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Correction: This article has been updated to correct Green’s current status; contrary to the initial version of this story, she is still looking for a new place to live, and is not yet enrolled in a first-time homebuyer’s program. Billy Penn regrets the error.
After months of living out of boxes and near-constant searching, longtime University City Townhomes resident Lynn Green still hasn’t found a new place to live.
Other residents of the West Philly affordable housing complex are also still making efforts to move out before the development’s 40-year federal housing subsidy expires.
Since property owner IBID/Altman Management gave notice it wouldn’t renew the subsidy — through multiple extensions to give people more time — about half of the original 70 residents have managed to find new homes, per IBID spokesperson Kevin Feeley. Half of those remaining are close to finalizing relocation plans, he said. The current subsidy expiration is Jan. 31.
Green, now in her 60s, has lived at the townhomes for 24 years. She raised her two children there and volunteered at local schools before her health began to decline. With a lung condition and mobility limitations, Green needs a first-floor unit with no mold or pest issues, plus a landlord willing to accept the vouchers to cover rent. Those requirements are surprisingly hard to come by.
“I think about it every day,” Green told Billy Penn in September. “I’m so afraid I’m gonna be homeless. I’ve never been homeless before.”
That fear permeated her life, showing up in Green’s dreams and causing stress-related issues. Housing instability and homelessness can have disastrous impacts on mental health, studies have shown. While affordable complexes like the Townhomes can help alleviate some of this by stabilizing the cost for residents, that sense of security disappeared when IBID announced its intention to sell the property in July 2021.
“I had a dream that I was in bed and they were pulling me out by my feet,” Green said. “The way the system is set up, it’s not there to help you.”
Green doesn’t want to move. Her two children, now in their 30s, grew up at the Townhomes and she regularly hosted her grandkids there. She relies on the complex’s proximity to public transit, grocery stores, and medical care.
She has also made steps towards enrolling in a program that helps first-time homebuyers pull together a down payment.
A bigger worry to Green is the gentrification that keeps creeping further west, even as she viewed apartments that were relatively nearby.
The stress of shifting timelines and a long waiting list
Extensions to the federal subsidy at UC Townhomes were approved by HUD at the request of IBID/Altman Management, but they came after months of protest and direct action from the Save the UC Townhomes coalition.
Housing activists and residents spent the summer and fall protesting the Townhomes’ impending sale, on the grounds that it would displace the nearly 70 families living there.
The date was pushed back — first to Sept. 7, then to Oct. 8, then to Dec. 27, and finally to Jan. 31 — but vouchers for new subsidized housing only started coming out in May.
The shifting timeline and short-term extensions make planning difficult, UC Townhomes residents told Billy Penn. Rasheda Alexander, a longtime resident and organizer with the coalition, said the new date still isn’t enough time for everyone to find a new home.
Finding affordable housing is harder than a regular apartment hunt. First, residents like Alexander and Green had to wait for their vouchers to arrive before they would know what their budget was. Then, they’d search for units — many of which were unavailable, inaccessible, or in unfamiliar neighborhoods — and hope that the landlord would accept the voucher. The process can take months or years, particularly for residents with access needs.
It’s not a new problem. There’s been an extreme shortage of affordable homes across Philly since the 2010s.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority also has a 40,000-household long waitlist for only 14,000 units — so many families wait years or even decades before there’s an opening. Coupled with the recent influx of wealthier transplants renting and buying in the city, this has created intense competition for a limited supply of housing, and has drive prices far out of reach for Philadelphians with lower incomes.
Green, the 24-year UC Townhomes resident, has mobility limitations that require a first floor unit, which needs to have minimal air quality issues because of her COPD. Seeking a suitable space is taking nearly all of her time.
“I’m still looking when I sit in the bathroom, I’m still looking if I’m sitting here [in my living room], wherever I go, I’m constantly looking,” Green said in September. “All my time is spent looking at places to live … if you say, ‘Let’s go out to dinner,’ I don’t even think like that anymore. That’s how heavy this is on me.”
Green spent the past 15 months calling everyone she could think of — her Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, housing lawyers at Community Legal Services — but said she was frequently redirected and bounced around from office to office. As the deadline approached, Green started going to her doctor more regularly with stress-related health complications, like panic attacks and nightmares.
She inquired about dozens of places before finding even one that checked all her boxes. And that didn’t promise she’d get it.
