Broke in Philly

How Philly’s affordable housing problem was 100 years in the making

A 1927 book details many of the same issues as a Pew report released this week.

The encampment at Von Colln Field on the Ben Franklin Parkway, seen from above in late July

The encampment at Von Colln Field on the Ben Franklin Parkway, seen from above in late July

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Philadelphia government is embroiled in a standoff over encampments that for months have been home to dozens of people without other housing. Mayor Jim Kenney’s third shutdown deadline came and went, and negotiations have stalled. The administration maintains it’s doing everything possible to help, while camp residents and advocates insist the system is broken.

The situation underscores a long truth: There’s never been enough affordable housing to go around. Philly has had housing insecurity problems for at least a century.

A Pew report released Thursday revealed that in 2018, more than half the city’s renters (about 142k households, or half a million people) were cost burdened, which the federal government defines as at least 30% of income going to housing. The percentage is in line with other U.S. cities.

Where Philadelphia stands apart is the economic status of cost-burdened residents: they’re poorer than elsewhere. Nearly 70% make less than $30k annually.

“This pattern is quite different from other places,” the Pew report states, noting that in other big cities, folks who are considered cost-burdened generally have higher incomes overall.

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Pew Trusts

People of color are disproportionately affected. Fewer than a third of white households in Philly are cost burdened, compared to half of Hispanic households, and 46% of Black households. Per Pew, the cost-burden rate is highest in North, West, and Southwest Philadelphia, where the city’s communities of color are concentrated.

The beginnings of these disparities are evident in a 1927 book called “Negro Housing in Philadelphia.”

Published by Quaker researchers T.J. Woofter, Jr. and Madge Headley Priest, the text was meant to be a comprehensive look at the struggle Black people had accessing clean and affordable housing in early 20th century Philly.

Available in Harvard’s online archives, the book outlines persistent problems with racism, crowding, unsanitary conditions and inadequate solutions — many of which look strikingly similar to the housing issues of today.

Nora Lictash, executive director of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, has been battling these systemic problems as an affordable housing advocate in Philly for the past 30 years.

“It’s always been clear,” Lictash said, “This hatred of many people of color, expressed in terms of where they could live.”

Pages from 1927's 'Negro Housing in Philadelphia'

Pages from 1927's 'Negro Housing in Philadelphia'

Widener Library, Harvard University

Then and now: Not enough housing, and it costs too much

The 1927 historical text, issued by a pro-integration group called the Friends Committee on Interests of the Colored Race, starts out by explaining that in the early 20th century, Philadelphia’s Black population was booming.

African Americans moving north during the Great Migration were changing the makeup of the city. In 1910, Black people made up 5.5% of residents; by 1925, they made up 8.3%.

Because of racism and concurrent economic hardship, they were relegated to specific sections of the city. The book estimates the growing cohort of Black residents was forced to live on just 2.2% of Philly’s neighborhood land. Density quickly became an issue. People shared housing, living in colonies and tenements that were overcrowded and unclean.

At the same time, Black Philadelphians paid a premium. Rents in the 1920s were disproportionately higher for Black people in Philadelphia than in any other American city except Gary, Indiana, according to researchers Woofter and Priest.

In the 21st century, the disparity persists across the 50 largest U.S. metros, according to a 2018 study — and the whiter the neighborhood, the more Black renters pay.

High rents and low income can lead quickly to eviction. In recent years, Philadelphia landlords have evicted more renters than other big cities, and the crisis, compounded right now by the pandemic, affects Black residents at higher rates.

Finding new solutions to the persistent affordable housing problem is one goal of leaders working with Philly’s tent encampments, where residents have refused to move from Von Colln Field at 22nd Street on the Ben Franklin Parkway and in front of the Ridge Avenue headquarters of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Said Jamal Henderson, an encampment organizer, in a statement issued Sept. 10: “This is an indictment on the city’s 100-year failure to deal with chronic homelessness in this city.”

Tents at the Parkway encampment in late August

Tents at the Parkway encampment in late August

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

100 years ago, miles of crowded tenements. Today, acres of tent encampments.

A century ago, the neighborhood now known as mostly rich and white Society Hill was considered a “colored district,” explained Quaker researchers Woofter and Priest in their 1927 book.

Lombard Street was full of crowded tenement housing that stretched from 7th to 17th streets, extending north as far as Market and stretching south to Christian. One example the authors detailed was a three-and-a-half story rowhome converted into 23 apartments that shared seven toilets and 12 sinks in public hallways.

Occupied largely by Black residents, most of the tenements looked like this, Woofter and Priest wrote. Those who avoided tenements often lived in “colonies” instead, sharing one big house.

Collective housing projects like this still exist in Philly, said Lictash, of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project.

“That kind of overcrowding…it is so common,” Lictash said. “Oftentimes circumstances are substandard too. They’re missing a system, there’s not adequate plumbing or electricity.”

Following a model used in Point Breeze, the WCRP is currently developing 35 homes as community land trust in Germantown. Of the 500 people who filled out an application to live there, Lictash said 70% of applicants had two or three families living together in a home meant for one.

Social service organizations in the 1920s also tried to help.

The “Negro Housing in Philadelphia” book was copublished by the Whittier Center Housing Company and the Philadelphia Housing Association, both private charities with missions to provide affordable and adequate housing. Also cited in the historical text is the Octavia Hill Association, which still exists today.

These groups offered relief for some residents over the past century, but couldn’t mitigate the overarching systemic issues.

Though the situation at the camps of today seems intractable, there’s some indication of progress. Creating a land trust out of 62 vacant, PHA-owned properties has been one of the main organizer demands — and the Kenney administration says it’s working to make that happen.

“We have agreed to start a community land trust,” Eva Gladstein, Deputy Managing Director of Health and Human Services, revealed at a Sept. 10 briefing. But details are still up in the air.

Camp leaders on Friday formally invited Mayor Kenney to Monday brunch to continue the discussions.

“Even the mayor says the system is broken and these people fell through the cracks,” said Jennifer Bennetch of OccupyPHA. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road…it’s time to actually do something about it.”