For both homeowners and renters, Philadelphia is a relatively affordable city with low housing costs when compared with other big cities. But Philadelphia’s high poverty rate makes the city more expensive for its residents, especially renters, according to a report published Thursday by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“In Philadelphia, there simply isn’t enough affordable housing for the large number of residents at the low end of the income scale,” the report said.
Roughly 231,000 Philadelphia households — 40% — were classified as cost-burdened in 2018, the most recent year for which figures were available, according to Pew. That means the households spent 30% or more of their incomes on housing, including utilities, insurance, and taxes, according to federal standards. Philadelphia’s rate of cost-burdened households is in the middle of the pack when compared with both the country’s 10 most populous cities and the 10 most impoverished.
While some cities are unaffordable for certain residents because of high housing costs, Philadelphia’s affordability problem is driven by residents’ low incomes, the Pew report found. More than two-thirds of cost-burdened households in Philadelphia earn annual incomes below $30,000. In New York City and cities on the West Coast — places that stand out because of expensive housing stock — households that classify as cost-burdened simultaneously have higher housing costs and earn more money.
Philadelphia has almost twice as many households that earn less than $30,000 per year than it has rental units these households can afford, according to Pew.
Octavia Howell, author of the Pew report and an associate manager with Pew’s Philadelphia research and policy initiative, said the city has a “strong need for affordable housing at the very low end” of the income spectrum.
Philadelphia’s median income was roughly $43,700 in 2018, according to the Census Bureau. Rates of cost-burdened households are highest in North, West, and Southwest Philadelphia — areas with high percentages of low-income residents. Those rates are lowest in Center City, Northwest Philadelphia, and South Philadelphia — areas where housing costs are higher, but so, too, are household incomes.
More of Philadelphia’s renters than homeowners are cost-burdened: 54% of renters compared with 28% of homeowners. In a Pew survey last year, 40% of Philadelphians said paying rent or a mortgage was difficult sometimes.
Renters at the low end of the income scale face the most difficulty finding affordable housing. Most renter households that earn between $10,000 and $30,000 annually spend a median of 59% of that income on housing, according to Pew’s latest report.
Among the country’s most populous cities, Philadelphia has a low median monthly cost for rental properties: $1,032. But among cities with the highest poverty rates, Philadelphia is tied with Houston, and only Miami has higher median monthly rental costs.
Corinne O’Connell, chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, said her counterparts in central California work with clients who are firefighters and teachers, while here, her clients are likely to be in jobs with lower wages, such as certified nursing assistants, security guards, and school cafeteria workers.
She said a large group of Philadelphia residents are paying too much for substandard or overcrowded housing. Many people can’t get ahead because housing costs eat up income that is already stretched thin, and they must choose which necessities to pay for in a given month.
“When you solve for housing, other things become possible,” she said.
In one family who recently moved into a Habitat home, the mother cleans hotel rooms and the father parks cars at a hospital. Before the move, a large portion of their income from their low-wage jobs paid for their home. Now, because the couple spend less on housing, the family has more money to spend on other needs, she said.
Affordable housing also is a major issue for seniors, many of whom don’t have opportunities to increase their income and face significant health-care costs. Some are caring for grandchildren.
A majority of clients at the SeniorLAW Center live in poverty, said Karen Buck, executive director of the statewide nonprofit that serves people ages 60 and up. Of those who no longer work, many had several jobs simultaneously, none of which offered retirement plans or pensions. Most rely on Social Security payments, which have not kept up with the cost of living. Others have lost jobs because of the pandemic.
Clients are living in homes without cooling or heat and that need repairs at a time when seniors want to stay home to protect themselves from the pandemic, she said.
“It’s a hard time to be poor for all,” she said. “It’s an additionally hard time to be older.”
Although the Pew report doesn’t make policy recommendations, Howell, the report’s author, said she hoped policymakers can use the information “as they think about the various ways to address the city’s housing needs.”
Unlike some other cities, Philadelphia has vacant land and housing stock, O’Connell said. But much of that available housing supply needs repairs, and she said the city should invest in preserving and fixing existing housing stock as one solution.
The pandemic, protests, and growing nationwide awareness of housing issues have expanded conversations around affordable housing.
“The moment calls for a willingness to try, a willingness to take some risks and to do some things differently,” O’Connell said.
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.