Social Issues: “There Is An Affordable Housing Crisis That Confronts The City In Some Real Ways.”

Kelvin Jeremiah, the president and CEO of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, has brought unique ideas from previous stops in Springfield, Massachusetts and New York City to help develop better living conditions for some of Philadelphia’s low-income citizens.


How did you get started with the Philadelphia Housing Authority?

So I came to the PHA about six years ago, having worked in the industry in one capacity or another for about 13 or 14 years before I came here. I was the deputy executive director in New York. I was the inspector general responsible for conducting investigations of fraud and waste mismanagement and insuring internal controls of the New York City Housing Authority, the largest housing authority in the United States.

From there I came to Philly in a similar capacity as the director of the Office of Audit and Compliance here, a new department that was established after the receivership. This company was placed under receivership in 2011. I was appointed the receiver and was appointed the president and CEO.

It is work that I have done now for going on almost 20 years. It resonates in my own experience. It’s important work, providing housing to some of the most vulnerable among us. In this case some of the poorest citizens among us. For instance, senior citizens with fixed income, folks with disabilities who may have mobility issues, who needs specialized housing. We’re doing that with a whole host of partners across the city, across the state, federal, state and local ones, primarily the US Department of Housing and Urban Development funds. Ninety-three percent of our funds comes from the federal government. The remaining six percent comes from the rents that we collect. Less than a percentage comes from grants and other interests on investments.


How do you think your experience in Massachusetts and New York has helped you relocate to Philadelphia?

Philadelphia is what folks refer to as the big small city. New York was a difficult place to work because of the size of the agency there. It’s huge. Just to put it in context, New York City has over 278,000 units of affordable housing compared to over 15,000 [for Philadelphia]. They have 101,000 Section 8 vouchers compared to 18,500. They have an annual budget of over $5 billion compared to over $400 million. The share size of the work that we were doing was just unmatched compared to Philly. What helped me the most was that the complexities that I saw in New York are considerably smaller in Philly. Philly is the fourth largest housing authority in the United States. Springfield was the third largest in Massachusetts. It doesn’t even really register when it comes to size nationally.

One of the things that has helped me tremendously was the work that we did in internal affairs. Making sure that the agencies’ policies and procedures were effective, that they were enabling practitioners to do their job well while maintaining a level of control that respects integrity, that protected against waste and mismanagement. A lot of that shaped my worldview coming here. The agency was, at the time, in turmoil, having been put into receivership. Unlike most housing authorities in the country, the Springfield Housing Authority, when I went there, was on the brink on insolvency for some of the same reasons that this one was put into receivership, but we were able to avoid that. Here, there were just a whole host of things that needed to be readjusted to make sure that we were delivering the level of services that we want for our residents, that we understood what our core mission was. We departed in some ways from doing some of that stuff and refocusing on the agency and its core business.

The other thing that was incredibly helpful having worked at those other places was the opportunity that exists in Philadelphia that I hadn’t seen anywhere else: the availability to do more development, to increase the availability and supply of affordable housing. So in New York there is a scarcity of land. Most of the New York City Housing Authority developments are vertical, they’re high rises. We go up because we cannot go horizontal. There isn’t enough space to do that. So we go up. Most of the New York City Housing Authority properties are aged, meaning a lot of them were built before 1980. They have an aging housing stock. Here we have an opportunity to expand because there is so much land that is available. We don’t need to build concentrated high rises that concentrates poor folks. We can build horizontally. We can build homes that people would be proud to live in. That removes the social stigma of the so-called “projects,” that you will not be able to tell that this is a housing authority owned property from a privately owned one. Families will be proud to have folks visiting them, pointing out where they live because the quality of the housing stock that we have here. I think that was a real opportunity and something that we are building upon.


When you look at the landscape of the city of Philadelphia as the income gap stretches, do you see the need for affordable housing becoming a paramount issue? 

