Is Our Politicians Learning? Affordable Housing Edition

One of the big problems with Philly's current approach to affordable housing policy is the scale issue. The ways that we're spending public money now don't come anywhere close to helping the number of residents who need housing assistance, and still wouldn't come close even if elected officials dedicated millions more to the existing programs.

To give credit where it's due, particularly to Council President Clarke, the city has taken some significant steps toward scaling up more affordable affordable housing strategies, like the recent $100 million bond issue for basic home repairs, and elected officials are increasingly open to the idea of scaling up more cost-effective approaches (even while continuing to support expensive new construction as the reigning strategy.)

Caitlin McCabe checked in on the city's new Housing Preservation Loan Program this week, and caught an interesting quote from Clarke seeming to admit that spending $300,000-400,000 per unit building brand new housing is way too much, and doesn't help enough people for the money spent. 

"Specifically, Clarke and his cosponsor, Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, envisioned splitting that $100 million into two categories: $40 million would go to create the new [Housing Preservation Loan Program], which will be housed under the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. The remaining $60 million would be used to alleviate massive backlogs in the city’s home-repair grant programs.

“We think that the most significant opportunity for us to create affordable housing is to keep a person in their existing home, as opposed to a highly subsidized housing unit that is affordable,” Clarke said Tuesday. “That costs between $300,000 and $400,00 a unit. Here, we give you an extended life of that household.”

For years, three of the city’s home repair grants — the Basic Systems Repair, Weatherization Assistance, and Adaptive Modifications Programs — had faced a three-to-five-year waiting list of nearly 8,000 residents. In May, those programs received the $60 million cash infusion. Already, city officials have reached out to half of those wait-listed and productivity has “tripled,” said Dave Thomas, executive vice president of the Division of Housing and Community Development.

This is great news, and the takeaway should be that we now begin shifting some more of our local housing spending away from new construction, and toward repairing existing rowhomes. 

Another issue with the City's affordable housing policy is the weird reticence about simply embracing the city's existing urban character. Too often these major public affordable housing projects try to shoehorn in tons of suburban-style parking rather than just copying the classic rowhouse pattern. Just because someone doesn't make enough money to afford rent or a mortgage for a regular rowhouse, it doesn't follow that they necessarily want a totally different neighborhood style, or a home that's clearly identifiable as publicly-subsidized.

In the case of Sharswood, the Philadelphia Housing Authority (with Clarke's full support) used eminent domain to take over a bunch of regular rowhouse blocks, and is replacing them with a much less dense layout that impressively manages to forfeit all the benefits of both urban and suburban land use planning.

Another story from today, about the revamped Redevelopment Authority project in Mantua that's coming after the big eminent domain controversy over James Dupree's studio, shows what our public housing agencies should be doing in 2018. While the eminent domain controversy really sucked up all the media attention the last time the now-abandoned project was in the news, another bad aspect of that project was that the planned grocery store was a suburban-style supermarket with a giant parking lot that would have been a blow to neighborhood walkability.

The new project not only maintains James Dupree's studio, it includes an urban-footprint grocery store on the ground floor of a mid-rise apartment building, with below-market rate apartments. From Inga Saffron's piece on the project:

Assuming the team gets a thumbs up, the lead developer, Charles Lomax, says it will start with 72-unit mid-rise apartment building at 37th and Haverford. Twenty percent of the units will be available to people earning below Philadelphia’s median income, about $49,920 for a family of four.

Instead of the kind of superstore pushed by the previous developer, Lomax’s group has set its sights on a more realistic model, a 15,000-square-foot grocer that will occupy the ground floor. While it’s smaller than the megastores typically found in highway locations, Lomax told me it’s big enough to offer a full array of fresh produce. And unlike the megastore, the neighborhood-size store requires only 56 parking spaces.

This project shows that it's possible for PHA and RDA to do affordable rentals that also take advantage of the natural affordability benefits from multifamily housing, while working with—rather than against—the city's urban form. 

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