The Poplar, which rents what it calls "luxury" one-bedroom apartments for $2,000/month, opened recently next to subsidized housing in North Philly. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

After nearly two years of protests, encampments, lawsuits, and the displacement of nearly 70 families, the University City Townhomes affordable housing saga appears to have a resolution

But the underlying issue that caused the situation is far from unique.

Over 20% of the city’s affordable housing complexes that rely on the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and Section 8 subsidies — about 100 out of 450 — are set to expire over the next decade, according to the National Housing Preservation Database.

Billy Penn mapped these properties and their potential expiration dates, showing how affordable housing could disappear over time if these units aren’t preserved or replaced.

Many of the city’s affordable complexes were built in West and North Philly in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Now those areas are seeing average rents spike, just as much of their affordable housing is about to expire.

“Nobody knew people were projecting 40 years into the future,” Carolyn Placke, housing program officer at the community development nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), told Billy Penn. “And what we’re seeing now is, well, poverty hasn’t been solved. There’s even a greater need for affordable housing.”

What areas will the expiring contracts affect most?

Point Breeze, North Broad, and Spruce Hill are at the top of the list. These neighborhoods have all experienced rapid gentrification in recent years, and the many Black and Latine residents who historically made up these communities have been pushed out in favor of more affluent white transplants.

Federally subsidized housing complexes are usually less impacted by the early stages of gentrification because their contracts have preset lengths that protect the properties from rising prices in the surrounding neighborhood. Section 8 funding typically lasts 20 years, for example, while LIHTC contracts start at 15 years and can extend past 30 years. 

For advocates and city leaders, Placke said, the question becomes, “What do we still need to do?”

In 2018, the Department of Housing and Community Development published a Housing Action Plan, designed to create or preserve 100,000 affordable housing units over a 10-year period. So far, they’ve created or preserved 41,165 units of affordable housing.

By 2032, the map will look a lot different. Nearly 100 complexes will have lost their subsidies if they aren’t granted an extension, displacing thousands of low-income households.

In 2018, the Department of Housing and Community Development published a Housing Action Plan, designed to create or preserve 100,000 affordable housing units over a 10-year period. So far, they’ve created or preserved 41,165 units of affordable housing.

Can we predict which neighborhoods are at most risk?

Researchers rely on a few factors that can indicate how likely a property is to lose its affordable status in the near future, ideally to identify neighborhoods that still have time to preserve their communities and housing

Demographic shifts and rent increases can be indicators — but those stats don’t show up soon enough.

“A big red flag, but also a lagging indicator, is when you see racial and ethnic shifts. When you’re seeing those shifts, it’s kind of already too late,” said Claudia Aiken, director of the Housing Initiative at Penn. “When people are already feeling such displacement pressure that they move en masse, and that you actually see big changes in the percentages, you know gentrification has happened.”

Instead Aiken looks at a combination of other factors, like corporations buying and flipping houses, or public sector investment in educational facilities.

Related from Billy Penn

“Point Breeze or Grad Hospital, I think of those areas as kind of where [gentrification] has already happened,” Aiken told Billy Penn. “The fringes where it’s beginning to happen might be more like the area just south of Temple,” where a substantial Latine population resides.

As surrounding regions see an influx of affluent residents and Temple expands, these properties will become more and more valuable — which could push profit-motivated owners to sell or convert their buildings to market rate.

Many of the areas identified in the city’s Housing Action Plan are similar: communities of color with lower median incomes that are immediately next to whiter, more affluent ones. These neighborhoods, Aiken argued, should be the focus of preservation efforts. 

“The places where the [subsidized housing] owner is going to want to sell are where prices are rising,” she said, “but these are also the neighborhoods where low-income tenants have access to fresh food, to good schools, to all these amenities that we all want and deserve.”

Instead of neighborhood demographics, her work generally focuses around ownership profile: for-profit entities and developers tend to be less mission-oriented, and more willing to sell.