There is an affordable housing crisis that confronts the city in some real ways. And we see that every day by the fact that we have nearly 90,000 people on our waiting list. They’re waiting for housing that is taking anywhere from 10 to 15 years to get. We see that in some other ways. We know that we are living in the biggest, poorest city in the United States, where the poverty rate is more than a quarter of the population of Philadelphia. About 12 percent is living in deep poverty. Many of those are people that we are working with, they are our clients, they are our residents. We see that based on the demographics that we have. When we look at the educational attainment rates of our population it hovers around a 3rd or 4th grade level for math and literacy. When we look at the unemployment rate it is in the high 60 percent. When we look at the average income for one of our families it’s about $13,300. We compare that to the 2017 poverty guidelines for a family of four, it’s about $24,000 a year. The average income for our families is almost $10,000 less according to poverty guidelines. So we have a lot of our families living in deep poverty and the need for housing becomes even more paramount given their incomes. They’re paying no more than 30 percent. They can’t afford to pay anymore than 30 percent of their income if you consider what the average income is.

In the city, we have 56 percent of Philadelphians paying more than half their income in rent for housing. It’s quite telling. Those families that we’re housing on average are paying about $300 for the units. There is some real tension that exists between the incomes that folks have. I don’t think it’s the cost of housing, I think it’s the fact that they have low incomes that is contributing to some of that. Finding ways to give them opportunities for social and economic mobility has to be a priority. You have generations of Philadelphians that we’re serving living in a state of perpetual poverty. That is to say that you have a grandmother who has been in public housing probably 50-60 years, raised their children in that, the children’s children are now in the same situation, haven’t been able to escape that perpetual cycle of poverty, feeling trapped in it. So for us, trying to find ways to break that in incredibly important. We are doing that in a number of ways.


What specific programs have you been putting in place to create more affordable housing?

There are three core programs that we have. We have the Housing Choice Voucher Program that serves nearly 40,000. It’s the largest of the programs. Then we have the Public Housing Program which is the conventional public housing, the so-called “projects.” The developments that are across the city, the actual physical structures that you see that are named after PHA. The Johnson Homes, the Cambridge Housing, Richard Allen, all of those, Norris Homes, are what we call public housing in the classic sense. Housing that is built and owned by PHA. Those are the two major housing programs. What we’ve done in the third case is to partner with other housing providers to provide more affordable housing units. We’ve identified special populations, and by special populations we’re talking about folks who have an increased housing need because of their physical condition. For example, the disabled, senior citizens, veterans, homeless. We’ve partnered with organizations like Project Home, Presby Inspired Life, NewCourtland, just to name a few. Some 25 organizations across the city partnered with PHA to build some 2,500 units of affordable housing.

One of the other ways that were doing it is recognizing that we have land that we own that is buildable. We are actually in the process of building new units, building new developments. We’ve already built Garden and Oakdale. We’ve had the first phase of Blumberg. We’re actually right now, as we speak, in construction for new units at Norris and Strawberry Mansion. All of that is adding to our portfolio. These are buildings that we’re building that will be managed by PHA.

We are recognizing that we have a need for more units given the number of people that are on our waiting list and, frankly, given the number of people who are being housed who are not leaving. Folks come into public housing, and this is one way that you see the income inequality. They come in at a particular income level and their income, unlike folks who are not being subsidized, their income remains virtually steady or decreases. It doesn’t really go up that much, except for the last couple of years because we’ve put an emphasis on providing economic opportunities for folks to find that mobility. We are seeing in recent years some increases in household incomes. When I came here it was about $10,500 to $10,600. Today in public housing it’s about $15,000. In Section 8 it’s about $14,000. So we’re seeing small increases in the right direction. Not where we want it to be. We would love to have folks earning at least above the poverty guidelines, but we’re not there. On average, we’re not there yet.

