Homelessness in Philadelphia was in a state of emergency prior to COVID. Homeless outreach organizations in Philadelphia engage over 5,500 individuals each year living on the street, in cars, abandoned buildings, in train stations, and other places not meant for human habitation. There are 12,000 shelter beds in the city, but approximately 16,000 people attempt to access those beds.
In Philadelphia, ¼ of the city lives below the poverty line. 82% of people below the poverty line have no housing subsidies. The average rent for this population is $729. With housing subsidies this group is paying an average of $405 out of pocket. For Philadelphia’s in public housing, rent is $331 on average.
¼ families in Philadelphia who qualify for housing vouchers actually receive them, because there are too few subsidies to match the need. The voucher wait list is years long, despite there being vacant Philadelphia Housing Authority housing stock. The Urban Institute, a national non-profit analyzing housing data and statistics determined that 67% of landlords in Philadelphia discriminate against renters with housing vouchers. The Fair Housing Ordinance outlaws this discrimination, but the law isn’t well enforced, and people who are lucky enough to actually receive a housing subsidy, are often turned down for housing by landlords who refuse to rent to them.
While Philadelphia was struggling with poverty prior to the COVID outbreak, once the outbreak hit, life became even more unstable for those living in poverty.
In violation of Federal protocol and defiance of CDC recommendations, the city evicted people sleeping in tent encampments, and directed the inhabitants into the city shelters. There were not proper measures taken to ensure safety of those in the shelters, and testing was mostly unavailable. Unsurprisingly, COVID soon spread throughout the shelters. Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, The City’s largest men’s shelter experienced a massive outbreak, and eventually half of its guests and staff tested positive. Another city shelter, Our Brother’s Place, also saw outbreaks, and one of its residents died of COVID.
In the meantime, the city was granted FEMA money to shelter people experiencing homelessness in hotels, but the qualifications limited access, and in the end the city spent $260,000 on rooms they never filled. While the hotel rooms sat vacant, families and individuals were sleeping on the streets. The shelters attempted to enforce social distancing by lowering bed count, and without providing people hotels or other safe spaces to quarantine, this left a growing number of individuals and families with no place to shelter, in the middle of a global pandemic.
In response to the growing need, SREHUP started a GO FUND ME Page to raise funds to quarantine families and individuals safely in the hotels, while linking these people to resources and services they needed to get back on their feet.
In the midst of the crisis, after quarantining in the hotel we provided them for months, several of these families ended up taking over vacant PHA housing. This vacant housing, owned by the city, but meant to house those who are low income and homeless, has been sitting vacant, and blighting their communities. The houses were cleaned, filled with furniture, and then filled with families who need a safe place to live. Without a safe space to live and quarantine, these families risked dying on the streets, or having their children removed by DHS.
While safely in the houses, several of the parents were able to apply for and acquire jobs.
We need to get serious about providing people with housing.
Philadelphia is in desperate need of more affordable housing. There has been a steady erosion of affordable housing for decades. HUD, which funds public housing, and the neo-liberal voucher system has also seen a steady decline in funding and housing availability. The Reagan administration slashed HUD spending by 60%. From 1990-2008, over 220,000 public housing units have been demolished. Philadelphia alone has demolished 7,800, without providing any replacement housing for that lost housing stock. (Source: How to Kill a City, Moskowitz). Homeownership is at a 50 year low (Source: How to Kill a City, Moskowitz). Total housing stock nationwide has decreased by 50% since 2016. While housing stock has decreased, affordability has also plummeted. Move in Cost have doubled in the last decade. The median rent in Philly as of June 2019 was $1,614, up 3% from the previous year.
While housing has decreased, the units that are built to replace the destruction of affordable housing has primarily gone to the wealthy. In 2017, 9 out of 10 units built were luxury units (Source: How to Kill a City, Moskowitz). Today’s housing owners are mostly banks, hedge funds, private equity funds like Blackstone, which is the world’s largest landlord. (Source: Capital City, Samuel Stein). Their housing sits vacant, as the owners wait for the land under their house to appreciate. There are currently approximately 17 million vacant homes in the US today.
In an effort to increase the inventory of affordable housing in Philadelphia, SREHUP is moving FULL STEAM AHEAD with our villages of tiny homes for people who are unhoused and low income. And we are also removing barriers to accessing that housing- by being ADA accessible and pet friendly, for example. In a few weeks we will be taking several members of city council out to tour our Tiny House Manufacturers in Lancaster. Watch out for our FACEBOOK LIVE event and join us virtually on the tour!
Other than building new affordable housing, and filling the homes that sit vacant throughout the city and country, two things we fully endorse, there are several vital solutions to the affordable housing crisis. One solution is to redirect funding from the mortgage interest deduction to public housing. Currently the federal government dedicates nearly $134 Billion to homeowner subsidies- welfare for the ownership class. Less than $20 Billion is spent on housing vouchers. Significantly more of our tax dollars are going to welfare for the rich than the poor, and the Mortgage Interest Deduction is only one example of that.
Other than redirecting federal spending away from subsidizing the wealthy, and towards eliminating homelessness, the second solution is rezoning our land to eliminate exclusionary zoning- also known as single family zoning, and allowing for more creative housing options. Minneapolis is leading the way here! We can learn from their zoning progress!
If we redirect tax subsidies away from wealthier families towards families who need the financial help, and rezone to stop exclusionary zoning laws, it could reduce or eliminate homelessness all together. This is not about the lack of resources; it is about the unequal access and distribution. Solving this problem of homelessness and lack of affordable housing is both cost effective, and a moral necessity. Poverty is a robbery. There are looters benefiting from it. We have the power to fix this. Be on the lookout for future newsletters where we tackle not just causes to the current crisis, but offer specific and manageable solutions. We are all needed in this work. Thanks for being on our team!