Idea for Philly homeowners who want to give back: Rent like your kids live here | Opinion

Renting a room is an alternative to giving grants.

houses-northphilly-skyline
Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
hannahmiller

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.


Government isn’t the only source of solutions for the housing crisis. A little extra love by landlords could make a huge difference, and is an easy solution to implement.

I overheard a conversation recently. Two friends discussing what it seems like homeowners in Philadelphia talk about endlessly right now: housing prices, selling their homes, renting out rooms.

Here is the highlight of the conversation:

“I need to get all this work done on the place before I sell it,” said the woman. “What I need to do is find some sucker to rent the place at a really high rent so I can pay for the repairs.”

“That,” said her friend, “would be the perfect tenant.”

It was the kind of conversation you wish you hadn’t heard.

The two seemed nice enough. Clutching paperbacks, they looked like they were about to take their grandkids to a pumpkin patch. They probably gave to a food bank this year to help people in their community.

But when it came to housing, they were stone-cold predators. Merciless capitalists maximizing their profit, even if that poor “sucker” had to haul around all winter driving a Lyft without healthcare.

Those are just the rules of the game!

The rules change, of course, when we rent to family or friends. We give them breaks. We cut them some slack. Could we consider extending the same courtesy to strangers?

There are plenty of ways the public sector could address Philadelphia’s affordable housing crisis, and all are subject to heavy debate. But there are private solutions too — which have the benefit of being much easier to implement.

Could landlords step up of their own accord, and lower rent by $100 a month? Or $200?

For landlords whose rental income is just icing on the cake, it’s not that big of a deal. They’ve benefited from several years of rising rents. Median rent across the city went up 7% between 2009 and 2019, according to Pew — and in North Philadelphia, where residents have some of the city’s lowest household incomes, there was a 29% jump.

Many people who rent in Philly have trouble making ends meet.

According to Pew, 40% of the city’s renters are “cost-burdened,” which means rent eats up more than 30% of their income. And the less you make, the worse the situation gets. Among renters who earn $30,000 or less a year, 88% are cost-burdened. There just isn’t a supply of cheap units they can jump to.

For these residents, cutting rents by $100 could mean the difference between eating healthy food, or buying groceries at the dollar store. It means not saving for retirement, not affording the co-pay or finding the time to get a mammogram — things that have major impacts (and societal costs) down the road. It means a diminished quality of life,  with the stress that comes from bill-juggling.

The effects of poverty accumulate slowly, at $100 a month, over years.

It may be difficult for a lot of homeowners to understand what this is like. Our pumpkin-patch-going capitalist friends might not even realize how bad wage stagnation has hit. Workers’ purchasing power has been flat for 40 years, and the minimum wage has been the same in Philly for over a decade.

I’m suggesting we need a new movement. The ethical landlord movement.

Or at least the introduction of a new idea: that lowering rent can be a form of charitable action. Rather than donating to the food bank, cut someone a break so they don’t end up needing to go there in the first place.

I’ve seen this done proactively, to very positive effect.

A friend of mine in West Philly rents rooms at below market rate — $300 to $600 a month — intentionally to subsidize low-paying work at nonprofits, political action, or creative endeavors. When I lived there, I was staying between a DJ, a political-science writer, and a guy who tanned animal hides in his room. It was brilliant.

If you add up the savings compared to market rent in that neighborhood over the years, it comes out to several hundred thousand dollars. That makes my friend’s house, for all intents and purposes, a charitable endeavor.

It’s an alternative to giving grants, which requires paperwork and bureaucracy by default. Charging low rent to community organizers or musicians lowers their cost of living, so they have more time to make magic for the rest of us.

This has happened in various cities around the U.S. successfully. The examples we hear of are usually larger projects like the vast NYC Westbeth complex, but this is one social innovation that can happen on the smallest of scales.

Just one reconsidered lease would make a difference for someone. Students, seniors, artists, community helpers — there are so many groups who need the boost.

It would give the whole city a little more breathing room, no new regulations needed.

Mornings in the know

Sign up for Billy Penn’s free morning newsletter for a daily roundup of Philadelphia’s most pressing news, top interesting stories, fun tidbits, and relevant events.

Thanks for reading another Billy Penn article!

We don’t have a paywall, and never will. Instead, we depend on readers like you to keep our newsroom jamming on stories about Philadelphia. If you like what you see, will you support our work?

Thanks for reading a Billy Penn story

We don’t have a paywall, and our daily newsletter is free. Instead, YOU are key to keeping our nonprofit newsroom running strong. If you like what you see, will you join as a member today?

This story was powered by readers

Readers like you make articles like this possible, so thanks for your support. Want to make sure we stick around? Become a sustainer with a recurring contribution!

Tell a friend about Billy Penn

Thanks for reading another article — and we’re grateful for your support! Want to help a friend start their day with Billy Penn? Send them to our newsletter signup page.