tax credits would help developers offset higher construction costs due to increased prices of building materials and labor shortages. In other states in which Pennrose operates, “we saw the difference this state credit makes in terms of the ability to produce affordable housing,” Dambly said.

“This bill couldn’t come at a more important time both at a state and a national level,” he said. “The demand for affordable housing has never been greater.”

» READ MORE: How Philly’s summer of protests revitalized the affordable housing movement

Nick Bailey, chief customer officer at RE/MAX, said pandemic-induced permanent closings of retail and office buildings have created “an opportunity to flip some of the commercial space in high density markets into affordable housing.” Although he expects more investors to take advantage of this in the near future, this approach can’t meet the demand.

Ben She, a volunteer with 5th Square, an urbanist political action committee, agreed that more funding is needed to build housing residents can afford, but he pointed to the role that zoning plays. In an attempt to ensure housing obligations are spread throughout Philadelphia, the group is asking Mayor Jim Kenney to veto a bill City Council passed last week that would restrict development in much of Society Hill. The mayor had rejected such legislation last year.

The city “can’t let certain places off the hook because they have the clout or political power,” said She, who worried other registered community organizations in high-income areas will “become empowered to produce their own local downsizing as overlay districts” and keep from absorbing their fair share of housing.

» READ MORE: When did Society Hill become a city state unto itself? | Inga Saffron

Before City Council voted unanimously to approve the bill Thursday, Councilmember Mark Squilla, the bill’s sponsor, rejected activists’ characterizations of the bill.

“The concern that we’re hearing about, you know, this being a pressure on other neighborhoods and also racist in a way that would make the neighborhood more white, is not true," he said during the Council meeting. He said he compromised with Society Hill residents, who “didn’t get everything they wanted as far as this,” because the bill narrowed down the area in which certain building height restrictions are in effect.

“It was hard to go through and manage the community needs, the historic needs, the affordability needs," Squilla said. "And so we think we did the best we can to make this overlay possible.”