“Nonprofits are committed to keeping those units affordable, even despite the fact that you have all of these different market pressures,” Placke said. “Sometimes you may see a private developer that, for whatever reason, they’re making a business decision not to participate in the tax credit program anymore… And those are the ones that we’re really concerned about.”

Why are so many properties expiring soon?

To understand the situation now, you have to go back to when these contracts were inked. Public-private partnerships like Section 8 and the LIHTC popped up throughout the nation in the 1970s and 80s to address the lack of affordable housing. 

In Philadelphia, the decline of industrial manufacturing led to an outflux of more than 400,000 residents 1970 and 2000. Many of these were white, higher-income residents who moved to the suburbs.

With the poverty rate increasing as the population shrank, property owners in Philly needed a way to minimize their losses and respond to the growing demand for affordable places to live. Many signed 30- and 40-year contracts with HUD, which helped finance new construction anc added to the housing stock.

That worked for the many decades that Philly’s property values stayed low. But as the city sees an influx of younger, wealthier residents, the subsidies can no longer compete.

“We’ve been trying to come up with market based solutions that stretch the dollars we have as far as they can possibly go,” Aiken said. “But whenever you rely on the market for these things, I think there’s the risk of inequity, of unforeseen consequences, of the subsidy expiring eventually.”

Now nearly 40 of Philly’s affordable housing complexes rely on 40-year Section 8 contracts that began in the early to mid 80s, which are rapidly approaching their end dates according to the National Housing Preservation Database. Dozens more Section 8 and LIHTC contracts that began in the 90s will also expire in the next 15 years. 

Many likely won’t be renewed.

“What I think we’re seeing is some of the flaws in those early designs around the tax credit program,” Placke said. “And so the question is, how do you correct for that?”

What can the city do to keep these properties affordable?

Until recently, policymakers and researchers were missing key sets of data that would allow them to better understand the state of affordable housing in Philadelphia, and advocate for or help provide targeted assistance.

For example, the National Housing Preservation Database, a cornerstone of the bulk of recent reporting and research on affordable housing —including Billy Penn’s maps — didn’t exist until 5 years ago.

“We know these [properties] are moving to expiration, but we don’t know where, and we don’t necessarily always understand what’s happening in the neighborhood itself,” said Placke, of LISC. “Being able to take that information and bring it forward, either to the city or to a local councilperson, is one step closer to ensuring that these properties remain affordable.” 

Philadelphia’s Housing Action Plan is considered a big achievement toward that ideal. First published in 2018, it’s a comprehensive set of recommendations, regulations, and strategies for ensuring the city’s affordable housing supply grows instead of shrinks.

The plan outlines solutions to putting together down payments, paying for home repairs, a lack of new construction, and even mediating eviction. It called for collecting and publicizing relevant data — which can now be tracked using a dashboard.

And it calls on the city to not only preserve existing affordable units, but to actively pursue building new ones. The Planning Department’s Division of Housing and Community Development does its “due diligence” to keep properties with existing subsidies when it’s able, spokesperson Jamila Davis told Billy Penn. “At the same time, we’re also building or part of new developments as well.”

As notable as the plan is, experts say it still has limitations.

Despite Philadelphia having “one of the oldest housing stocks in the nation,” said Aiken, of the Housing Initiative at Penn,  the city still doesn’t keep a complete record of buildings’ age and condition. As a result, it’s hard to know where to target the plan’s programs and initiatives.

Even more importantly, working on affordable housing is all about prediction — and that was exceedingly difficult before the data was readily available.

“You always have to be ahead of the game,” Placke said. “If you’re able to project what your needs are five years from now, you’re much better able to advocate and ensure that the funding that’s going to be needed to preserve those units is actually in place.”

Both Placke and Aiken are optimistic about what they see as a critical part of the urban landscape.

“Affordable housing is such a key part of a neighborhood,” Placke said. “And when it is lost, you’re not simply losing a building, you’re losing an entire history of a neighborhood.”