Belinda Eldridge has been living in her South Philadelphia home for 48 years. For the last three, she’s known something was wrong with the wiring. Her lights dimmed, appliances periodically stopped working, and, sometimes, electrical outlets spit sparks.

Roof leaks damaged her ceilings. Every time it rained, Eldridge, 69, was afraid to look down into her basement and confront the flooding there from cracked pipes. Her husband had been able to fix some things around the house, but he died eight years ago.

“I just couldn’t afford all the repairs I knew I needed,” Eldridge said. “There are other people just like me feeling like I did that they don’t want to leave their homes, but they can’t afford to get the work done.”

So a few years ago, she applied for a home repair grant. And this year, she got a new roof, plumbing, and electrical work. The repairs will keep her in her home.

Philadelphia’s housing stock is old and can be expensive to maintain — challenges in a city with a 23% poverty rate, incomes that aren’t keeping pace with rising home prices, and now a pandemic-induced recession. Philadelphia and other cities across the country have been struggling to address a lack of housing that their residents can afford. Every home that becomes uninhabitable and abandoned or crumbles due to disrepair is one fewer home available to mitigate the affordable housing crisis. Two years ago, the city’s 10-year housing plan identified revitalizing existing housing stock as one of Philadelphia’s greatest challenges. But it’s also one of its biggest opportunities.

A walker and chair lift that homeowner Belinda Eldridge, 69, of South Philadelphia, uses to get around her home.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
A walker and chair lift that homeowner Belinda Eldridge, 69, of South Philadelphia, uses to get around her home.

City officials and housing advocates repeat a common sentiment: The most affordable house for residents is usually the one in which they already live because they don’t have to take on new debt or spend money relocating. So repairing existing homes is a key part of Philadelphia’s affordable housing strategy. The city’s agreements with unhoused Philadelphians who protested the lack of affordable housing at encampments on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and in North Philadelphia include the transfer of now-vacant homes. Most of them need to be rehabilitated.

“It’s much more cost-efficient to maintain our existing housing than it is to create new housing,” said Andrew Frishkoff, executive director of LISC Philadelphia, a community development support nonprofit. He called repair programs “essential.”

The city relies on nonprofits such as the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp., Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, and the volunteer program Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, and community development corporations to help homeowners with repairs. The Rental Improvement Fund, a pilot program the city and the Impact Loan Fund started in May, provides loans to small landlords to make repairs to improve the quality and affordability of rental housing.

A patchwork of programs in the city work together to fill gaps, but the need for housing repair is great, said David Thomas, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp., a community development organization that administers several home repair programs and partners with the city to meet housing goals. In early October, PHDC asked for more contractors to participate in its basic repair and adaptive home modification programs. Its low-interest loan program saw a spike in applicants over the summer, and the nonprofit is reviewing proposals from additional banks that want to participate.

Outside the home of Belinda Eldridge is one of the finished repairs for her plumbing that needs to be covered.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
Outside the home of Belinda Eldridge is one of the finished repairs for her plumbing that needs to be covered.

Housing advocates anticipate fewer city, state, and federal funds and tighter budgets because of the coronavirus pandemic and are hoping to blend public and private support to keep housing initiatives going. City Council is considering a 1% tax on construction to fund affordable housing programs that would help close funding gaps for initiatives such as home maintenance grant programs, Thomas said.

Cities should consider housing to be essential infrastructure in the same way as roads and bridges and devote funding to it accordingly, said Gregory Heller, senior vice president of community investment at PHDC and executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

Jill Roberts, director of the Healthy Rowhouse Project, said that many times, grant and loan programs are the only way homeowners can afford repairs to make their homes safe and healthy, an even greater concern during the pandemic. Roberts, who manages PHDC’s home repair loan program for the financial counseling nonprofit Clarifi, remembers one homeowner whose front door didn’t close properly. Others have sewage in their basements or can’t use stairs for lack of railings.

The pandemic has been “a blessing and a curse,” she said. Residents are paying more attention to necessary repairs because they’re spending more time in their homes. But they also may have lost income and have less money available for those repairs.

