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House hunters

Philadelphia finds a compromise for a low-income housing shortage, but will it last?

Supporters at a homeless camp on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia Associated Press/Photo by Matt Slocum (file)

House hunters

In early October, Philadelphia officials reached a compromise with activists and homeless people who camped out to protest the city’s lack of low-income housing. After months of negotiating, the city agreed to transfer 50 properties to a land trust the activists will establish, and the campers agreed to disperse.

“This will be a landmark agreement,” said organizer Jennifer Bennetch. “[A] group of poor and homeless organizers managed through direct action to win an agreement that will set a precedent for the entire country.”

Philadelphia, like most major U.S. cities, has a shortage of low-income housing. Tens of thousands of people are on a public housing waitlist. Advocacy groups cheer community land trusts like the one Philadelphia just established. But the trusts run the risk of providing housing that works for a while then fizzles in the long-term.

In June, a coalition of activists invited homeless people to camp together on a baseball field along Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the city’s museum district. The organizers demanded housing for everyone in the camp and provided medical care, toilets, showers, and other supplies to those camped there. Weeks later, similar protest camps formed near the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) headquarters and behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The residents ignored the city’s multiple eviction notices, hanging signs demanding, “Housing Now.”

Later in the summer, the protesters identified vacant city-owned houses and helped homeless mothers furnish them and move inside. The housing authority had planned to rehabilitate those homes, but the squatters jumped ahead of 47,000 people on a waiting list. “Folks are calling upon PHA to make units available,” housing authority CEO Kelvin Jeremiah told WHYY-TV. “And I am asking, where and with what resources? If it cost us $250,000 to $300,000 to build one unit, imagine how much it will cost to build 47,000. PHA does not print money.”

In early October, the housing authority reached an agreement with the protest campers near its headquarters: It would provide social services and a pathway to permanent housing, along with job opportunities for homeless people. Protesters agreed to leave the site. A week later came the agreement with the camp on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The city agreed to provide 50 homes to the activists’ land trust—10 within five days of the camp dispersing and up to 40 more in the next six months. The land trust will provide housing for the people from the camps, charging income-based rent.

Community land trusts exist in several cities around the United States to give otherwise ineligible buyers a chance at homeownership. A nonprofit acquires properties and offers housing on the land to low-income residents for a fixed price, no matter how surrounding property values rise. One study shows land trusts can slow gentrification and keep homes affordable. That can open the door for residents with low income, bad credit, or a criminal history to own a home—though not the land under it.

But community land trusts require perpetual funding to purchase property and build or maintain the housing. Eric Kober, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and former employee of the New York City Department of City Planning, warned land trusts can receive philanthropic funding but usually end up relying on public money. “Since the public sector is driven by short-term political considerations, it is not a reliable long-term source of investment,” he said. “Any housing that depends on ongoing government subsidy is in danger of underinvestment over time.”

Kober said the best solution for affordable housing would be changing zoning to allow denser residences and improving transit options to reduce traffic. Most cities don’t have overall housing affordability issues. Those that do usually have restrictive zoning preventing housing development from keeping pace with economic growth. “Private developers need to be able to earn a fair return on their investment,” he added. “If it’s done right, cities are both financially and environmentally sustainable.”

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.



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