A street in Philly's Francisville neighborhood

Philadelphia is looking to expand a $1.7 million pandemic relief fund for workers into a longer-term cash assistance program for struggling renters in the city.

Launched in July with an infusion from liberal financier George Soros, Philly’s Worker Relief Fund was designed to help people left out of federal and state coronavirus stimulus benefits. According to numbers recently released by city officials, the no-strings-attached cash assistance went to more than 2,100 city residents who did not qualify for previous aid packages.

People who received the one-time payments of $800 used them to survive in various ways, per testimonials given to Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration.

An out-of-work caregiver used the money to pay her rent, purchase food and provide help to family in Haiti. A pregnant former food prep worker paid bills and bought a stroller and crib for her incoming child. A single mother bought medicine.

“People have this as a lifesaver at a critical time — to feed their children and babies,” said Maari Porter, Kenney’s deputy chief of staff for policy and strategic initiatives. “People feel seen by the government.”

Porter and others working on the relief fund said they’re studying the impact, as well as the process, in which the city acts as the financial aid conduit, accepting money from philanthropic groups and funnelling it to community partners for distribution to those in need.

The framework would be suitable for providing other direct cash relief — a growing trend in cities across the U.S.

Helping Philadelphians keep a roof over head

In Philly, cash assistance could surface in a pilot rental aid program.

Kenney’s office actually unveiled the bones for this plan back in March, right before the pandemic landed in Philadelphia. At the time, there were plans to incorporate public dollars, but budget cuts wrought by the coronavirus make that unlikely right now. (The city did tap $10 million in federal funds for emergency rental assistance back in May.)

Seeing success in the Worker Relief Fund, Porter said the administration is now pivoting back toward philanthropies, to see if they can mirror the results.

While details are still being hatched out, Porter said the pilot would compare the effects of giving people housing vouchers — which go to their landlords — versus giving tenants cash directly and letting them manage their own finances.

“We’re looking at two direct cohorts and seeing what is most effective,” Porter said.

Members of City Council have also made rental and cash assistance a priority.

Fundraising for cash relief has not been easy, Porter said, but more philanthropies are warming to the idea.

This summer, Mayor Jim Kenney joined the Mayors for Guaranteed Income — a pilot program to provide minimum income for families during the coronavirus pandemic. Stockton Ohio Mayor Michael Tubbs, who launched the initiative in June, will be meeting with Kenney officials and local philanthropists in Philadelphia this week, per Porter.

Worker relief fund helped women, people of color

A rental cash relief program would also work with trusted community groups to identify residents in the most need, like the COVID-19 Worker Relief Fund did.

In this case, the majority of the $800 debit cards were distributed to women, people of color and lower-income households with three or more people, according to city data. Occupations included domestic workers, restaurant, factory and retail employees, as well as other service-related workers who were not eligible for state and federal benefits. City officials emphasize the fund was not just about aiding undocumented people.

Recipients were selected and vetted by more than a dozen community organizations around the city, including Haitian American Voice, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation and the African Cultural Alliance of North America.

They mostly live in deep poverty. About 75% self-reported a household income of less than $20k a year. Another 22% reported incomes of below $40k.

People of color made up nearly 95% of the pool, while 58% were women. Here’s a breakdown by race and ethnicity:

  • 43% Latino
  • 25% Black
  • 24% Asian
  • 3% other or multiracial
  • 5% opted to not disclose

Money went to rent, groceries and food

To date, about 80% of funds on the Worker Relief Fund cards have been spent, with the average remaining card balance around $150. According to their data, Porter said 63% of recipients took cash withdrawals, meaning spending could not be itemized.

But in those cases, Porter said many recipients reported spending the money on rent, which the federal government acknowledges as one of the largest economic burdens for people living in poverty.

For the charges that could be itemized, people spent the money on the necessities, per the city’s data:

  • 36% at grocery stores
  • 15% at discount, wholesale and department stores
  • 9% at clothing and shoe stores
  • About 8% on personal goods and pharmacy
  • 4% for utilities
  • 4% for gas or transportation

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...