One of the other ways that we’re doing it is Philadelphia has lost a lot of affordable housing units over the last two decades. At the time we were subscribing to an approach where we were demolishing high rises, as I said because we have a lot of land, reducing concentrations of poverty, and we didn’t opt for what is referred to as a one for one replacement, Meaning for every unit you demolish you build another one. We didn’t opt for that. We demolished high rises where we might have had 500 units. We didn’t rebuild or replace it with 500 units. That one development we demolished with 500 we might have only done a hundred units in its place. So we lost 400 in that example. That was widespread across the city. So we’ve lost over 7,000 units of affordable housing. So I implemented an initiative called “six in five,” six-thousand units of affordable housing within five years. We are well on our way to doing that. Those are going to be physical units.

We’ve also taken a different approach in terms of our utilization of Section 8 vouchers. We had capped our utilization to a 14,000 number and in the last three years we’ve increased that to over 17,500. We’re essentially providing 3,000 vouchers for families in Philadelphia to find homes. So we’ve increased the number of families who are on Section 8, while at the same time increasing the number of physical units that we own and manage. Basically those three things are what we’re doing to increase the supply.

One of the things that’s a challenge for us is to go back to how the folks who created this novel idea of public housing in the United States were seeing and viewing public housing. The notion was that it was an opportunity for folks to have affordable housing as a stepping stone. It wasn’t supposed to be a permanent state of affairs. So you come in, you save your money, then you go out and buy a home and you leave because you find the social and economic mobility to do so. That somewhat changed, where we’re seeing families stay in public housing almost permanently. In fact, you have second and third generations inheriting that unit. Almost in the classic sense of an inheritance, not having escaped that poverty.

For us, the social economic programs that we have are geared toward families who want to find an alternative to public housing. We do have a home ownership program. Since the beginning of the fiscal year we’ve had about 16 families going out as first time homebuyers buying their homes. Last fiscal year we had about 50. The time before that we had about 60-something. A number of our families are taking the opportunity to move up and out of housing. I see the work that we’re doing at PHA as just that. An opportunity for families to move in, move up, and move out to give that unit to another poor family who is coming in wanting to find some ability to move up and out as well.

I say, quite vocally, that folks don’t have to remain in public housing. If they want an alternative to that, there are so many services that we provide. Job training programs, I’m happy to talk about that, the scholarship programs. We recently had an affair, last week actually, where we awarded some 60 or so PHA scholars with scholarships. Many of them, about 40 of the 60, had GPAs about 3.3 or higher. Some of them are now graduating. They’re graduating and they’re getting jobs making $50,000 to $60,000 a year and they’re not coming back into public housing. That cycle of poverty is being broken. That’s a good thing. We want that. For every one of those kids who grew up in public housing, whose parents grew up in public housing, whose grandparents grew up in public housing, it stops with them. That’s one way that we’re doing it. We have several job training programs. Whether we’re talking CNAs, in the service sector jobs, CDL, literacy programs. All of those programs are geared toward economic self-sufficiency.

I’ll be candid. With a population that has education attainment rates at a 3rd or 4th grade level, what are the opportunities for them for sustainable, gainful employment? They are unable to be marketable in the labor force to earn any meaningful wages that could help sustain them and their families. So we have to confront some of those issues around that. Part of what we’re doing is to prepare them to increase their educational attainment rates so they can get to the 10th grade or 11th grade or ultimately get a GED. We find that we have families now who are taking us up on that, who are getting their GED, going on to CCP, getting a college degree. That family becomes more competitive in the labor market, and that’s incredibly important for us.

For another reason, and frankly it’s a selfish reason, the higher their incomes, the higher we can charge for rent. The higher rents we collect, the more money we have to maintain our existing housing stock and expand it. This is a cycle that could be perpetuating. Confronting the low educational attainment rates is an important part of what the city should be doing. It’s not just PHA. Our first and foremost priority is to provide affordable housing. The other things that we’re doing around that really is a condition of the state of our families. We know that they’re unable to compete in the labor force because they don’t have the skills necessary to do so. Nor do they have the educational attainment to do so. We have to confront that issue.