“People should not have to be just surviving. They should be thriving,” she said. “We are helping people preserve their most valuable asset.”

Restore, Repair, Renew loan program

When Joyce Brooks heard that the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. had started a program early last year for homeowners to get low-interest, 10-year loans for home repairs, she applied right away.

Brooks, 74, hoped to fix up the Nicetown house she’s called home for 52 years. She said the Restore, Repair, Renew program can be overwhelming, but the result is worth the effort. A leaking toilet damaged her kitchen ceiling, so her loan of roughly $18,000 is helping to finance a new bathroom and kitchen. A contractor also found mold in her basement and problems with her heating system.

“It’s a good program, and I think people need to get into it,” said Brooks, a Nicetown Community Development Corp. board member. She’s seen what happens when homes deteriorate. A long-abandoned house next door damaged her home, she said, and another nearby is being demolished.

Homeowners with credit scores above 580 and who meet other criteria can get loans up to $24,999 and pay 3% interest. The program includes financial counseling, home assessments, and guidance throughout the renovations. It assists people who earn a little too much money to qualify for grant programs but may not have savings or can’t afford the higher interest rates of typical loans. Many wouldn’t qualify for loans at all.

In its first year, the program had a 53% loan approval rate, compared with a 25% approval rate in the private market, according to the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. The program distributed more than $1.6 million in loans in its first year.

Suzanna Thornton, pictured in front of her West Oak Lane home, was able to pay for new windows, a new rubberized roof and siding, and a new boiler with a home improvement loan through Restore, Repair, Renew.
Courtesy of Restore, Repair, Renew
Suzanna Thornton, pictured in front of her West Oak Lane home, was able to pay for new windows, a new rubberized roof and siding, and a new boiler with a home improvement loan through Restore, Repair, Renew.

Clarice McIntosh and her husband, Lee, took out a loan to fix an extension of their kitchen so they can relocate their washer and dryer, which now waste valuable living space at their home’s entrance. They’d planned fixes to their Germantown home soon after they moved in about 15 years ago. But Lee was diagnosed with cancer, and Clarice left her job to become his caregiver.

“Financially, you don’t have the money you used to have, so everything was put on hold,” she said. They can’t afford to move and are relying on the loan program to be able to stay.

“You’re not looking for a freebie, but you’re looking for help,” said McIntosh, 70.

Mount Airy resident Carol Perry knew that delaying work on her house could jeopardize her family's most important investment. She used a Restore, Repair, Renew loan to fix her furnace, clean the ducts, redo her bathroom, and address a long list of other projects she had delayed.
Courtesy of Restore, Repair, Renew
Mount Airy resident Carol Perry knew that delaying work on her house could jeopardize her family's most important investment. She used a Restore, Repair, Renew loan to fix her furnace, clean the ducts, redo her bathroom, and address a long list of other projects she had delayed.

Loans allow for more freedom in choosing renovations than grants do, but Dana Brown, executive vice president of consumer services at Montgomery County-based Univest Bank and Trust Co., said a lot of the loans homeowners request are for necessities.

“There was just a great need [when the program started] and obviously such a greater need now,” Brown said.

Grant programs

Through the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp.’s Basic System Repair Program, income-eligible homeowners can get repairs such as plumbing, electrical, structural, and roof work for free.

“If not for this program that provides the grants, homelessness would be through the roof in Philadelphia,” said Thomas, head of PHDC. Homeowners receive more than 3,000 repairs a year, he said.

Low-income Philadelphians with physical disabilities don’t have to be homeowners for PHDC’s Adaptive Modifications Program, which helps them live independently in their homes. Free modifications include installing stairlifts, widening doorways, and building ramps. Depending on funding, the program makes repairs for 150 to 300 people each year, Thomas said.

Eldridge, the Southwest Center City homeowner, had to wait a couple of years to be approved and for repairs to begin. Physical disabilities limit her mobility, so she said a new, larger bathroom will be “a godsend.”

“This is such a light at the end of the tunnel for me,” she said of the help she’s gotten fixing her home. “I feel hope, optimistic.”

Residents can find more information about home repair programs at https://phdcphila.org/residents/home-repair/.