Other residents faced similar challenges, UC Townhomes resident and housing organizer Alexander told Billy Penn. “The fact that the extension has happened three times since the original expiration [date] is very traumatizing, especially for our elderly residents,” she said.
“The stress that [the situation] has put on the families is detrimental to their health, not just to their physical health but their mental health,” Alexander added. “It is putting wear and tear on our community.”
Not everyone takes vouchers, and affordable units have many issues
A short supply of affordable housing is only half the problem. As subsidies for complexes like the Townhomes lapse, residents are pushed out into a competitive market with Housing Choice vouchers -also known as Section 8.
The vouchers are meant to cover part of a tenant’s rent, but many landlords refuse to take them.
Fewer than half of U.S. households actually use their voucher after a subsidy contract ends, per a 2016 University of Pennsylvania study, for a multitude of reasons. Older residents like Green often struggle to navigate the private rental market after decades without needing to do so, while others are locked out of their desired neighborhoods.
Many landlords “discriminate” against households that have vouchers, said Claudia Aiken, director of a program called the Housing Initiative at Penn, so people often end up “in neighborhoods that are relatively high poverty and that are not racially diverse.”
Green knows this pattern well. She recounted calling dozens of landlords in West Philly, many within the University City area, and being repeatedly shot down.
“Before you get anything out, because they already know what you’re saying — ‘Oh, we don’t take Section 8, sorry.’ Click,” Green said, motioning as if hanging up a phone.
The limited options available to voucher-holders come with their own set of problems. UC Townhomes residents said places within their price range often had major issues: pests, mold, mouse droppings, or even a lack of structural integrity.
“A lot of the properties that I went to see were slums, to be honest,” said Alexander, the UC Townhomes resident and coalition organizer.
Even though she wasn’t yet officially enrolled in the first-time homebuyer program yet, Green began viewing affordably-priced houses over the summer. But the same issues reared their heads. At one showing, Green encountered black mold spots all over the basement walls — and was told to “just paint over it.”
“I’m not painting over that,” Green said. “That’s dangerous, I have a lung disease.”
Aiken, the Housing Initiative at Penn director, said there is “very little obligation for developers or housing providers to create accessible units,” despite people with disabilities being twice as likely to experience poverty.
There’s also often a disconnect between market price and what people can actually pay, particularly in rapidly gentrifying areas.
While vouchers were designed to bridge this gap, the amount given to residents is often based on “fair market value” for an entire zip code. So for 19104, a voucher might help cover rents in Belmont, but be of little use in a more expensive neighborhood like University City.
“We can’t have a market-based solution for everything,” Aiken said. ” We need to invest in affordable housing in neighborhoods where it costs a lot.”
What can the city do?
In collaboration with Aiken and other researchers from HIP, the Philadelphia Department of Planning and Development in 2018 created a Housing for Equity plan. It called for preserving existing PHA and HUD-subsidized units and increasing the number of Section 8 housing vouchers, while also creating grant programs to help homeowners with repairs.
First-time homebuyer programs, like the one Green expressed interest in, are another example of the kinds of solutions outlined in the plan. These programs typically offer a small percentage of the total purchase price as a grant that can be put towards a down payment.
In 2019, the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation launched the Philly First Home program. It aided more than 2,700 Philadelphians before running out of money in 2020. The city renewed the program in April 2022 with $14.5 million from its Neighborhood Preservation Initiative.
The plan was not able to prevent the displacement of the 70 families at the UC Townhomes.
“The expiration of those subsidies can be a complicated problem,” said Aiken, of Housing Initiative at Penn, “not just because in some cases the owners of the property don’t want to renew, but also because the properties deteriorate over time and you need an infusion of new capital to make them livable. Where does that money come from?”
The answer isn’t always clear.
The Housing Equity Plan is designed to help the city predict which subsidized properties are likely to be sold, giving key players like the Division of Housing and Community Development enough time to secure a new nonprofit owner who will keep the property affordable. But Aiken noted this information is only useful when all the other city and federal offices can respond in time.
Even homeownership wouldn’t completely quell Green’s anxieties.
She grew up in North Philly hearing her mother talk about gentrification and displacement. While living at the Townhomes, she watched the process unfold with her own eyes. She worries the pattern will continue.
“I understand that you want to build a science center,” Green said, referring to the health sciences center built by Drexel after it bought the former University City High School. “But why do you have to pick every place that we go? … What if I find a nice house right now, a first-time-buyer house, and then they decide they want the neighborhood? Now look, I have to move again.”