The second thing I would say in regard to the income inequality issue, in addition to the low education attainment rates of the population we are serving, is the notion that our families are lazy or they don’t want to work or they don’t have the capacity to work. The fact is our families are making economic decisions everyday, the same economic decisions that you and I make. So we know that if we annualized all the social welfare benefits that our families get, it amounts to about $29,400. If they work a full time job at minimum wage, which most of them would given their skill sets, they might get to $16,000 a year before taxes. They’re opting to remain on social welfare benefits because it’s economically better for them to do so. If they’re only making an economic decision, everything else being equal.

We need to have a conversation about the fact that work in the United States doesn’t pay if you’re at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. So how do we incentivize these families to give up all of the benefits that they’re entitled to without working. How do you do that? The minimum wage is not a living wage. We need to have some conversations around a living wage that would enable families to make a different kind of decision. How is it that you’re earning more being on a social welfare program than being gainfully employed and expecting families to abandon that to work? I understand that there’s a value beyond the check that you get for working, but our families are making that decision in their own interest.

The fact that we have a serious affordable housing shortage in the city, and the fact that folks are spending so much more of their disposal earned income on housing, means that they don’t have the resources to do a lot of the things that we do. There is no way that one can convince me that a family making $13,400 a year, paying 30 percent of that in rent. If you’re paying that much money, and your income is already low, you don’t have a whole lot to spend on anything else. These are families with children, children with needs. You have transportation issues, medical issues. You have a whole host of things that they have to cope with. We have to find ways to expand affordable housing, to make housing affordable and not a cost burden on families. A lot of families, notwithstanding the fact that their rents are capped at 30 percent of their income, are still cost burden. Those are the three things that we’re focused on trying to address so that we are trying to create opportunities for social and economic mobility in our families.


Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of this crisis? 

A lot of the safety net programs that our families rely upon are under attack. I’m concerned that the kind of approach that I’m seeing toward social welfare programming and funding at the federal level will further threaten our families. It’s a real concern for us. There is some opportunity for us to think more critically about how we are providing services and the comprehensiveness of those services. I subscribe to the idea of housing first, because I understand, and I think a lot of us housing practitioners understand, that housing provides a platform for where a lot of other things can jump off. With stable housing we know that kids perform better in school. We know that health outcomes are higher. We know what employment is stabilized if you have stable housing. All of those things center around housing. We say to folks, let’s not just see housing as a piece that is separated apart from dealing with the thorny issues about poverty, about unemployment, about crime. All of those things I think could be addressed in a way that provides a more comprehensive approach to solving some of those social ills that we are confronted with.

When you look at our communities, for example, in Blumberg we’re doing a lot of work. We’re trying to rebuild a community. Not focus just on housing, but focus more comprehensively on addressing economic conditions that have an impact on the quality of the housing. Such things as amenities, walkability. You want to live in a community that is safe. You want to have in that community all of the same kinds of amenities that you and I are accustomed to where we live. You want to have a good educational facility, high performing, where children will learn. You want to have that supported by small businesses or a commercial corridor where you can get groceries and you can do your dry cleaning and go to a restaurant for a date night that is not too removed from your home. We’re doing that. It’s kind of a comprehensive approach to community economic development is what I think makes sense in a real way that addresses a whole host of other conditions. I am hopeful that we still have thinking people, thinking leaders who are looking at these social issues in a critical way wanting to find meaningful and comprehensive solutions. I think that needs to be folks working together with a common goal, a shared understanding, a shared goal, shared objectives around how best we address those issues.

Gone are the days when you can do it alone. We can build beautiful homes. But if we build them in places where we haven’t addressed crime, in places where we have poor performing schools, what are we saying to our families? How are we providing an opportunity for them to find that social economic mobility that is so badly needed if we are going to address income inequality in a meaningful way. You have to address it in a more comprehensive way, in my view.


-Text and image by Jared Phillips.

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