Twelve people died when a fire tore through the house near 23rd and Poplar. More than twice that many are thought to have lived there.

Much is still unknown about Wednesday’s tragedy in Fairmount, where 12 people lost their lives in an early morning rowhouse fire.

It is not yet clear how the fire started, or if all 26 people sleeping in the two units lived there permanently. It isn’t clear why the smoke detectors did not sound, or if a utility shutoff had resulted in more dangerous methods of heating being employed. (Here’s how to help survivors.)

But unlike the 2018 rowhome fire that claimed four lives, and brought attention to housing inequity in Philadelphia, the duplex at 869 N. 23rd St. was not a rooming house or a slumlord’s illegal apartment building.

It was owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which claims to be the largest landlord in Pennsylvania. In the city, PHA controls a massive stock of individual row houses that were once privately owned.

“It’s rare that housing authorities own units outside the public housing portfolio, but it’s not unheard of,” said Joseph Shuldiner, who served in leadership roles with the Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York housing authorities. “Cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore have a lot more than other places, a lot more of these two-to-three story buildings out there in troubled neighborhoods.”

A housing authority spokesperson was not immediately able to confirm the number of these so-called “scatter site” units, but PHA’s website states that 4,000 families live in such homes. There are also vacant properties in PHA’s portfolio. A 1999 report commissioned by the authority found 6,400 scattered around the city, but since then hundreds have been sold at auction.

PHA acquired many of these properties in the 1960s, as the city first started to lose substantial population to the suburbs. As rowhomes in North and West Philadelphia were foreclosed or abandoned, policymakers attempted to save some units by converting them to subsidized housing.

“They would be integrated, standing side-by-side with privately owned units,” said John Kromer, who served as Philadelphia’s housing director in the 1990s. “It was a good idea, but it didn’t take into account the extreme depopulation that followed in the 1970s and 1980s, leaving a lot of PHA-owned properties in deteriorating neighborhoods.”

PHA has long struggled with this large portfolio of rowhomes, both because of national policy priorities and local bureaucratic malaise.

On a federal policy level, the public housing system fell out of favor in the 1970s. Funding began to atrophy and then severely decline. In 2014, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that the public housing program’s capital and operating funds fell by 25% between 2001 and 2014. PHA’s buildings alone need over $1 billion in repairs.

On the local level, where some 40,000 people are on the waiting list for homes, the agency historically did not give its full attention to scatter site properties.

Like all housing authorities, the bulk of PHA’s resources goes towards administering the Section 8 voucher program and the major developments that it designs and builds. The scatter site units also aren’t usually represented by resident councils, like tenants in big housing complexes like West Park are.

“Scatter site housing has always been more difficult to manage than conventional high- or mid-rise apartments,” Kromer said, “both because it’s dispersed and because of the age of the housing.”

But after years of neglect and periodic sales, PHA says its policy towards its scattersite inventory has recently shifted under current CEO Kelvin Jeremiah.

“Kelvin really changed his strategy a year or two ago and decided to start preserving them,” said a PHA spokesperson. “The idea is to preserve scattered site housing in the better neighborhoods. Kelvin doesn’t want to let those get away.”

According to the spokesperson, the house that burned Wednesday was rehabbed even earlier, in 2011.

Kromer has long advocated for more of PHA’s scatter site housing to be sold off to generate more funds for the construction and maintenance of the agency’s larger developments. But there could be advantages, in theory, to maintaining units in gentrifying areas like Fairmount or 13th Street in Center City — it could allow residents with lower incomes access to higher-opportunity areas.

Firefighters responded quickly, but there were no working smoke alarms in the Fairmount rowhome Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Local officials have little influence on public housing policy, which is chronically underfunded

It’s hard for city officials to directly influence PHA policy choices, former director Kromer pointed out.

The mayor appoints the housing authority’s board, which is confirmed by City Council. This gives local officials more power over the agency than they once had, but the housing authority largely operates independently from municipal government. It is not subject to the city charter, receives much of its funding directly from HUD, and is not subject to strong oversight from City Council or the City Controller’s office. The working relationship between the housing authority and city housing agencies can be fraught.

(PHA called this characterization “disappointing,” and said the agency works closely with councilmembers representing districts where they have property.)

“That separation can create a lot of problems that could otherwise be addressed if it were associated more closely with the city,” Kromer said.

Across the U.S., housing authorities have been systemically underfunded for decades, forced to rely on a jerry-rigged system of public-private partnerships to maintain their portfolios.

Advocates were excited by President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which as currently written would include $15 billion for a National Housing Trust Fund, $25 billion for housing vouchers, and $65 billion for the maintenance of existing public housing.

“That would be an unprecedented investment in rehabilitation and rehab of public housing,” said Vincent Reina, associate professor of planning at the University of Pennsylvania, noting it makes a sharp contrast to “the general lack of commitment to the portfolio of subsidized housing the federal government developed years ago.”

The state of the Build Back Better bill is unclear, however, after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Biden’s team were unable to come to a compromise in 2021.

But Wednesday’s tragedy in Philadelphia indicates more support is needed, advocates say. It is not clear if everyone who was in the Fairmount house lived there full time, but housing industry experts note that large, multi-generational households have become common in increasingly unaffordable neighborhoods.

“That kind of thing happens all the time, someone gets in the apartment then their cousin needs a place to stay, then their brother, next thing you know there’s a dozen people in the property,” said Victor Pinckney, a landlord who owns many properties in North Philadelphia.

In America’s poorest big city, Philadelphians with lower incomes historically could find good shelter. But in recent years, Philly’s median home sale price shot up almost $100,000. Rents have been increasing, especially in higher demand areas like Fairmount, while the city is in danger of losing thousands of affordable units.

“It’s really hard to regulate [who is living in a rental unit], and you don’t want to be the cause of people being out in the streets just because they need to be staying with family,” said Pinckney. “PHA doesn’t have any more clout with that kind of situation than we do.”